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Written by Paul D. Race for Family Garden Trains(tm)

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Trees for Your Trains - Choosing and Cultivating Dwarf Conifers

One of the most fun things about a garden railroad is choosing and cultivating plants that look like they belong with your trains and accessories. Slow-growing evergreens with very short needles can look like very realistic models of full-sized trees, and they offer the additional benefit of keeping your garden green even when everything else is dormant or frozen off to the ground. It's no wonder that Dwarf Alberta Spruce and a few similar species have been adopted in such huge numbers by garden railroaders. Still, there is an art to getting these plants to look like little trees, while keeping them healthy and small enough to look right with your trains and structures at the same time.

Many garden railroading experts have spoken or written about this subject, most notably Jack Verducci, who wrote a series of articles on trimming dwarf conifers that Garden Railways published in the summer of 2002. (Unfortunately, they were not included in an otherwise excellent collection of Jack's articles called How to Design and Build Your Garden Railroad, an important volume otherwise.) In this article, I have tried to annotate the ideas that I got from Jack, as a "tribute" to his excellent work. But, on the other hand, 100% of the writing, observations, and experiences are mine. (My kids did help with some of the photos).

My experience centers around so-called temperate climates. However most of the principles discussed in this article have some application in any garden railroad. If you have corrections, additions, or questions that aren't addressed in this article, please contact me, and I'll find out what I can and get back to you.

Note: Technically speaking, a conifer is any cone-producing plant, which includes a few plants that are not actually evergreen. However, 99.9% of the conifers that grow in my part of the world are evergreen, so pardon me if I seem to be using the terms synonymously.

Topics discussed in this article include:

Planning the Plantings

Meet Helga, our tour guide.A landscaper or designer might tell you to have every corner of your garden planned out before you go to the store and get one plant. I don't recommend that, because your life will be simpler, and your garden more rewarding in the long run if you A: learn as you go and B: space out the work over a period of time instead of trying to get everything done at once. That said, it would help to have some idea of what sort of plantings you want where - otherwise you might find yourself moving things later unnecessarily.

Most conifers you buy for your garden railroad will fall into one of the following categories:

  • Cone-shaped trees like Dwarf Alberta spruce or Chamaecyparis Obtusa Hage that you will use to create "forests" or at least "wooded areas."
  • Globe-shaped trees like Hetz Midget that you can use as "shade trees" near buildings or in town.
  • Specimen trees, like trees from the Hinoki Cypress (Chamaecyparis) family, that you may plant by themselves in featured locations to get the fullest "effect" of the tree.

Many experienced garden railroaders also dabble with smaller specimen trees and even "bonzai'd" trees that might represent backyard fruit trees or other unique plantings. This article will focus on the list above, however, since it applies to more people who are just getting started.

Click for bigger photo.Click for bigger photo.In my experience, a cluster of cone-shaped skinny trees, such as properly trimmed Dwarf Alberta Spruce, simulates a forest better than a cluster of globe-shaped trees or a mix of tree types. After all, seen from above (the most common viewing position), they still look like trees, while a "forest" of globe-shaped conifers, seen from above, looks like a bunch of bushes.

That said, a lot of eager beginners plant a "forest" of Dwarf Alberta Spruce only a few inches apart, and they look great for a year. But in a few years, they've merged into one green mass with a bunch of tips sticking out, or, worse yet, crowed each other enough to start causing lower branches to die off and parasites to move in. I would consider 12" apart is an absolute minimum, and I've learned that trees that are 18" apart are a lot easier to keep properly trimmed. So if you have a 6-square foot area you want to put into "forest," you may not really have to buy more than six plants (or eight at the most).

In the planning stage, you may experiment with drawing a map or diagram of what you think you'd like where. Unless you're on a tight schedule to have a working, fully landscaped garden railroad by a certain date, though, don't buy everything on your diagram the first day you go to the store. In my experience, it takes about an hour to shape and plant your first tree and anywhere from 20 to 35 minutes per tree once you know what you're doing. So buying twenty trees your first trip to the store may be self-defeating. In addition, having a plan before you hit the store will keep you from buying stuff you really have no use for at all. Well, it will keep some people from that, anyway.

Preparing (Or Not) The Planting Site

You really don't need to do too much preparation or use too "good" a soil, unless you want to be digging up your trees and replacing them every few years. This is opposite the advice of conifer-lovers and most other landscapers and gardeners. But they all imagine you want things to get big fast, and you probably don't.

