Globosa blue spruce (Picea pungens ‘Globosa’) provides a pop of color in a green, green, green landscape. Contrast is important in landscape design. Globosa blue spruce is a cultivar of Colorado blue spruce, so it has that characteristic bright blue with greenish blue undertones. Where it varies from the parent is size and shape.
As the name implies, Globosa blue spruce is round. You know, like a globe. Botanical names actually make a lot of sense once you start paying even a little attention. In nurseries we tend to see them in #10 pots or smaller, which makes it one of those dreaded “tiger cub plants”.
I call them tiger cub plants because in the garden center, it’s like when you see a tiger cub at the zoo. It’s soooooo freaking cute and you want to take it home and love it, and it’ll stay perfect and adorable forever!
Except, just like a tiger cub, it won’t. Globosa blue spruce won’t eat your dog (and/or the mailman) but it will grow to a not insignificant 3 to 5 ft tall and 4 to 6 feet wide. It’s super important to keep this in mind when planting, because there’s a limit to how much you can reduce a Globosa blue spruce’s size. It will look horrible if you shear it, and even aggressive hand pruning can easily go too far. We offer landscape maintenance services but even us pros can’t save a Globosa blue spruce that was planted in the wrong place.
Don’t be scared, though! With some proper planning and a little care, Globosa blue spruce can help your landscape look its best.
If you were to tell me that you don’t like Virginia native plants, I’d say to check out Sweetbay Magnolia (Magnolia virginiana) and then see if you feel the same way. It’s at home in all sorts of landscapes, from formal to wild. Here’s what you need to know about it.
Sweetbay Magnolia is a deciduous magnolia, so if you’re thinking big glossy brown evergreen leaves, that’s not this one. Sweetbay Magnolia’s leaves are oblong but much smaller than a Southern Magnolia’s. The bark is a very pretty silvery gray, and the cream colored spring blooms are gorgeous. It’s still a magnolia, after all!
Sweetbay Magnolia is a great wildlife tree. It’s a host plant for the Eastern Tiger Swallowtail butterfly, and the seeds are a good food source for birds and small mammals. It’s reasonably deer safe as well.
You’ll see the most growth from a Sweetbay Magnolia in full sun. The company I worked for when we first moved to Virginia had a customer in Mantua (Fairfax) for whom they planted a sweetbay years prior. It had always stayed pretty small, more like a large shrub than a tree. If you’re familiar with Mantua you know there are a LOT of mature trees. One of those trees – one that was shading the Sweetbay – had to come down, and suddenly it was a full sun front yard. No word of a lie, that tree easily grew 5 to 6 feet in two years.
Online sources are kind of useless when talking about the height of a Sweetbay Magnolia, because it varies where in its range you’re growing it. Here in Virginia, 10 to 30 feet tall is reasonable depending on conditions, and about 10 to 15 feet wide. They will tolerate some pruning and shaping if need be. The arborists have done exactly that to keep the Sweetbay in check at our featured Fredericksburg pool and landscape design.
When I was a kid, with a very active imagination, my friend’s parents bought a new fridge. Seeing that cardboard monolith that I could turn into a fighter plane. I couldn’t help but say “dude, sweet box!” Nowadays, when I say Sweetbox I’m talking about Sarcococca hookeriana var. humilis, what I think is an underused but extremely versatile plant.
Let’s start with the common name. Sweetbox is so named because of the sweetly scented spring flowers it produces. The foliage is a gorgeous, glossy green. Sweetbox is one of my problem solver plants. In terms of light requirements, less light is better. It’ll start to thin out and fade away with too much sun, so partial to full shade is better. It also stays small, maxing out at 12-15 inches tall. Spread is typically listed at 2 to 4 feet and that really just depends on how happy it is.
There are a few uses that I think sweetbox is made for. It makes for a nice border along the edge of a bed. It’s also great for filling in those random, small, full shade niches homebuilders stick us with. Just be sure the area where you’re planting sweetbox drains well. While it’ll tolerate our clay soils, sweetbox won’t tolerate sitting in a mud puddle.
Sweetbox is in the boxwood family, so just be aware of boxwood blight. If you’ve had that fungal disease on your property, I’d say boxwood and sweetbox are off the menu. Other than that, it’s a solid little performer that has delighted dozens of my clients over the years I’ve worked in Virginia.
Green Giant Arborvitae (Thuja ‘Green Giant’) actually has nothing to do with the jolly green giant, which is kind of a bummer. I used to love those commercials as a kid, although I wondered how “ho ho ho” could sound so different coming from him versus Santa. I was a weird kid.
Green Giant Arborvitae are another narrow(ish), tall screening evergreen. They’re often the first alternative to Leyland cypress that landscape contractors recommend, and for good reason. They don’t get as over the top massive as Leylands do. They don’t get decimated by bagworms the way that Leylands do. And, most importantly, they don’t get big and then easily blow over like Leylands do. In case it’s not apparent, I think Leyland Cypress are garbage trees.
