An Unkind Cut, a Screwy Willow, and Coniferus Rex

I should confess at the outset that I’ve never been fond of shrubs and trees that have ‘artistic’ growth habits – meaning anything other than upright, spreading, vase-shaped or upright/weeping. Most do fall into one of those categories but for some reason the exceptions set my mental teeth on edge. Back in the early 1980s when my best friend (who started me on the whole gardening thing) first showed me her garden, she proudly pointed out a three-foot-high Corylus avellana ‘Contorta’, otherwise known as the corkscrew hazel or Harry Lauder’s Walking-Stick. Being a polite person and realizing that it no doubt was very useful for the flower arranging she often did, I murmured that it was “so unusual” while privately thinking that you-know-where would freeze over numerous times before I’d ever have something like that in my garden.

A similarly negative reaction is engendered by another “artistic” group, but these are much more common than my friend’s treasure: namely, the near-ubiquitous (in suburbia) weeping blue conifer. For some reason they always strike me as “struggling to do something but failing tragically” even though I know perfectly well it’s their natural growth habit. Guess it’s just one of those odd quirks that the human brain is heir to?

Thus it was inevitable that that the Temporary Garden would come complete with not one, not two, but three of my horticultural cringe-inducers. (Obviously put there as a warning from the gods that I should run, not walk, away from buying it; if only I’d recognized the evil omen!)

The contorted contingent is represented by a corkscrew willow which must be Salix matsudana “Torulosa’. It’s about 10 ft tall and almost smackdab in the center of the front yard, in a small island bed that contains nothing else but a nondescript 3-foot dwarf euonymus behind it on the street side. It might actually look somewhat architectural if it wasn’t also so wispy; that flimsiness also makes it impossible to photograph decently because it’s backed by the even taller trees across the street; hence the second shot of some branch ends against a small section of oak-less sky.
corkscrew willowcorkscrew willow detail
This tendency to fade into the background at least makes it less noticeable which to me is a good thing: It’s relatively easy to ignore…..until the warmer weather sets in.

thirsty willowThis is apparently the thirstiest tree in existence, even for the willow family. It would probably adore living in a bog, or at least someplace that gets watered heavily three times a week from late May through June and daily thereafter until October. And while I have given one or two plants a helping hand via watering can during extended heatwaves, in this garden my philosophy is strictly Darwinian. And so the Screwy Willow is not happy. The next owners of the Money Pit/Temporary Garden may think this tree is wonderfully unique and unusual, which is the only reason that I haven’t called my son to say “Come visit, bring chainsaw.” Let the next owner struggle to satisfy this tree’s drinking problem.


Coniferous RexAlso in the front yard and also centrally positioned adjacent to the front porch walkway is – naturally – the seemingly-obligatory Front Yard Planting Weeping Blue Conifer, amidst the ever-yellow chamaecyparis hedge. For some reason I can’t help looking (not always successfully) for ‘shapes’ in these things and one day I realized that from a certain angle it resembles a dinosaur walking away. There’s an unmistakable “rump”, a rather skinny “tail” which extends a bit beyond the photo, very short “front legs” and a small head turned to look to its right. The shape doesn’t fit any actual dinosaur, so I’ve dubbed it Coniferus Rex. At least it’s tough and unfussy and while I don’t love it, I don’t hate it either.

It could be worse: Another friend’s former house had a massive specimen that looked almost exactly like Snuffleupagus from Sesame Street. The resemblance was downright scary.

The other weeping conifer is another story, and that one has annoyed me from Day One. It’s in the rear yard and in the unobstructed line of sight from the kitchen sink window (Fate is cruel).

tortured conifer 2014 This picture was taken in 2014 not long after I bought the house. The former owners had trussed up the leader, which had been trained to make a fairly horizontal circle I suppose, to the metal stake. For some reason this drove me nuts every single time I looked at it which was pretty much constantly, given its position. When the lawn-cutting guys did their weekly thing, they’d mow around the tip of the leader which is why you see a tuft of long grass there; I hadn’t gotten out there with the grass shears yet. In short, this conifer looked positively torturous (to me) and it aggravated me bigtime. Then we had the Winter From Hell which thankfully covered the entire thing except for the top of the stake; what a relief! But when the snow melted it was even worse because there were so few needles that it looked as if it was draped with Silly String. Enough was enough: I couldn’t stand looking at it another day, so I fetched the pruners.

tortured conifer 2015 springI felt bad for a moment , knowing I’d thwarted its natural inclinations, but reminded myself (and the conifer) that the unkind cut was better than the alternative (i.e., chainsaw). It still looked pretty bad, but at least that ridiculous leader was gone.

tortured conifer 2015 summerThis was taken a month ago (at the end of July) and it seems none the worse for having had its forward progress derailed. I also placed a 4-ft tall obelisk in the bed to the right of this one, and sowed some blue morning glory seeds there in May to at least create something large enough to draw my eye away within that plane when I look out of the window. I also realized too late – in July – that if I’d put some tall cosmos in the small bed between the patio and the conifer, they would probably have screened it from view for the entire summer! If I haven’t found another house before next May, I will definitely do that.