Once, at a national Garden Railroading convention, an "expert" on conifers gave a seminar on how to encourage maximum growth out of young conifers. One attendee was the person giving the next seminar - Barb Abler, then gardening editor for Garden Railways magazine. When Barb got up to give her presentation, the first thing she said was "Now you need to forget everything he told you."

That doesn't mean you need to be ignorant of the requirements for healthy conifers - you just don't have to be a slave to them. Here are some considerations:

  • Plan to Compensate for Overly-Alkaline Soil - For example, most evergreens prefer "acid" soil. If you have a lot of big oak trees or full sized evergreens around, you probably have reasonably acid soil. If, on the other hand, you have mostly maples, or you have straight "clay" soil, you may need to boost the acid content around your conifers for the first year or two. A little Mir-Acid fertilizer when you plant them and, say, six weeks later will give them a decent start. If you have very deep shade or exceptionally poor soil, consider adding some Mir-Acid every spring and fall for the first two years or until they start "flourishing," whichever comes first. Also, I'm told that coffee grounds help, but they haven't made a dramatic difference for me when I bothered to save and apply them.

  • Provide Some Organic Content - If your planting site really is pure clay or very sandy, you may want to buy some additional potting soil or the like to pack in around your tree roots when you plant them eventually. But don't bother paying an extra $35 a square yard to get top-quality topsoil that will encourage rapid growth indefinitely.

  • Avoid Salt Exposure - I know this will affect very few readers, but you need to know that no conifer really stands up to salt exposure indefinitely. If you're planting near a sidewalk or road that is likely to be plowed in such a way that salt-laden snow and slush may be dumped on your trees, or that salty runoff may seep around the tree's roots, consider adding some sort of barrier to provide protection (and maybe "steer" the shoveled snow and slush away from the tree and its roots).

In my case, the dirt on my railroad is mostly clay, although I had some cheap pasture soil (with more organic content) hauled in for part of it. I have used Mir-Acid on new, small plants until they got established, as well as occasional coffee grounds on trees that were a bit more mature. But other than that, I avoid anything that would fertilize for fertilization's sake. As a result, I've been able to keep most of my conifers from growing more than a few inches a year. The short version is: buy some potting soil and Mir-Acid if you want to help your new conifers "get started," but don't worry about massive changes to the chemistry of your soil. Once they have good roots, your trees are better off "underfed" than "overfed."

Choosing Conifers for Your Garden Railroad

An experienced Bonzai grower or conifer expert can make use of nearly any kind of plant. However, for the best results, beginners should start out with appropriate species of plants, and with individuals that have appropriate growth patterns.

Look for Dwarf and Other Slow-Growing Plants

First of all, look for plants with small needles and small growth habits. If you don't know what you're looking for, read the label carefully. The difference between a dwarf and a miniature conifer is often contained in the "height at ten years" figure on the label.
  • A miniature conifer is one that typically grows less than 3" a year and is not is not likely to get much over two foot tall in ten years. I have seen miniature Mugo pines and other species that are delightful and which would require very little trimming to keep at an appropriate shape and size for your railroad. On the other hand, many miniature conifers cost about twice as much as similar dwarf species, and they seem to be a bit touchier, especially at first.
  • A dwarf conifer typically grows between 3" and 6" a year and is not likely to get much over six feet tall within ten years. Of course that rating assumes good soil and no trimming. A trim or two a year will keep most dwarf plants in good shape for a garden railroad indefinitely, unless you are cursed with very good soil and plenty of rain, in which you may have to trim more often.
A more precise definition and more details about kinds of conifers is contained on the Mountain Meadows Dwarf Conifer site.

Some plants, like Dwarf Alberta Spruce and Dwarf Procumbens Juniper (a miniature version of Japanese Garden Juniper) have "dwarf" in the title. Just because plants don't have "dwarf," "miniature," or "nana" in their name doesn't mean they're unsuitable - you just have to read what the label says about their growth patterns. However:

