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Beyond Alberta spruce

By Don Parker | October 21, 2016

Conifers: Part 1

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1. The two darker trees on the right are Jean’s Dilly Alberta spruce (Picea glauca ‘Jean’s Dilly’, Zones 3-8), unpruned. The lighter-colored tree above the railtruck is a pruned dwarf Alberta spruce (Picea glauca ‘Conica’, Zones 4-8—author’s former garden railroad).
Don Parker
2. Miniature moss false cypress (Chamaecyparis pisifera ‘Squarrosa Minima’, Zones 4-8) is scale-appropriate for garden railroads. It grows less than 1″ per year, reaching 10″ tall in 10-12 years. The foliage is blue green and compact and the trunk becomes scaly, giving the appearance of age. The author has several of these trees, now 20 years old. They were moved and transplanted from his former garden railroad, but they are not doing as well in their current sites. They need regular watering and protection from drying winter winds, growing best in partial shade in the more southerly part of their hardiness zones. (Author’s former garden railroad.)
3. Golden dwarf false cypress (C. pisifera ‘Juniperoides Aurea’, Zones 4-8) is a similar, but faster-growing cultivar. With a growth rate of 3″ a year, it will be 21/2 feet tall by 10 years. Its foliage is yellow-green and feathery. Photo taken at Mulberry Creek Herb Farm and Miniatures.
Don Parker
4. Several conifers grow on this hill. On the left is a miniature hemlock (Tsuga canadensis ‘Jeddeloh’, Zones 4-7), also known as bird’s nest Canadian hemlock because of its flat top. It grows slowly (1-3″ per yr.) to a mature size of 2′ tall by 3′ wide. Above the railtruck is a dwarf Japanese garden juniper (Juniperus procumbens ‘Nana’, Zones 4-8). It is a rambler, spreading up to 6′, but growing only 1′ tall. It can be easily pruned to make a shaped, ground-hugging, dense, weed-free thicket. The tall, open trees in the upper left are 20-year-old Little Jamie Atlantic white cedars (Chamaecyparis thyoides ‘Little Jamie’, Zones 4-8). They grow slowly (about 2″ per yr.) to a height of 3-4′. The rounded dark-green tree in the upper right is a dwarf Scotch pine (more on this one later). In front of it is a three-to-four-year-old, light-green dawn redwood (Metasequoia glyptostroboides, Zones 5-8). It is fast growing, but can be kept small by planting it in a sunken container.
Don Parker
5. Another miniature hemlock (Tsuga canadensis ‘Jervis’, Zones 4-8) grows in a natural-looking, irregular shape, at a rate of 2-4″/year, to about 3′ high. Photo taken at Mulberry Creek Herb Farm and Miniatures.
Don Parker
6. This 20-year-old Lewis’ hemlock (Tsuga canadensis ‘Lewisii’, Zones 4-8), growing 1-2″ per year, has tiny needles and a natural wind-blown, irregular shape.
Don Parker
7. A single 20-year-old blue star juniper (Juniperus squamata ‘Blue Star’, Zones 4-8) adds interest with its blue-green cast. It grows 2-4″ per year, reaching 12-18″ tall and spreading up to 4′ wide, often developing an irregular, humpy shape that gives the impression of a grove of trees.
Don Parker
8. These tall, skinny junipers are Juniperus communis ‘Compressa’ (Zones 3-6). They grow about 2″ per year, reaching 2-3′ tall in 10 years. These two are 6 years old.
Don Parker
9. This recently named mugo pine cultivar is White Tip (Pinus mugo ‘White Tip’, Zones 2-7). It is a choice dwarf that develops a decorative white coating on the new tips each winter. It grows 3-4″ per year, reaching 18″ tall and 3-4′ wide.
Don Parker
10. Probably the smallest mugo pine available , P. mugo ‘Teeny’ (Zones 3-7) grows less than 1″/year, getting only 8-10″ tall and 10-12″ wide in 10 years. Photo taken at Mulberry Creek Herb Farm and Miniatures.
Don Parker
11. These two Tansu Japanese cedars (Cryptomeria japonica ‘Tansu’, Zones 5-9) flank the entrance to a scale model glass greenhouse. They make an irregular mound of bright-green foliage, growing 2-3″ per year to reach a mature height of 3-4′, unless pruned. Photo taken at Mulberry Creek Herb Farm and Miniatures.
Don Parker
Needled evergreen trees that bear cones (conifers) are common in garden railroads, especially the ubiquitous dwarf Alberta spruce (Picea glauca ‘Conica’, Zones 4-8). This hardy tree is reliable and readily available, it can be trimmed to make a realistic scale tree, and it can be purchased small at little expense. That said, it will eventually outgrow its appropriate size (reaching 5′ tall in 10 years and 10′ tall in 40 years) and will need to be replaced. It grows at a rate of 3-6″ a year, so you can calculate how long it will take to get too big for your railroad. Occasionally, a branch will appear on a dwarf Alberta spruce that has reverted to a normal white spruce (growing 15-20″ a year). This will cause a misshapen tree and the branch must be pruned out. A better choice would be Alberta spruce ‘Jean’s Dilly’ (photo 1), growing only 2-3″ a year and reaching less than half the height of its larger cousin.

Fortunately, there are many other conifers to choose from in the marketplace that will add variety and interest to your railroad. Some of these are especially small and would be ideal in locations near track or structures. In this column and the next, I’ll give you some examples of very small conifers through photos I’ve taken. I’ll also mention several others that you can research and consider for your railroad. All of the photos, except where noted, were taken on my Hoot ’n’ Holler Railroad.

Other conifers to consider

• Blue Planet Alberta spruce (Picea glauca ‘Blue Planet’, Zones 3-7); 1 to 1 1/2″ per year; 10″ tall by 10 years;  blue-green, globe shaped
• Pixie Dust Alberta spruce (P. glauca ‘Pixie Dust’, Zones 3-8); 1 to 1 1/2″ per year; 15″ tall by 10 years; gray-green foliage with yellow-tipped new growth; conical shape
• Minute hemlock (Tsuga canadensis ‘Minuta’, Zones 4-8); 1 to 11/2″ per  year; 12-18″ tall by 10 years
• Betty Rose hemlock (T. canadensis  ‘Betty Rose’, Zones 3-7); 1-3″ per year; 18″-30″ tall by 10 years; white-tipped new growth; mounded shape

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