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Richard Bitner's Designing With Conifers changes our way of thinking about conifers. He moves conifers away from the stereotypical, overgrown and oversized, mulch and meatball foundation plantings and plants them creatively into our gardens. Bitner emphasizes that the benefits of gardening with conifers are that they "form a backbone" and provide a "strong architectural framework" that unifies our gardens throughout all seasons. Conifers are long-lived and change only slowly over time. Conifers add structure and provide interest and continuity to our winter gardens as the herbaceous perennials and annuals slip out of focus. "Conifers give a sense of permanence." Conifers are versatile. Bitner assures us, "Whatever landscape situation or challenge exists, there is an appropriate conifer to be had for that site."
Once Bitner convinces us in his introduction of the versatility and advantages of growing conifers as "garden plants", the next three chapters help us "make better choices when selecting conifers for our landscapes or integrating them into our mixed borders." Characteristics to consider are shape, color, and conifers for specific sites and conditions. Bitner dedicates a chapter to each of these then details each with stunning photographs. He gives abundant examples of available cultivars followed by a brief physical description and desired traits of each, all organized alphabetically according to genus and specific epithet.
Bitner's descriptions of the benefits offered by using conifers in our gardens are informative from a design perspective and they make the gardener think more deeply about the effect we might want to achieve as well as the emotional expression we might want to evoke in our gardens. When considering shape in Chapter 1, we might choose a spire-shaped conifer to "lead our eye upwards" or a rounded globe to "create bulk in our borders and give them a sense of solidity and mass." Bitner suggests that, "The beauty of these forms is enhanced by juxtaposing them with spiky conifers and the looser foliage of perennials and weaving plants. They hold together all the other plantings and give a sense of permanence and weight against the flux of herbaceous plants." Bitner slips into a romantic mood as he describes weeping plants that "...foster emotions within gardeners. To some they represent calmness, restfulness, contemplation, and wisdom. To others they conjure up classic romantic images often seen in paintings of weeping willows with a background of boats on a lake."
Chapter 2, Color, reminds us that conifers are not only green. Gold conifers are more commonly used as "focal points to lift our spirits " while gray-, silver-, and blue-foliaged conifers are cool harmonizers. "They make our gardens more engaging in the ebbing light of summer evenings, often the only time of day gardeners take time to stand up from their chores and enjoy the garden." Clearly Bitner is an insightful gardener and his book speaks personally to the personality of busy gardeners.
Two color traits, which are rarely considered in conifers, are conifers with colorful, ornamental bark and deciduous conifers for fall foliage color. The high-branched habit of Pinus sylvestris (Scots pine), with its exfoliating, orange, scaly bark make it particularly ornamental. Most of us think of conifers as evergreens, but there are some deciduous conifers, such as Ginkgo biloba (maidenhair tree) and Metasequoia glyptostroboides (dawn redwood) that are, in fact, deciduous conifers and they offer outstanding fall foliage color. Bitner includes fascinating and useful anecdotal tidbits of information throughout the book. For instance, he tells how children love the buttressed trunk of the dawn redwood and so they often call it the "armpit tree." The Gingko has been around since the age of the dinosaurs and Bitner includes practical advise about avoiding the female Gingko because its "fleshy `fruit' is messy and rank smelling".
The third chapter on Conifers for Specific Sites and Conditions is particularly useful and this is where Bitner really convinces us to use conifers in more creative ways rather than as foundation plantings lining the front of our houses. He encourages us to change our way of thinking about the style of the front lawn and instead consider it as a "welcoming garden."
Conifers as hedges and screens may be more effective than walls and fences. Hedges "are often used to define property lines where they are more effective as an impediment to wind, noise, and pollution than fences, and provide protective cover and nesting site for birds." Bitner draws in the reader by appealing naturally to related needs and interests typical of gardeners.