  • Don't be fooled by low-growing plants that spread outward quickly. In optimum conditions, Blue Rug juniper may spread several feet horizontally while only growing six inches or so in height. Click for bigger photo. I have a couple that I keep more-or-less contained in areas with fixed boundaries. Trimming them back along these boundaries about twice a year is about as much work as I need to do, but if they didn't have fixed boundaries, they could get out of control quickly. Mugo pines also grow "out" faster than they grow "up," although I've had good luck with several that I planted in bad soil and have trimmed annually to remove lower growth.
  • Also, don't be fooled by plants with tiny needles and explosive growth habits. Back in the very early days of garden railroading, before many suitable species were available, some folks tried "ordinary" junipers, cedars, and arborvitas that looked very "cute" when they brought them home in their little one-gallon pots, but which were growing as much as four feet a year once they got their roots down.
click for a larger photoclick for a larger photoAs examples of the difference between a true dwarf, and a slow-growing conifer, I have planted two Hetz Midget Arborvitas. These are globe-shaped shrubs which, as their name implies, have a very slow growth pattern. I've also planted two Brekman's Golden Arborvitas, conehead-shaped shrubs that are rated to be 8 foot tall at the end of ten years (just outside the "dwarf" rating). I can go a year at a time without trimming the Hetz Midgets, but I really should trim the Brekman's Goldens twice a year. Not that they get huge, mind you, they just grow taller faster, and they revert to their conehead shape instead of the rounder shape I prefer.

Species that have been used successfully in Temperate Zones include:

  • Dwarf Alberta Spruce (you didn't think I could leave that one out, did you?)
  • Jean's Dilly - A smaller, shorter-needled, slower-growing Click for bigger photo.version of Dwarf Alberta Spruce that seems to retain a vertical shape better than Dwarf Alberta. Ironically, this plant seems to have become less popular in recent years, perhaps because their "big brother" has become so widespread and cheap.
  • Hinoki Cypress (Chamaecyparis) - A family of slow-growing false cypress with many cultivars ("named" varieties) that qualify as dwarf or miniature. Try to buy from local suppliers, as Hinoki are not all equally hardy in various climates. To the unitiated, many Hinoki look a little like Arborvita with fatter needles. Instead of aligning like pages in a book, however, Hinoki's "leaflike clusters" tend to go in all directions; in some cases the branches curl as well, making the texture even more interesting. Some of Hinoki are fairly expensive, but many of them are very unusual-looking, so they make great "specimen" plants.
  • Hetz Midget Arborvita - (shown above) Globe-shaped, slow-growing, needs trimmed every 2 years. Like many Arborvita, the needles of Hetz Midget grow in flat leaf-like patterns, and those leaf-like clusters tend to grow in close parallel formation like the leaves of a book. The challenge with such plants is often to keep the "leaves" from growing so thick that they Click for bigger photo.smother growth in the center of the plant. Then when you want to trim them back, you have nothing but brown, dead growth near the trunk.
  • Dwarf Procumbens Juniper - A smaller, brighter-colored version of Japanese Garden Juniper. Like its big brother, it wants to spread along the ground, but the foilage is so charming that many folks have taken to using Bonsai or grafting techniques to give it a more vertical appearance. (A young Bonsai of Dwarf Procumbens is shown to the right). I have to confess that I planted some with the ideas of "training it" into more of a "treelike" formation, but it is cheerfully spreading along the ground in all directions as I write this article. That said, it maintains much of its bright green color throughout the winter, so it's a nice all-year-round plant to have.
  • Boulevard Cypress - Unusual silvery-blue color, grows too fast to be considered a "dwarf," but makes a nice specimen plant if you can give it at least an annual trimming. Click for bigger photo.
  • Miniature Mugo Pine - A nice plant if you can find it (I use "regular" Mugos in bad soil with annual trimming)
  • Picea Abies "Little Gem" Spruce - A truly miniature globe-shaped spruce that you should never have to worry about keeping under control.
I've tried several others on which the "jury is still out." I'll let you know if I decide they're a success or failure.

Friends in warmer climes have used cone-shaped false cypresses of the "Chamaecyparis Obtusa" family as a "forest tree" with good effect. Look especially for cultivars with "nana" in the name. (Frequent Garden Railways contributor Kevin Strong says that Chamaecyparis obtusa 'Aurea Nana' (Golden Dwarf Hinoki Cyprus) is a popular choice.) Again, find out what people in your area are using or buy locally if you can, because some Chamaecyparis are not suited to cold winters.

Look for Individual Plants With Appropriate Growth Patterns

When you head to a gardening Click for larger photo.or landscaping supply store with your plant list in hand, remember that your railroad doesn't need exactly the same kind of plants as your local landscapers use. For example, almost all Arborvitae are sold with multiple trunks. This is true from the largest landscaping plants (such as Emerald Green) to the smallest dwarfs (such as Hetz Midget). Landscapers want them to fill out quickly, and they really don't care what they look like in ten years. Using multiple-trunked shrubs in "full-sized" landscaping doesn't seem to be a problem until a heavy snowfall or rainfall causes an adult cluster to separate into thirds, each trunk pointing a different direction, something that would be much less likely to happen with a single tree. By then if you can remember who planted them, good luck getting them replaced.

