Plant Profile: China Fir (Cunninghamia lanceolata)


Today’s Plant Profile is about the China Fir, or Cunninghamia lanceolata. This is a majestic, evergreen tree that stands out in the landscape with its blue needled foliage. It is not a tree that should be planted in a small area as it can reach 75′ tall by 30′ wide in the landscape. It should be sited in full sun or very light shade and so that it can spread its branches far and wide.

China FirChina Fir was brought to the United States in the 1800’s for use as an ornamental tree. As is indicated by its common name, it hails from China where it can be found growing on roadsides as well as rocky hillsides. This should give you some indication of the toughness of this tree. It will do its very best in moist, well-drained soil but will grow quite well in soil that is drier. It is reliably hardy to Zone 7 but can be grown in Zone 6 gardens as well. In a cold Zone 6 garden, it may be killed to the ground in a harsh winter but it will resprout from suckers and will form a lovely dense shrub until the top is killed again in a subsequent winter. China Fir and Yews are the only two conifers that will resprout from suckers if they are cut back to the ground. You can use this knowledge to your advantage if you have a smaller garden but still want the beauty of the China Fir; just cut it back to the ground when it outgrows its allotted space and wait for it to fill the space again.

China Fir does have one significant drawback: it holds its dead foliage scraps in the tree instead of dropping them like pines and other conifers do. I call them foliage scraps because they aren’t individual needles…they are foot long pieces of foliage that have the needles intact. If allowed to accumulate for too long, the tree can look quite unkempt in the landscape. I have found that if you limb the tree up, it provides a path for the dead foliage to exit the tree. It also allows the lovely cinnamon colored bark to be displayed.

China FirIf you enjoy blue foliage in the garden, you should consider the China Fir. ‘Glauca’ is a cultivar that has been selected for its rich blue needle color. If your garden is small, you can treat it like a large shrub and cut it back every few years to keep it in check. But the true beauty of the China Fir is observed when it is allowed to grow to its maximum ability and spread its long Dr. Seuss-like branches over the landscape. I’d like to know if any of the Mid-Atlantic Gardening readers have experience with growing China Fir. Leave me a comment below or e-mail me at Happy gardening!

February 22, 2012Permalink 13 Comments

Plant Profile: American Beech (Fagus grandifolia)


American Beech

Today’s post was inspired by glancing in the woods behind my house. Everywhere I looked I saw the light tan colored leaves of the American Beech tree (Nancy Ross Hugo describes the color as palomino, like that of a horse). I saw them on the way to work and on the way home…they seemed to be everywhere in the woods around Richmond. When all of the other trees in the woods have their leaves, the American Beech tree (Fagus grandifolia) can go virtually unnoticed. But in the winter when all of the other deciduous trees stand there looking so barren, the American Beech tree shines with its palomino colored leaves.

Generally speaking, I am not a fan of brown leaves. They send out the impression that something has gone awry in the garden, that someone forgot to water. Pin oaks tend to hold their leaves in the winter too but the leaves of the pin oak look just like the ones that fall in your garden…brown and dead. There is something about the American Beech’s leaves that are inviting. They are light tan in color and invite your eye to keep searching through the woods for more. I think that it is in the winter time that the American Beech is a standout. Unless…

If you are blessed enough to have a large American Beech on your property, consider yourself a lucky gardener. While it may be true that very few plants will grow well under the canopy of an American Beech, it is still quite an honor to be in the presence of a large, established specimen. As the American Beech trees age, they lose their ability to retain their leaves in the winter but what you gain in beauty through the tree offsets the difference. A large 50′-80′ established tree is a beauty in and of itself. The smooth, gray bark is distinct and quite noticeable, even when the garden is alive with other flowering trees and shrubs.

American Beech is native to the east coast and all of the Mid-Atlantic gardening region. It is hardy to Zone 3 and thrives in all but the wettest soils. It can be hard to transplant, which is another reason you should feel blessed if you have a large beech in your garden. The leaves have distinct ribbing and are a rich green during the growing season. They turn yellow in the fall and can light up a garden. Around the same time that the leaves fall, the American Beech releases beechnuts, which are its triangular seed pods that are edible.

American BeechIf you are thinking of planting an American Beech, site it in full sun and plant it in an area that can be enjoyed by your grandchildren. American Beech is a slow growing shade tree that needs plenty of room to grow. There is a quote by Nelson Henderson that says “the true meaning of life is to plant a tree, under whose shade you do not expect to sit.” While you may be able to enjoy an American Beech’s shade, it is your grandchildren who will marvel at its beauty. If you are blessed enough to have a large American Beech, please share the photos with other Mid-Atlantic Gardening readers by sending me an e-mail at Happy gardening!