Some of Bitner's specialty uses for conifers tempt the reader to experiment with conifers in these unusual ways. The section on topiary includes some historical background and photographs from gardens in the United States and in Europe. The section on Dwarf Conifers for Containers, Troughs, and Garden Beds includes very tempting photographs and numerous suggestions for using conifers in small places. Bitner offers practical advice about growth rates of dwarf conifers. Though they may grow slowly, they may grow to an unwanted size over time. He also points out the benefit trough gardens provide for gardeners with disabilities or limited mobility and he cautions the reader about additional watering requirements for conifers in containers. These interesting and helpful bits of information set this book apart from typical, encyclopedic books on conifers.
Most conifers require full sun, but Bitner includes a specialty section on conifers for Shade. Even though gardeners are always on the lookout for plants that flower in the shade, Bitner reminds us that even in the shade "the principal element of garden design should be the structural plants, not colorful flowers whose brief effects flow with the season."
Bitner cautions us of the plight of Tsuga canadensis native North American hemlock) and its infection by the woolly adelgid. The reality is that it is no longer recommended that the species be planted and we need to look for alternatives, which he provides.
Bitner also includes specialty sections on conifers for Larger Landscapes (some for limited areas of the US or Europe such as the unusual monkey puzzle tree) and for Asian-style Gardens, which then flows easily into an interesting section on Bonsai. The sidebars in these sections, which list choice conifers for these particular applications, are particularly helpful.
Railway Gardens appeal to children of all ages and are being included in many public gardens. Bitner includes an extensive list with brief descriptions of conifers suitable for railway gardens.
The informative appendix should not be considered an afterthought and several of the topics included here are important enough to have been included with this chapter on Conifers for Specific Sites And Conditions. Among other subjects in the appendix, Bitner addresses the ubiquitous deer problem; he suggests how to cope with them; and he lists "deer candy" as well as conifers that are not likely to be browsed by deer. Another helpful appendix topic is What Makes a Good Holiday Tree and Bitner describes the benefits of several suggested species. Bitner also introduces us to German Grave Plantings and describes the important role conifers play in their design. Looking at these beautiful photographs, it does make me wonder why we in the United States value a stark, mowed grass landscape that provides ease of maintenance over plantings that contribute to a feeling of peaceful permanence for something that is so ultimately permanent.
While the introduction, the first three chapters and the appendix provide a wealth of valuable information and the interesting tidbits and stories easily hold the readers interest, Chapter 4-A Case Study: The Barrett Garden, pulls all of this together into a practical application. Bitner considers the Barrett garden "a garden that exemplifies, better than any I have seen, the way well-selected conifers can be imaginatively integrated into complex mixed borders that provide structure and interest throughout the year without excessive maintenance." Cassandra and Bryan Barrett design and install landscapes in Oregon and use their home gardens to demonstrate their design principals and display combinations of plants used in their designs. While Cassandra describes in her own words her design principles and how they apply in each section of her garden, Bitner "deconstructs" and demonstrates each of these principals through his series of photographs. Cassandra describes upper story plantings, mid story plantings, and understory plantings in the summer garden and she discusses each plant's purpose and their relationships with each other in the garden and to the overall design. Bitner highlights the particular groups of plants discussed in color while the rest of the photograph recedes into black and white. He then compares this summer garden with its winter presence. This technique allows Bitner to very creatively and effectively demonstrate the ideas presented in the book's earlier chapters. The Barrett Garden shows how important conifers are in forming a strong architectural framework that unifies our gardens throughout all seasons. It demonstrates how conifers provide emphasis, interest, and continuity to our winter gardens as the herbaceous perennials and annuals slip out of focus. Yes, conifers do give our gardens a sense of permanence.
Designing With Conifers encourages us to change our way of thinking about conifers and motivates us to look at our gardens from a more holistic and artistic viewpoint. Bitner's book provides the novice as well as the avid gardener the information we need to begin today creating gardens that will satisfy us through the seasons and over time.