Saturday, March 7, 2015

To The Junipers. To The Walls.

Dear ______,

Gardening is like a 401k. You invest and invest until you think you're done, then invest some more anyway. Also, if you're an avid gardener you probably no longer have a 401k. It's not a cheap hobby or profession (if you're lucky enough to work in the field). If you're a hobbyist, well.... good luck with retirement.  You might as well just build it into your monthly allowance, otherwise from Spring to Fall you will be broke. Even plants have allowances. Some have a bigger allowance than others, but some are as broke as the avid gardener hobbyist.

When I say allowance, I mean how much you can borrow (exempli gratia, pruning) from your plants and trees until they cut you off and rewrite the will. In general, most plants have a hearty generosity, but there are always those few finicky, yet coveted plants that will charge you interest, or just commit suicide after lending too much; usually from pruning, or in some cases being crushed, cold weather, or plain old depression. Then there are those that just die inside. Junipers are especially notorious for this schtick. Every homeowner or renter has probably inherited a juniper of one cultivar or another. They are usually the bane of our existence as they are itchy, unruly, kill everything under them, and often smell like cat urine. They were also very popular in days long past because many people of faith (and the occasional occultist) believed that planting junipers near their homes would ward off evil spirits and demons. If your demon loathed the smell of cat pee, then you were in luck. 
In general, junipers have a decent pruning allowance. You can prune and prune, and you probably won't kill it unless you cut off all the greenery (which I've done out of spite in the past). However, it's very easy to enter the dead zone of a juniper. You try to shape the shrub, keep it from possessing the sidewalk, or maybe you just want it to stop talking back. So you take your shears or pruners to it, get carried away, and end up discovering that it's dead inside and it was all just a facade. Keeping those demons away really took a toll. Unfortunately, when you cut into that dead zone, it doesn't come back. We all know nothing comes back from the dead (unless, again, you are a person of faith). You will find brown needles, barren branches, many spider webs, and lots of debris. You've destroyed the aesthetics of your shrub because all it wanted was a feathered haircut from the 80s. If you've gone completely ghetto on your juniper shrub, you'll have to put it out of its misery. Since junipers have shallow roots, just attach a rope or chain to the trunk or base of the shrub and the other end to the bumper of your motorized vehicle and accelerate (not into the neighbor's yard, please. I've seen this happen, but it was worth it since the juniper was hella ugly). If you'd prefer not to do this, you can leave your new modern art "yard sculpture" vulnerable to a tree mushroom coup.

A poorly pruned juniper that has been sheared into its dead zone. Kid for scale.
A neighbor's modern art "yard sculpture" with ongoing oyster mushroom massacre.

In order to prune your juniper shrubs successfully, you have to lift up its skirts -- but only if it's a floppy variety. Most of them are. At this point, you should probably be on a first name basis with your shrub. Prune back the undergrowth as far as you'd like (wear leather gloves), but let the top branches fall back over this dead zone you've created. It will keep the shrub from wreaking havoc on the sidewalk, prevent your homeowner's insurance from taking a hit when someone breaks their neck on said juniper-possessed sidewalk, and will scare the beejeebies out several generations of spiders.  If you have an especially stiff juniper shrub that will always have a bad hair day like the little kid that has cut his own hair, try the snatch and snip method, which is essentially cutting a branch back, but leaving some green growth at the tip for recovery. Landscape Advisors has a visual aide of this method. If either method fails, you're out of luck and probably should try to move the shrub to the darkest corner of your yard or just kill it and plant a more upright and conforming shrub. Or sneak into a newly planted median along a fairly quiet road and try some ninja transplanting (I admit to nothing). If you happen to find a conforming shrub that grows bacon, please let me know.

After all that up-in-your-grill bad-mouthing, I'd like to point out that there are some gorgeous junipers out there in many colors, textures, and structures.  One of my favorites is Juniperus x media 'Daub's Frosted' (below). New growth is yellow in the Spring. It's the brightly-dressed hooker of the juniper world. The overall color of the shrub isn't the boring, old lady blue that most people think of when one mentions junipers. It's a lovely sunny green all year. It also prefers to slink along the ground instead of imitating a mosh pit. It looks stunning against the bare red or yellow twigs of a dogwood shrub in winter as well. Particularly brilliantly colored dogwoods include Cornus sericea 'Cardinal:' the common red twig dogwood, and the Cornus sanguinea 'Winter Flame,' which has bright yellow branches that intensify to red at the tips.

Daub's Frosted Juniper: new growth color is yellow.

Daub's Frosted juniper with cut curly willow branches and hybrid heuchera 'Blackberry Ice.' Note emerging dead zone in center of juniper.

Junipers can add a gentle mounding shape to hard structural corners and provide good foundations for color schemes or a visual anchor for a garden bed. Perhaps our ancestors were on to something aesthetic when they planted these shrubs near stairs and doorways. Junipers also provide a unique texture and four seasons of color depending on what shade of green you choose. I like to contrast textures and colors in perennial containers for year round interest (below). Note how I've used the grass to conceal the juniper's dead zone. In the summer months, I usually add a trailing and flowering sedum for an extra punch of color (and because many people like me  just can't get over flowers when they think of gardening).

Blue Creeper juniper, variegated grass, and Nandina 'Heavenly Bamboo'

Like searching for a good mate, you just have to keep looking until you find the one for you. Don't let it dip into your 401k, never kiss on the first date, and don't spend all of its allowance. And sometimes junipers just aren't for everyone. Never feel bad about dumping it. You don't want to end up in a committed relationship with a juniper you don't love. Unless you're the black widow type.


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