Click for larger photo.Click for larger photo.Using multiple-trunked shrubs in miniature landscaping has the "downside" that the plant will never resemble a tree as well as it could. Please click on the photos to the right to see the difference between planting a dwarf Arborvita with one trunk versus multiple trunks. When I picked out the plant that eventually became the one-trunked plant shown here, it looked almost as bad as the other tree, but I was able to get it down to one decent "trunk," which you can see is flourishing.

Other tips include:

  • Buy small plants if you can find them. Unlike Bonsai growers, you can't control how much rain you'll have, and there are limits to how much you can control root growth once they're in the ground surrounded by rocks and other plants. Unless you take soil samples or have observed other conifers in identical soil on your property, you have no way of knowing whether they will stay reasonably stable or take off with, say 30-50% growth a year, once they get established. So starting small may mean that it will take them two or three years before they have the optimum appearance on your railroad. But starting with plants as large as you will want them to ever get means that you will have to spend a lot more time trimming them, and you may have to replace them sooner than you'd like if you can't keep their growth controlled.
  • When you are looking at conifers with multiple trunks, look for plants that will still have one good trunk once you cut out the "wannabees." Reach around into the foilage to see if there would be anything left to speak of once you cut the extra trunks out. Don't feel bad about the "wasted" foilage, though - in a way you're buying a trunk and a root system and the rest will come in time. In fact, I've applied this notion to full-sized plants, too. When I needed a wall of Emerald Green Arborvitae, I looked for plants I could get down to one trunk each and still have good shape. No, they haven't filled in quite as fast as they would if I had left each cluster intact, but they are all assuming a true cone shape. And now that they have established, I am confident that they will be far healthier and last far longer than if I had planted them in clusters of three.
  • When you're looking at conifers with a single trunk, watch out for plants with one or two large branches that will eventually disturb the growth pattern of the tree. As an example, Dwarf Alberta Spruce usually come one trunk to a customer. But sometimes if they've been trimmed carelessly, they'll have a branch or two growing up alongside the trunk that has begun to take on the characteristics of a second trunk. Using your fingers, comb through the branches. They should all be growing out, not more-or-less straight up, and none should be in danger of "competing" with the trunk.
  • Keep an eye out for interesting specimens that may be unusually useful. As an example, it's hard to get a Mugo pine to grow in an upright manner at all - it wants to grow out, not up. But one late fall, I picked up three that had been forced to grow upward - the garden center had left the pots snuggled up against each other all summer long. So I had three specimens that had six-inch vertical "trunks" before they "branched out." I've nurtured other Mugo pines from babies and know how hard it is to get them into that shape when you start with an ordinary specimen.
  • Conversely, Dwarf Alberta Spruce and many other small-needled trees began to lose needles and even branches when they're too crowded too long. Many brown needles on the side of a cone-shaped plant usually indicate that it has been damaged by overcrowing. In fact, I have seen Dwarf Alberta Spruce in garden stores at the end of the season on which only the top third of the plant was healthy, not enough to bet on. Worse yet, spider mites love the moist, dark environment they find in overcrowded or undertrimmed Dwarf Alberta Spruce. Sometimes you'll see trees that they have reduced to shells with a few green needles on the outside but only dead and dying stems nearer the trunk. There may be no salvaging those plants, and you don't really want to contaminate your plants at home, do you?

Trimming Your Conifers

Once you get your plants home, the real work begins, unless you've been lucky enough to get some really young plants that you can pop into the ground and worry about later. More likely, you've got something that has already assumed a shape of some sort. In the case of Dwarf Alberta Spruce, it has almost certainly been trimmed at least twice (probably three or four times) to get that nice conical shape it had when you loaded it into your truck.

If you have very low rainfall, very heavy shade, or a very short growing season, you can probably ignore at least some of my advice below. But if your trees will get more than 36" of rain a year, more than two hours of direct sunlight a day, and more than five months between killing frosts, you should take my recommendations a little more seriously. If you are like most garden railroaders, you will need to prune your trees to get the best appearance, vitality, and longtime service out of your plants.

Won't I Hurt My Cute Little Trees?"

Click for bigger picture.Some people think it's "unnatural" to take a sharp object to a living thing. But you should know that only a tiny percentage of the dwarf or miniature conifers you can buy for use in your back yard occur in nature. They are, crudely put, carefully cultivated mutations that would never flourish in the wild any more than those goldfish with the buggy eyes and two tails.

