Structure, subtle color give conifers punch


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So you think you know conifers because you planted a Colorado blue spruce in the front yard? Think again.

There is a world of conifers out there that do fabulously well in local gardens, unlike the blue spruce, which often grows too large and resents our humid summers.

Richard L. Bitner's mission in life to introduce conifers to the gardening public. He'll be a guest at the 2008 Western Pennsylvania Gardening & Landscaping Symposium, which begins at 8 a.m. next Saturday at Chatham College.

Mr. Bitner, a practicing anesthesiologist who studied horticulture at the fabled Longwood Gardens in Eastern Pennsylvania, is the first speaker of the day with "Conifers for Mid-Atlantic Gardens." In a recent phone conversation, he expounded on his belief that conifers, which are defined as all cone-producing plants, are underutilized in most gardens.

"[Conifers] are more than a foundation planting," he says. "We should be growing more conifers and integrating them into our mixed borders. We want borders that will be interesting throughout the seasons. I would say that color is highly overrated. When people say they want color in their garden year-round, that is not sustainable."

What is sustainable is the structure, texture and shapes that conifers can provide.

"Structure is the most important thing [in gardens]," he says, "and conifers provide structure throughout the year when other things come and go."

The trouble, he says, is that many of the conifers that are commonly available to gardeners are not the ones they need to be planting.

"They outgrow their space, and they are clipped [as a result], or you can no longer see the door. They are poorly placed, and often poorly selected."

There are varied reasons that homeowners keep planting the same tired old varieties. One is a lack of knowledge about the plant family and a related ignorance of the huge variety of conifers available.

Nurseries are also partly to blame because they tend to keep a good supply of some of the faster growers, but they don't stock some of the more interesting and expensive cultivars.

Mr. Bitner thinks there are several reasons for that. First, some of the old-standbys are cheaper because they do grow faster, and secondly, customers balk at paying a large price for a slower-growing variety, which will also be in a smaller pot.

"We need to be asking for these [plants] at fine nurseries," he says.

After that, he takes designers to task.

"The designers are not expanding their palette [when it comes to conifers]," he sighs. "You can look at a foundation in Pittsburgh and here in Lancaster County and they are all the same."

And please, he says, kicking another popular piece of misinformation to the curb, don't think conifers are only green.

"Conifers are not just green. They come in many colors and many textures. There are even variegated conifers."

Besides attending his lecture, another good place to start educating yourself about these wonderful plants is his magnificent new book, "Conifers for Gardens: An Illustrated Encyclopedia." (Timber Press, $59.95).

In it he lists more than 1,600 cultivars that can be used to fine effect in even the smallest beds. The reader is able to view a photo of the plant and also to read about culture requirements and eventual mature size.

With this tool, it is possible to find a plant that will fit just about any need and stay in bounds.

It's also possible to see the spikes, globes and weeping conifers that are out there for public consumption. And if you can't find them around here he also provides a list of mail-order establishments in the back of the book. Girard Nursery in Geneva, Ohio, is one.

Someday, says Mr. Bitner, people will start to think about and use conifers like they would any other garden plant. And if it's up to Mr. Bitner, sooner is better than later.

Seats are still available at the 2008 Western Pennsylvania Gardening & Landscaping Symposium to be held March 8. The event is sponsored by Phipps Conservatory and Botanical Gardens, Penn State Cooperative Extension and Chatham University. Fee for the day-long event is $110 which includes a continental breakfast and boxed lunch. For more information call 412-441-4442.


Garden editor Susan Banks can be reached at sbanks@post-gazette.com or 412-263-1516.


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