This marks the 500th column I have written about gardening, which means I have been doing this for nearly 10 years. There is still so much to talk about.
When I knew this number was approaching, I tried to think of a special topic for my 500th column. I spend a lot of time reading and even more time researching most of the plants, insects and other topics I've covered over the years, yet my favorite subjects aren't what I read in books, but what is happening directly outside our windows.
When I looked out my window this morning at the blanket of snow that seemed to drape from every tree branch, electric wire and fencepost, and I saw my beloved Juniperus rigida weighted down with snow and leaning even further than it had at the end of last summer, I knew this would be my topic.
Also known as temple juniper or needle juniper, this tree is considered rare in the world of conifers. I acquired my specimen at a plant auction held one cold, rainy spring day in Wooster at the Ohio Agriculture Research and Development Center (OARDC). According to historical accounts about this plant, which originated in Asia, particularly China, Korea, Japan and the far southeastern parts of Russia, it was often planted at the entrances to ancient temples.
We planted it at the back of the house near the center of our foundation garden. It seemed to be well suited for that spot and grew tall and lush.
The needles are short and very sharp, making touching or handling this plant difficult unless we're wearing gloves. But the overall posture of the tree is lovely. It grows upright, in a columnar fashion. Heavy snow can pull the flexible branches downward, so we've always tried to be diligent about brushing off the snow if it is particularly heavy.
There are various cultivars of the plant as well, including 'Hikari,' which has yellowish-white needles and 'Pendula,' a weeping form. I suspect mine is pendula, although there was no cultivar name listed on the tag.
From where we sit in our chairs on the patio, we can see the tree at the back of our house. Normally a small tree, ours grew to about the height of the gutters. I used this tree as the focal point and planted at its base blue-green hostas, purple Heuchera and deep red Lobelia cardinalis (cardinal flower).
About three years ago, as we sat on the patio on a summer afternoon, I asked my husband if he thought the temple juniper was leaning. It might not have been noticeable if it weren't for a shepherd's crook bird feeder stuck into the ground in front of the tree. Over the course of the next year, the angle of the tree compared with the bird feeder kept changing. More and more of the tree seemed to be drifting over from one side of the feeder pole to the other.
Last year the leaning was worse, so we decided to try to pull the tree upright and stake it for a while. Unfortunately, the tree had better ideas and began leaning in another direction. When the snow melted a few weeks ago, we were able to see the base of the tree, which was normally hidden by lush branches all the way to the ground.
Because of its sharp needles and lush branches, we never looked inside the center of the tree. But the tree leaned over so far by now the base of the trunk was exposed and we can see that the trunk is thin, and evidently not strong enough to hold up those heavy branches. Interestingly enough, from the time it began to lean, the uppermost new growth continued to try to grow straight up. What was once a stately column is now a misshapen, contorted mess that seems to be growing in all directions.
This summer, we have to make a decision. We could continue to let the tree do what it wants and wait and see if it will eventually pull itself out of the ground and fall right over, or we can watch it for a while and perhaps it will simply continue to grow into some weird-shape that could end up a pretty interesting plant. Or we can just take it down and plant something else, such as a tall ornamental grass or a Chamaecyparis lawsoniana Elwoodii.
Time will make our decision for us. Whatever it is, I'll be sure to let you know sometime within the next 500 columns.