Rod Parke used to grow 253 kinds of hybrid tea roses. When he tired of all the spraying, he moved on to filling his North Seattle garden with...

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ROD PARKE USED to grow 253 kinds of hybrid tea roses. When he tired of all the spraying, he moved on to filling his North Seattle garden with dahlias, and then rhododendrons. Turns out the rhodies grew too large, and he hated tying up the dahlias.

“I’ve settled down with dwarf conifers now,” he says of the more than 200 little trees dotted among the Japanese maples, fuchsias and ferns he also favors. “I like small and slow-growing, because I can have more of them,” says Parke of the dwarf and miniature conifers that have captured his collecting imagination.

In case you’ve ever thought of mini-conifers as boring little bumps, the variety in Parke’s garden will convince you otherwise. Perhaps they have so much oomph per square inch because he selects for contrast. “I get enough harmony with Mozart and Beethoven,” says Parke, who reviews music for The Stranger.

Forget lumpy juniper. These needled wonders come in colors from shining gold (Hinoki ‘Gold Fern’) to Parke’s favorite silvery blue Chamaecyparis lawsoniana ‘Wissel’s Saguro,’ which has arms like a saguro cactus. Some are feathery ground huggers like the prostrate form of coast redwood, others are compact little buns or cones, while many are skinny spires like Juniperus communis ‘Compressa,’ a doll-sized version of Italian cypress.

Parke explains that dwarf is a relative term when applied to conifers. It doesn’t mean anything about eventual size, but just that these conifers grow only about 2 to 10 inches a year. So a dwarf might grow slowly to tower over the house. Miniature conifers are the smallest of the bunch, putting on less than 2 inches a year. Parke has a dot of a fir tree that grows only a quarter inch per year, topping out at 4 inches high after two decades.

To find your own favorites


Rod Parke suggests these places to see and shop for conifers:

Locally:

Emery’s Garden Nursery in Lynnwood, Swanson’s near Ballard and Molbak’s in Woodinville.

Farther afield:

Collector’s Nursery in Battle Ground, Wash. (360-574-3832; www.collectorsnursery.com)

Miniature Plant Kingdom, in Sebastopol, Calif. (707-874-2233; www.miniplantkingdom.com)

Porterhowse Farms in Sandy, Ore. (503-668-5834; www.porterhowse.com)

Parke also explains how conifers change colors with the seasons while holding onto their needles: Autumn’s decreasing light and cooler temperatures cause the chlorophyll in the foliage to die back, revealing the underlying color. Then in spring, the chlorophyll is encouraged by the weather to recolonize the same needles, and they turn back to their warm-weather color.

Dwarf and miniature conifers need careful attention to do their best. Parke points out that conifers don’t warn you when something is wrong. They suffer silently, then die quickly. So be sure to give them good drainage because, while they need to be watered regularly, conifers are susceptible to root rot. Most conifers prefer full sun, although dwarf hemlocks, yews and cryptomeria can take some shade. Pay close attention to the eventual size of any dwarf or miniature you purchase. With pines, you can easily control size by breaking off the candles (new growth at branch tips) every May. Parke has kept a fluffy, compact mound of Pinus parviflora ‘Arakawa’ contained in a pot for 10 years by candle clipping judiciously.

“Isn’t it marvelous?” asks Parke, pointing out all the contrasting shapes and textures that make the garden so tactile you can’t help but pet, pat and stroke your way through the beds. The foliage on some of the trees is as tightly swirled as a bad 1950s perm, while others have droopy, elongated needles. Some conifers are limp and pliant, while others are as brushy as a terrier’s coat. One little twisted tree, Cryptomeria japonica ‘Cristata,’ has branches that end in weirdly flattened cockscombs, almost as if the needles are webbed together, a phenomenon called fascination or cresting. “That one’s a conversation piece,” says Parke.

So is the Pinus yunnanensis, a sculptural centerpiece of the back garden. It’s an odd little tree that will grow larger than most, so enshrouded in draperies of long, soft needles that it resembles Cousin It from the Addams family, without the hat. Brush a few needles aside to find a miniature mugho pine hardly larger than a pin cushion crouched beneath its foliage. You never feel alone in Parke’s garden. His miniature trees have such personality and presence you’re sure the place is populated by bristly little creatures.

Valerie Easton is a Seattle freelance writer. Her e-mail address is valeaston@comcast.net. Mike Siegel is a Seattle Times staff photographer.