But in the meanwhile, the four of us will continue to coexist within our uneasy truce.  🙂

  17 comments for “An Unkind Cut, a Screwy Willow, and Coniferus Rex

  1. August 31, 2015 at 11:40 am

    I can so see the dinosaur!

  2. August 31, 2015 at 1:46 pm

    Hilarious. I sympathise re. the conifers, but now that you’ve named one you will come to love it. Can’t you have an accident with a lawn mower and the ‘lasso’ conifer? I do love contorted things though. Your salix
    just needs to thicken up a bit.

    • August 31, 2015 at 5:58 pm

      I suspect that in a matchup with the lasso conifer, my battery-powered Neuton mower (which hasn’t been used in two years) would probably lose — it objects to anything heftier than a twig. 🙂

  3. August 31, 2015 at 2:45 pm

    Very funny, really I would just get the chainsaw out and be done with it! Mind you it is easy to be harsh from afar and with other peoples plants 🙂

    • August 31, 2015 at 6:06 pm

      Oh, Screwy and the Lasso only got a reprieve initially because I so quickly became embroiled in the multiplicity of Discovered Disasters with the house! Then when it became apparant that I wasn’t going to be staying here permanently, I shifted to the “one owner’s eyesore may be another owner’s treasure” mindset, LOL

  4. August 31, 2015 at 5:47 pm

    That 3rd conifer…oh dear!

  5. September 1, 2015 at 5:10 am

    But you have such a lovely sense of humour, how can you look at that ridiculous Cedrus libani without smiling? I must say your garden is rather overconifered in my eyes but I like the idea of a Coniferous Rex. Indeed it does look like a dinosaur.

  6. September 1, 2015 at 12:22 pm

    Fun post!! Here in Central Texas, we don’t grow the Weeping Blue Conifer that you mention, but there are junipers that have a similar look and I’ve never been particularly fond of them for much the same reason. I like what you named it: Coniferous Rex! How did that 3rd conifer get that way?

    • September 1, 2015 at 12:52 pm

      The 3rd conifer was already that way when I bought the house. The leader had already become too woody to be ‘looped’ back toward the center again, so I have no idea what the prior owners would have done with it had they not put the house up for sale! Perhaps the original intention was to create a sort of open spiral (like a Slinky) but in that case I’d think a stake would have been placed in the center of the circle. ‘Tis all very odd, LOL

  7. September 1, 2015 at 2:12 pm

    Thanks–I think I was asking more “why” than “how”–since you explained the how. But still…why? I think I would have maybe commissioned a wood or metal sculpture, instead of torturing a perfectly respectable plant into that position.

  8. September 4, 2015 at 9:39 pm

    I think I could learn to love coniferous rex… the other two, well stranger things have happened.
    Perhaps a screaming garden gnome under rex could be a possibility?

    I might like the willow a bit as well. I’d be tempted to chainsaw prune it though and bet it would sprout up nicely within a season looking a little thicker and healthier.
    The noodle cedar… well, sorry the last winter didn’t kill it. It makes me uncomfortable, and I want to straighten out my neck and stretch a bit when I see it. My neighbor has a cherry which has been similarly tortured.

    • September 4, 2015 at 11:26 pm

      LOL at the mental picture of the screaming gnome! 😀

      The chainsaw pruning idea is intriguing for next spring; any suggestions on how low it should go? Might actually be less thirsty as a shrub-size as well.

      Noodle cedar, LOL! You are right, the impression it gives is painful. Can you imagine having to look at that every time you wash dishes?!?

      Should I even ask how big your neighbor’s tortured cherry is?

      • September 5, 2015 at 8:18 am

        I would cut the willow as low as possible, they’re nearly impossible to kill by pruning… plus new growth from the bottom would get rid of all those dead twigs it’s probably been dropping all year. If you’re worried about killing it take a leftover branch and stick it in the ground, I did that one spring with some container planting decorations and they are now a 30 foot tree in a friend’s yard. Better him than me 🙂
        I’ll try to get a cherry photo after the leaves drop. It’s a nice ‘S’ shape which thankfully turns into a six foot tall green lump when the leaves emerge.
        Very attractive.

        • September 6, 2015 at 5:45 pm

          I think you can guess that I would not shed too many tears if the pruning did send the willow to the Great Beyond, LOL

  9. September 7, 2015 at 10:18 pm

    Great post, and I totally agree about the “artistic” screwy trees and shrubs. I would add to your list the weeping redbud ‘Lavender Twist’. As for what to do … in my garden, shrubs I come to loathe often have unfortunate “accidents”, if you get my drift.

    • September 9, 2015 at 2:57 pm

      The ONLY saving grace of the ridiculous Lavender Twist (which is seen in one of my prior posts) is that once the leaves form that huge dome, the branches are 100% hidden!

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