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A German Village landscape is an oasis of year-round beauty.
Tom and Carol Plank can attest to the truth of the familiar adage that the best time to plant a tree is 20 years ago. Soon after the Planks married in 1980, they planted their first trees — a Fat Albert blue spruce and a paper bark maple — on their quarter-acre lot on the fringes of charming German Village just south of downtown Columbus. Today, the Planks’ garden is packed with 300 more trees, mostly conifers, and provides a welcome urban retreat.
“Being in the city, it really takes the temperatures down and gives us plenty of clean air,” says Carol.
Step through the Planks’ arched iron gate, and you’ll find a weeping Norway spruce (Picea abies ‘Pendula’) adjacent to their front door, a weeping white pine (Pinus strobus ‘Pendula’) and a token 4-foot-square patch of grass where their dog Charlie naps. Stroll down the winding brick path, and you’ll spot a variegated Japanese maple (Acer palmatum ‘Butterfly’), a Dragon Lady holly (Ilex ‘Dragon Lady’) and a silver fir (Abies alba ‘Pyramidalis’).
“Some call our garden a winter garden,” says Tom, who doesn’t mind the moniker and appreciates his garden’s nonstop beauty, especially during a season when so many landscapes are dormant.
In the back yard, limestone paths meander through an enchanted forest filled with 25-foot columnar spruces and pines, understory hemlocks, dwarf conifers, miniature ginkos, and novelty trees like Twisty Baby black locust (Robinia pseudoacacia ‘Lace Lady’), weeping purple beech (Fagus sylvatica ‘Purpurea Pendula’), weeping blue atlas cedar (Cedrus atlantica ‘Glauca Pendula’) and varied directions larch (Larix decidua ‘Varied Directions’).
“We knew we had limited space, so we tried to lean toward dwarf varieties or slow-growing ones,” says Carol. “We would try others, but nature won every time.”
She says they entered their marriage with a mutual interest in horticulture. She recalls helping her mother plant bulbs in their Worthington garden and says Tom worked as a student trimming trees at Indian Lake. He later took natural-resources classes at Ohio State University and eventually became good friends with fellow student and now noted nurseryman Roger Seely. Carol says Seely gave the couple a landscape plan (which included dwarf conifers) as a wedding gift.
“I got him started in dwarf conifers, and he took off from there and just fell in love with conifers,” says Seely who shares the Planks’ conifer interest and carries 200 to 300 varieties at his nursery in Hilliard.
As newlyweds, the Planks began visiting local arboretums such as Ohio State University’s Chadwick Arboretum and Newark’s Dawes Arboretum in search of landscaping ideas for their home. Carol says they returned home with wish lists and began calling different nurseries to track down their favorite trees and shrubs. She says one winter they attended the Ohio Nursery and Landscape Association’s annual show where they discovered an amazing world of conifers and conifer nurseries that fueled their budding collection.
“Tom became the acquirer and would buy all the fun things, then say ‘Can you plant it?’” says Carol. Besides planting and tending their garden, Carol volunteers as a plant “dead header” at the Huntington Gardens in German Village’s Schiller Park. After working there on Tuesdays, she’s often motivated to return home and continue gardening.
She says Tom relishes the hunt for rare and unusual plants and has made contacts at nurseries all over the country. In fact, several of the out-of-town friends they’ve made through the nurseryman’s show return each year and visit Tom at his family’s restaurant, Plank’s Café and Pizzeria in German Village.
“Tom’s now a passionate collector and finds spots in his garden for everything,” says Seely.
As Tom and Carol have explored the world of conifers, they’ve learned these woody, cone-bearing plants with needle-like leaves include everything from cedars, firs and spruces to hemlocks, larches, redwoods and, strangely, even leaf-bearing ginkos.
“People are amazed at the differences in the colors, needles and shapes of conifers,” says Carol. The Planks came to appreciate conifers’ year-round beauty with their vibrantly colored new growth in spring, their range of lush summer greens (gray greens, golden greens and blue greens) and the golden color several take on in the fall. Carol says she prefers the blue-colored conifers, especially soft-needled blue firs, while Tom favors the bright yellow ones like the Chief Joseph lodgepole pine (Pinus contorta ‘Chief Joseph’) that glows in the fall.
Most are evergreen but a few, like dawn redwood (Metasequoia glyptostroboides) drop their needles, exposing attractive trunks. Conifers also grow in an array of shapes — globose (rounded), pendulous (with weeping branches), narrow upright, broad upright, prostrate (ground hugging) and spreading (wider than tall) and irregular.
Using their wedding landscape plan as a road map, the Planks began planting in stages, starting in the front and moving around to the side and back. They’ve artfully combined color and texture within their conifer collection and intermixed accent shrubs such as oakleaf hydrangea with bottlebrush buckeye with shade perennials such as bleeding hearts and hostas.
Years later, Oakland Nursery installed backyard hardscapes, including a stone-lined pond, a limestone patio and curving stone paths. Here, the Planks created raised beds with amended soil for their acid-loving evergreens. She says the mounded soil also helped maximize space, creating additional opportunities for plantings on the hillsides. A recent tour group from the British Conifer Society and Dutch Conifer Society was particularly surprised at how much the Planks could fit into their backyard.
In the late 1980s, the couple purchased the property adjacent to theirs, leasing out the house and expanding their own back yard into much of the other. For the new addition, they brought in a flatbed truckload of large boulders, and strategically planted among them. Four years ago, Seely’s son Roger Jr. added a rock-lined stream with a large stepping stone as a bridge. A scotch pine bonsai from the collection of noted bonsai specialist Max Puderbaugh serves as a focal point of the water feature.
As space became scarcer, Tom began planting dwarf conifers and bonsai in troughs and other containers. Carol says they now have 30 bonsai and 10 trough gardens with several of the hardy, slow-growing varieties having survived up to seven years in the containers when overwintered outside along the north side of the garage.
“You think you’re done and everything’s established, then things start overgrowing or die,” says Carol about the garden’s forever changing nature.
Today, the collecting continues. Each spring, they attend the Dawes Arboretum’s spring sale that features several rare and unusual trees it propagates or swaps with other arboretums. Carol says she and Tom even formed a holding area at the rear of their back yard where potted trees are planted in the ground until a space opens in their garden. Tom jokes that he has also considered giving up the garden’s paths to make more room for the brimming collection.
Talk with Hilliard, Ohio, nurseryman and conifer aficionado Roger Seely of Seely's Landscape Nursery, and you’ll discover conifers are great additions to Ohio landscapes.
“They’re so colorful in ever-blues, ever-yellows and ever-variegated,” he says. “Most are not fast growing and require minimal maintenance.”
He offers the following tips:
Plant conifers with blooming plants like daylilies and Rose of Sharon. They’re also beautiful combined with colorful Japanese maples.
Read about conifers to find the best match for your needs. They vary in size, shape, color, texture and growing requirements.
Plant conifers in good soil. If planted in poor soil, they will lose their color after a year and eventually die of poor nutrition. Seely’s nursery amends its soil with a mix of horse manure, cottonseed meal and soft phosphorus.
Allow room for conifers to grow — approximately 2 inches a year — or plan to keep the soil loose enough to easily dig and relocate the conifers to other areas of the garden.
Try growing dwarf conifers in troughs or containers. Select plants from one hardiness zone lower than Ohio’s zones 5 or 6, and make sure the containers have holes to provide good drainage. During the winter, protect the container plants along a north- or east-facing exterior wall and water them monthly.