February 15, 2012Permalink 4 Comments

Plant Profile: Red Twig Dogwood (Cornus sericea ‘Baileyi’)


Before we get into our topic today, I want to remind you that our seed give away is this Friday, February 3. To enter, all you have to do is enter your e-mail address in the box to the right. That’s it…no catches or surprises. Of course, I would never sell your e-mail or anything like that; I’m here to help you with your gardening questions, not compromise your trust.

Cornus sericea 'Baileyi'Red Twig Dogwood…you may not recognize the name immediately but if you’ve ever seen this plant glowing in the winter landscape, chances are that it is etched in your memory. This dogwood, Cornus sericea ‘Baileyi’, isn’t what you think of when you hear the word “dogwood”. No, instead it is a shrub that is grown for its striking red stems.

In the winter landscape, Red Twig Dogwood is a standout, especially when grown against a light colored background or when displayed in a snowy landscape. It grows to around 6′ to 8′ tall and is equally as wide. It flourishes in dry soils once established but can also tolerate soil that tends to be slower draining which makes it perfect for that low area of your garden. In summer, it has the appearance of just another green shrub after its white blooms disappear in May. The flowers give way to beautiful porcelain blue berries that are adored by birds. When the days begin to shorten and the temperatures begin to fall, beautiful tones of red and purple are displayed before the leaves drop. Red Twig Dogwood is hardy from Zones 3-8 which makes it a shoo-in for Mid-Atlantic gardening enthusiasts.

Maintenance of Cornus sericea ‘Baileyi’ is minimal once established. There are two schools of thought for pruning to enhance the red coloration of the stems. The first method of pruning is to remove 1/3 of the shrub each spring to eliminate the oldest branches as it is the newer stems that display the best coloration. The next method is the one I prefer as I consider myself a lazy gardener. Going the lazy route involves rejuvenating the entire shrub every 3 years or so by removing all of the branches to within 8″ of the ground. The flush of growth that ensues will be a blazing fiery red…of course you won’t really see it until the following fall when the leaves drop but you will be rewarded with a beautiful show.

I would be remiss to not mention the cousin of the Red Twig Dogwood, the Yellow Twig Dogwood. The latin name of the yellow version is Cornus sericea ‘Flaviramea’ and the growth habit and care is the same with the exception that Yellow Twig Dogwood tends to form colonies through its suckering habit. Let me know your experience with Red Twig Dogwood by leaving me a comment below or e-mailing me at stacey@midatlanticgardening. Happy gardening!

February 1, 2012Permalink 1 Comment

Winter Interest Plants


In today’s post I’ve decided to give you a quick list of plants that offer you winter interest. Over the next couple of months I’ll try to discuss them further in the Plant Profile posts.

Deciduous Trees

Acer griseum (Paperbark Maple) - this tree is grown in the winter for its beautiful exfoliating bark

Acer palmatum (Japanese Maple) - the form and silhouette of Japanese maples make them perfect in the winter

Evergreen Trees

Cunninghamia lanceolata (China Fir) – beautiful large trees with striking blue foliage

Chamaecyparis nootkatensis 'Pendula' (Weeping Alaskan Cedar) - large tree with graceful weeping arms








Picea abies 'Pendula' (Weeping Norway Spruce) - if you're looking for a specimen for the garden, this is it!


Deciduous Shrubs

Ilex verticillata (Winterberry) - produces an outstanding crop of berries and available in both dwarf and non-dwarf sizes


Hamamelis x intermedia (Witch Hazel) - this plant surprises people in February with its blooms

Callicarpa americana (Beautyberry) - beautiful purple berries are borne in the fall and often last into early winter if the birds don't get them first

Evergreen Perennials

Helleborus orientalis (Lenten Rose) - see my post for more information

Dryopteris erythrosora (Autumn Fern) - large clumps of evergreen foliage that can reach 3'-4' tall

Arum italicum 'Pictum' (Lords and Ladies) - see my post for more information

Deciduous Perennials – well it kind of goes without saying that deciduous perennials look like mulch since all of their perennial parts are underground for the winter.

I hope that you’ve received some inspiration to add some of these beauties to your garden. Too often we overlook the simpler, quieter parts of plants like the bark or marbled foliage for showy flowers. But it’s during the winter that we can appreciate the exfoliating bark of a paperbark maple or the bright red berries of the Winterberry. I’d love to hear about the plants that you enjoy in your winter garden. Leave me a comment in the section below or e-mail me at Happy winter gardening!

December 16, 2011Permalink 1 Comment