Conifers transcend everyday gardening

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By John Howard



Walking onto Jack Hart’s garden is like walking into the mountains. Suddenly you are surrounded by spruce, hemlock and fir. Even on a recent visit, the cool spring morning chill felt as if I was in western North Carolina or the Rockies.

Jack’s garden on North Logsdon Parkway in Radcliff contains an impressive display of more than 300 dwarf conifers — Japanese Maples, deciduous azaleas, hostas and more.

The garden was created when a slope in the property, a 60-foot drop, had to be corrected. Garden walls were built from creek stone gathered from a nearby stream to adjust the steep incline. A rich, acidic mixture of humus was added to fill in the garden wall and thus the collection of rare trees began. An ultra-rare Pagoda dogwood with its wide horizontal branching stands stoically next to a weeping blue Atlas cedar as tiny dwarf conifers grow ever so slowly at their feet.

The dwarf conifer is a smaller, shorter, slower-growing form of its parent plant. While a mother plant like a Balsam fir may reach over 200 feet, dwarf varieties ultimately will be much smaller. For whatever reason, like our own children, some seedlings decide to grow smaller creating a dwarf variety. Other seedlings grow at much slower rate — fractions of an inch per year —creating a dwarf variety. Some dwarf conifers are created from witches-brooms, which is a mutated growth found on a branch of a mature plant. The witches-brooms are propagated and usually result in a much smaller, more compacted form of its mother plant.

Dwarf conifers are the perfect garden companions because they can be tucked into corners, flowerbeds, shrub borders, containers and perennial gardens. They also can give you a variety of texture, soft cool lines, and sharp vertical raises or weeping horizontal perception. And the colors are phenomenal, ranging from sapphire blue, sky blue and cobalt blue, to varying shades of green and yellow, gold, silver and white. Even more stunning, cones produced on some varieties can range in color from deep purple to russet brown, providing an interesting contrast to the plant.

Hart’s garden is brilliantly designed around a variety of contrast between evergreen and deciduous, vertical and horizontal, blooming and non-blooming trees. A fine layering of tall plants to structure and anchor the landscape gently descends to smaller plants, and down still to ground covers such as hostas.

Tall deciduous azaleas in full bloom of soft pink, magenta and orange seem to dance around the ancient looking hemlocks and spruce. An Oriental spruce named Skylands illuminates a dark corner with its bright gold foliage. Japanese koi swim underneath a gold Canadian hemlock while the soft maroon leaves of a Japanese maple hug a hillside.

Due to increasing popularity, dwarf conifers are becoming more available at nurseries and garden centers. They like a rich, well drained acidic soil. Spruces and pines will tolerate full sun, but some varieties will beg for cool shade such as Canadian hemlocks and firs.

Most of these plants are native to mountain conditions such as low humidity, cooler temperatures and filtered sunlight from taller trees. Some conifers such as the Atlas cedars will need to be protected from harsh winds and frost.

John W. Howard is a trained master gardener, Kentucky certified nurseryman and published poet. He gardens in eastern Hardin County and enjoys a variety of plants such as Japanese Maples, dwarf conifers and daylilies. 

‘I took a walk in the Mountains’

By John Howard

I took a walk in the mountains

The cool air slapping my face

A higher place closer to God?

The mist surrounds me, holds me, hugs me

Could that be God’s arms around me?


I took a walk in the mountains

How many more steps till I reach heaven’s gate?

Can I walk right in, this reverent holy place?

Can I touch His hand see His face?


John W. Howard is a trained master gardener, Kentucky certified nurseryman and published poet. He gardens in eastern Hardin County and enjoys a variety of plants such as Japanese Maples, dwarf conifers and daylilies.