The other thing to remember is that most of these plants have become popular among landscapers and gardeners because they survive radical trimming pretty well. Like Taxus (Yew) and other hedge conifers, they look best and stay healthiest when they're properly trimmed. Again, Dwarf Alberta Spruce is an example of a tree that will be healthier if you "encourage" it to keep its shape. And the time to start that program is right before you put them into the ground.

What Tools Do I Need?

I have several small-nosed trimmers, the sort you can get at any garden supply store (or even Big Lots). I don't know that there's huge value in buying a $20 trimmer if you can buy a few $6 ones in different sizes - little ones for fine work, bigger ones for clipping off more significant branches. (Trying to whack branches with inadequate trimmers will result in damage to the plant and the tool, and possibly a blood blister or other damage to your hand when the branch finally gives way.)

Whatever kind of trimmer you use, be certain that you make every cut snug up against the branch or trunk, so that the "wound" will heal smoothly. (This is one of Jack's biggest gripes - people who leave little "stumps" that almost never heal, and which risk the overall health of the tree from then on.) Frequently leaving a very smooth cut requires two cuts - one cut to remove a branch or twig that must be removed, then a second cut to "clean up" leftover material.

Where Do I Start?

While the plant is still in the pot, turn it around and "feel" through the branches to get a sense for its growth pattern. Picture what you would like it to look like eventually and what will have to change to get that look.

Taming the Coneheads - Since most people start with Dwarf Alberta Spruce or similar species, I'll provide a detailed description of how to trim them, and add shorter sections for "globe" and "specimen" trees below.

Take a close look at your tree. You've probably already observed that many cone-shaped conifers, such as spruce and pine, add a "ring" of branches around the trunk for every growth spurt. On Dwarf Alberta Spruce, the "rings" of branches may be only a couple of inches apart. Some people think that you achieve a more "windswept" look if you take out every other ring of branches. If you want to try this, I'll provide some tips about that in a moment, but I tend to leave most of the "rings" on my trees intact. Usually each ring includes four or five strong branches and two or three wimpy branches. You'll need to thin out each ring, whether or not you leave all the rings on the tree. Also, while you're examining the plant, think about whether it could be shorter and still meet your needs. After all, it's a lot easier to adjust a tree's height before you put it into the ground than it is to do so later. (And don't even think you can fix that problem by planting the tree much deeper into the soil - your trees must be planted so that the "crown," or soil line is as close as possible to what it was in the pot.)

Work From the Outside In and From the Bottom Up - Now that you have a sense of your tree's structure and what you want to accomplish, take a good look at the bottom two rings of branches on the tree. It's likely that the bottom "ring" has only a couple of wimpy growths, nothing really worth salvaging. If that's the case, trim them off smoothly at the trunk and go to the next ring. On any full ring, you'll notice several strong branches and several "weak" branches. You'll also probably notice between one and four instances where adjacent branches are trying to grow in the exact same part of the tree, crowding each other out. Jack Verducci calls these "redundant" branches. Whatever else you do, you will need to thin out this "clutter."

Now you're ready to start trimming. If your tree is way smaller than you really want it to be, you may thin out the wimpy branches and simply trim the strong ones back a little. However, you will probably find it easier to keep your tree's "tight" conical shape in the long run if you clip the strong branches off at the trunk and leave the weak ones. When you're done "thinning out" redundant branches, you should have about four (no more than six) branches growing out of that ring. Any "runts" that come out between rings should probably be taken out altogether as well.

Click for bigger photo.Now look at the branches that remain on that ring. How far back can you trim each branch and still have healthy growth? (Cutting the branch back so far that no healthy growth remains is worse than cutting it off altogether - it will die and get hollow and allow many sorts of parasites into the tree.) At first you'll probably be a little tentative, but once you've done a batch and watched them grow for a year, you'll realize that you're not likely to kill the tree or even to permanently deform it, even if you make a big mistake. When I have a choice, I prefer to cut individual branches back to a junction. For example, a branch may be shaped like a Y with one larger stem and one smaller. If the smaller stem looks healthy, I'll cut the larger one off completely. Don't feel bad - within a year the tree will fill in for the "missing" bit. But if you do that consistently, you'll realize that you've created a much "tighter" cone-shape for the tree overall. Now look at the smaller stem you left. Is there a Y on that branch that you can treat the same way?

When you're ready to move "up" to the next ring, you might think about whether you want to try for that "windswept" look or just give the tree a good overall trim for now. If you do decide to "take out" every other ring of branches, be absolutely certain that you've trimmed each branch as smoothly as possible back to the trunk. For a few months that part of the trunk may look like it's been replaced with a circle of "potato eyes," until the bark starts growing over it. If you've done it right, by two years there should be nothing left of the ring but a swelling under the bark.

Once you've trimmed a few rings, you'll begin to get a "feel" for this. Remember there's no "right or wrong;" as long as you're thinning out the growth, letting light hit the "heart" of the tree, and controlling the tree's overall shape, the specifics are up to you.

By the time you get to the top, you may have a sense for whether the tree is too tall (I've bought several at years' end that were at least six inches higher than I wanted them, so that's not impossible.) Here's where you can use one of Jack's tricks. Cut the tip down where you need it to be, select a branch that looks healthy, and bend it upward. Secure it in that position with fine wire (such as florist's wire) - just remember to remove the wire in a few months so you don't accidentally strangle the new "top." Now revisit the shape of the tree. You may have to do a little more "fine" trimming (as described above) to get the final cone shape you want. What Jack didn't report was that the tree has a certain amount of "memory" for its original shape. So the next time there's a growth spurt, the top quarter of the tree may "poof out" again to the horizontal dimension it had before you reduced the tree's overall height. Usually if you trim that "poofy growth" back carefully the first time or two it happens (removing the longer stems and leaving the shorter ones, rather than just giving all the branches a "buzz"), the tree "gives up" and conforms to the new shape you gave it.

What About Globe-Heads? - Most gardeners who use globe-shaped shrubs try to shape them to represent deciduous trees such as maples and oaks. To achieve this effect, you will need to expose a "trunk," and, if possible, major "branches."

Click for larger photo.Chances are your globe-shaped shrub came with multiple trunks. Your first "order of business" is to find the best single trunk. Look for one that is sturdy. If possible, it should have discernable "branches" that you could "expose" by trimming off the redundant branches (and trunks) near them. Ignore how much foilage is on each branch, as long as the trunk you pick is supporting branches with healthy foilage.

When you first cut all the extra trunks out of a pot containing a supposedly globe-shaped plant, you may find that the remaining shrub looks rather "flat" and has maybe 1/20th of the foilage of the original plant. Don't let that bother you - instead of having from 3 to 8 sickly plants clustered together and fighting each other for light and nutrients, you will now have one plant with a very good chance of becoming robust, attractive, and nicely three-dimensional, probably by next spring.

You'll also notice that, unlike cone-shaped trees, most "globe-shaped" shrubs have few or no distinguishable "branch rings." The shrubs branch out in a manner that is more characteristic of deciduous trees, except that most of their branches don't spread "out" as much as you'd think. In most globe Arborvitas, for example, the branches come off the trunk at an acute angle, so that the heart of the tree may include four to six "branches" that are all within ten degrees of vertical. Because the flat "leaflike" foilage of these plants tends to align like the leaves of a book, you often wind up with a shrub whose internal shape is about as interesting as that of a deck of cards, and whose inner layers get about the same amount of light or air.

In most cases, you wish to keep the branches that branch "outward" the most, and cut out the redundant vertical branches that are cramping up against each other in the middle. Once you've done that, the remaining tree may look even "flatter" than it did before. Again, don't worry - it will thicken up before you know it, once light and air are hitting the "sides" of the branches and not just the outside edges.

Click for bigger photo.Finally it's time to cut the remaining foilage down to within a few inches of each "branch." As I recommended on the Dwarf Alberta spruce, try to make your clips in such a way that they keep healthy growth on each branch, and so that no "stumps" protrude. Unlike a Dwarf Alberta spruce, you can't usually work from the bottom up on globe-shaped shrubs - you usually have to work from the top down. Once you've given the tree a preliminary "pass," you'll usually see "down into" the branches a little clearer and find a few more places you could crop back and still have healthy growth.

I admit, my Hetz Midgets and similar globe-shaped plants often look terrible when I am through with them at first. But most of them recover quickly, look great within a year, and require very little maintenance from that point on. By the way, when I plant a tree that has undergone this treatment, I do pay more attention to soil conditions, etc., and I am more circumspect about providing enough water for the first year. Once they have a growth spurt or two, I pretty much ignore them like the rest of my plants, and they do fine - much better, I believe, than they would have if I had left all those extra trunks and foilage intact.

Click for bigger photo.Trimming Specimen Trees - A specimen tree is one that's meant to stand out, like the Hinoki Cypress and Boulevard Cypress shown above. Because they come in all shapes and sizes, I can't make as many "generalizations" about those as I have about the coneheads and globe shrubs. These trees tend to be chosen because of interesting foilage (like the Hinoki Cypress) or interesting growth possibilities, but they tend to need a little bit more attention to achieve their greatest potential.

No dwarf conifer is off-limits for a specimen tree, if you like the foilage and want to give it appropriate attention. On my railroad, I have given that kind of attention to the mugo pine shown above, a couple of "Birds Nest" spruce (with uneven results, to say the least), a Tom Thumb Cottoneaster and a Japanese Laceleaf Maple (yes, I know that the last two are deciduous, but many of the same principles apply).

The big "trick" with specimen trees is knowing what you want them to do and working hard to make certain they do it eventually. At the same time, making sure that light and air can reach the "heart" of the tree is pretty universal. The principles you learned while you were trimming your "cone" and "globe" trees will help you decide on the best approach for your specimen trees as well.

Some specimen trees get to the shape you want more easily than others. On a mugo pine, for example, you'll spend a lot of time trimming lower growth until the trees finally "get the point" and stop trying to send out branches at ground-level. (A Blue Star juniper I tried this with never did get the point, so this isn't foolproof.)

Click for bigger photo.The Dwarf Procumbens juniper shown at the right probably required the same sort of diligence as the Bonsai version shown near the beginning of this article. (This specimen is from the same family whose Hinoki Cypress and Boulevard Cypress are shown above.) On the other hand, several Hinoki Cypress varieties seem to naturally form the kind of branching you need.

When I was admiring one railroader's beautiful specimen trees, he said, "My wife just cuts off anything that doesn't look like part of a tree." Like everything else in this article, your mileage will vary.

Planting Your Conifers

Once you've got your trees in the shape you want, dig a hole in the ground and put them in so that they sit in the soil exactly as deep as they sat in the soil in the pot. Okay, you had that part figured out. But seriously, there isn't much more to it than that. If your soil is very poor, though, you should probably consider following the directions on the tag that came with the tree. Usually this says to:
  1. Digging a hole twice as wide and half again or twice as deep as the pot.
  2. Backfill the hole part of the way with potting soil or with very good topsoil or the like.
  3. Loosen the tree roots from the pot carefully, being carefull not to stress the roots unnecessarily or allow them to dry out.
  4. "Fluff" the tree roots out a little so they can take more advantage of the good soil you're providing (some experts recommend slicing through the bottom third or so of the "root ball" with a knife to stimulate root growth, but I can't vouch for that).
  5. Set the tree where it's going to be and backfill it the rest of the way.
  6. When it is backfilled all the way, tamp the fresh soil down a little by hand. The dirt should not be any "deeper" on the tree trunk than it was in the pot, nor should it expose any of the root. This is actually the part you have to pay special attention to.
  7. Water the tree as soon as it is planted, then again later that afternoon. A good plan after that is once a day for a week, and once a week for a month, more if you have a draught. If you must water very much and you have very hard water, consider adding some coffeegrounds or Miracid to compensate for the extra lime.

In addition to the "conventional wisdom," consider the following suggestions.

  • As you plant your tree, try turning it in various directions to see how it will best look from the viewing area. It doesn't cost anything more to plant your tree in such a way that it presents a nice profile to visitors.
  • Be sure not to plant trees anywhere where natural foot traffic will harm them (even in the winter when everything's under a foot of snow). I've probably lost more trees from being too close to apparent footpaths than any other cause.
  • Keep adjacent plants from crowding the lower branches of any cone-shaped plants. In my case, a cheerful daisy-like plant called "Threadleaf Coreopsis" crowded a tree enough to kill all the needles on the lower branches and leave a gaping "cave" once winter had frozen the things off to the ground. Even thyme can get "out of hand" over a season or two. I have found "Acre Sedum" to be a good "groundcover" around my trees, though - it never gets tall enough to cause problems.
  • I'll add other suggestions as they occur to me.

Click for bigger photo. Maintaining Your Conifers

As months or years go by, pay attention to any dwarf conifers (such as Dwarf Alberta Spruce) that have grown up against each other or up against a wall. As I have mentioned, the warm, moist environment such crowding creates is especially inviting to spider mites and other tree-destroying vermin.Yes, it's hard to trim a Dwarf Alberta Spruce evenly all the way around the tree when it's in the ground, but you need to do that work every so often, so the tree is ready to take advantage of late winter and early spring rains. Do NOT just trim the tree branches back wholesale, like the nurseries do. Each place you cut a branch will create two or more new sprouts in the spring. A nice, even trim, clipping off only the outside inch or so will result in such a crowd of new branches that your tree will have a nearly airtight "shell" that looks great by next July and may kill your plant by the following June.

Another thing to remember is that, when Dwarf Alberta Spruce get "sick," they start dying from the bottom up and from the inside out. One reason to keep them trimmed is to make certain that the center of the tree is still getting enough light and air near the trunk to keep the whole tree healthy.

When it's time to trim a standing conifer, the best thing you can usually do is "feel along" the branch, to determine how far back Click for bigger can cut and still leave nice soft needles on all parts that remain. I try to trim conifers at places that are junctions already. Often when two or more branches branch out from a junction, one grows way out and the other one is less "impressive." By consistently removing the branches that are longer and leaving the branches that are shorter, you can both "thin out" the excess growth and give the tree a narrower profile at the same time.

Again, you may find yourself trimming the tree in two passes, one to trim "redundant" or ungainly growth, and one to reshape the tree once the "big problems" are taken care of.

Some trees try to keep sprouting needles and branches from the "trunk" area that you've already thinned out. If you let that grow, you'll eventually be back to a plant that is globe-shaped all the way to the ground. Sooner or later, the tree will get the "point" and stop sending out lower "shoots," usually as the upper part "thickens up" and shades the trunk.

Click for bigger photo.When you're all done with this careful pruning, you go back and shape the tree from a more aesthetic viewpoint. Yes, it may look a little ragged, and you want to make certain to water enough to compensate for any autumn droughts. But by late spring, it will look "perkier" than ever, and you've probably added another two years to its lifespan at least.

Some people buy a rooting solution and try making their trimmed bits into new trees. I'd like to try that myself, but haven't done it yet. One warning: among conifer hobbyists, that's considered a sign of addiction to their hobby. I'll keep you posted.


Okay, I may have been a little hard on you all. As I reviewed my collection of photos looking for the best possible examples, I realized that only about one in seven area garden railroaders is as hard on his or her conifers as I am. The truth is that the dwarf and miniature trees cited in this article will provide attractive year-round foilage and good imitations of miniature trees even if you don't have time to be as careful or as thorough as I have described. This article isn't meant to scare you away from Dwarf Alberta spruce and the other "staples" of our hobby; rather it is meant to help you make the best investments and then to get the best effect and longevity you can out of them.

There are no hard-and-fast rules. Just don't expect everything you try to work out just right, especially the first year or two you break soil or try a new variety. Take your time and try things out a little at a time to see what works for you, and don't worry about providing the optimum environment for your plants - after all, you're running a railroad, not a nursery. Above all, remember that you're the person who eventually has to be satisfied with how all these things come together.

Please contact me if you have any questions this article doesn't answer, or any experiences that contradict anything I've said - I love telling both "sides" of the story.

Best of luck!

Reader Feedback

Kevin Strong says

Chamaecyparis obtusa 'Aurea Nana' (Golden Dwarf Hinoki Cyprus) is probably the most common [cone-shaped Hinoki Cyprus] used in the garden, growing to around 8' at maturity.

Others include

  • Chamaecyparis obtusa 'Blue Feathers'
  • Chamaecyparis obtusa 'Kamaeni hibi'
  • Chamaecyparis obtusa 'Kosteri'
  • Chamaecyparis obtusa 'Nana Gracilis'
  • Chamaecyparis obtusa 'Templehof'
Also: Chamaecyparis pisifera 'Cream Ball' - which grows to a mere 2' tall at maturity.

For more, check here:

Other potential plants come from the juniper family. Though these typically not considered "dwarf," but are very amenable to pruning:

  • Juniperus chinensis 'Blue Point' (Blue Point Juniper)
  • Juniperus virginiana (Eastern Red Cedar) Usually found growing in the wild--thrive in full sun, but slow growing in the shade. Dad had well over a thousand of these trees on his railroad for 20+ years until a bug came through and wiped out all but the strongest ones. [Note: Birds plant these for "free" on my railroad. I typically move them someplace useful until they start to get out of control, then transplant them someplace else in the yard. They do get out of control, though, so they're not a good long-term investment for a garden railroad in my opinion. I wouldn't use them if they weren't free - Paul]

Another web resource for plants:

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