Green Giant Arborvitae are fast growing, often putting on a good 2 to 3 feet a year once established. Mature size is around 50 to 70 feet tall by 12 to 15 feet wide, making them significantly larger than Emerald Arborvitae. Unlike Emeralds, however, deer tend to leave Green Giant Arborvitae alone. For that reason we will use them in locations where there’s a real danger of deer damage, like wineries, estate properties, and honestly a good chunk of the homes in Virginia.
The shape of Green Giant Arborvitae is also a bit different from Emerald Arborvitae. Green Giant has a pyramidal, or Christmas tree, shape. Emeralds are more columnar. This means that early on it will seem that you’re getting a lot more screening from an Emerald, but that changes pretty quickly. If you want a dense screen, you can plant Green Giant Arborvitae 6 to 8 feet on center and whatever you want to hide will vanish pretty darn quickly.
Do you want to buy Green Giant Arborvitae in Virginia?
Emerald Arborvitae (Thuja occidentalis ‘Smaragd’) is one of those trees that everyone seems to know. They’re a really popular screening tree, which is why you see them all over neighborhoods in Virginia.
As I’ve been researching plants for these blog posts, I’ve been digging around (ha!) to try and learn why certain plants have the names they do. Like the actual cultivar name for Emerald Arborvitae, ‘Smaragd’. It sounds like something Tolkien would come up with. Is there a fascinating backstory? No. ‘Smaragd’ means ‘Emerald’ in Danish, and this particular flavor of tree is from Denmark. Womp womp. But all is not lost!
We have poutine because of arborvitae! Well, in a roundabout sort of way. I’ve always wondered why it’s called arborvitae, since that means tree of life. It turns out that Native Americans taught early French settlers that arborvitae foliage could help prevent scurvy. If French settlers all died off from scurvy we wouldn’t have Canada, and then we wouldn’t have fries and gravy.
Emerald arborvitae grow 12 to 15 feet tall and have a spread of only 3 to 4 feet, which is why landscape designers love them so much. They’re one of the few trees that can reliably screen a patio from the neighbors and not devour the entire backyard. Emerald arbs prefer full sun, and the shadier their location the sparser and rattier they look.
Perhaps the most important caution about Emerald arborvitae is what do about planting them in areas with lots of deer. In a word? DON’T. Emerald arborvitae are like delicious candy to deer. And because deer aren’t nearly as tall as the trees, you end up with some unfortunate shapes.
If you need screening, though, and you’re in a neighborhood where deer aren’t that big an issue, you’ll love Emerald arborvitae.
Little Gem Magnolia (Magnolia grandiflora ‘Little Gem’) may just be the tree you didn’t know you were looking for. If you’ve spent any time in the South, you’ve most likely seen massive Southern magnolias. At places like George Washington’s Mount Vernon, the magnolias are so huge they seem to crowd out the sky. You may have thought “gosh golly gee whizz, I would love those beautiful white flowers and that dark, glossy foliage, but my yard is too small.” I have some good news.
Little Gem Magnolia is a Southern magnolia, BUT it’s a dwarf cultivar. With an eventual mature height of 20 to 25 feet, and a narrow spread of only 10 to 15 feet, it’s like getting a pocket-sized magnolia. Big glossy leaves? Check. Creamy white blooms that make you happy just to look at? Check. Massive growth habit that eats your yard? Heck no buddy!
Little Gem Magnolias can be a little temperamental, so I recommend planting them where they get a little protection from winter winds. Additionally, we have a policy of not planting Little Gems in the fall. Those big leaves cause the tree to lose moisture super fast in the winter, and we find that fall planted Little Gems (and a lot of broadleaf evergreens, actually) will be just a sad pile of dead sticks come spring.
Little Gem Magnolias have a lot of uses. My neighbors planted them as a privacy screen along the road. I’ve seen them espaliered onto trellises (which looks particularly stunning against a brick wall). And, of course, they just serve up the awesome in any landscape.
Here at Revolutionary Gardens World HQ, we refer to Judd Viburnum (Viburnum x juddii) as “the drunk dial plant.” Here’s why:
Way back when I first started the business, we did a Culpeper landscape installation in the springtime. The clients have a curved deck, and around the perimeter of the deck I planted a row of Judd Viburnum. That Sunday night, my phone rang at 9 pm. Nowadays I would NEVER answer the business line at 9 on a Sunday, but I was a rookie. Anyhow, it was my client.
“Dave, it’s *****!” he slurred. “we have some friends out on the deck and everyone needs to know what this is that you planted because it smells $%^$ing AMAZING!”
Judd Viburnum DOES smell “$%^$ing amazing”. He’s not wrong. In the springtime, reddish pink buds appear on the branches and open into beautiful white flowers. The fragrance is hard to describe, but if you love lilac? This is better. For real.
As with a lot of viburnums, Judd Viburnum isn’t a wee plant. It grows 6 to 8 feet tall, and up to 10 feet wide. It can be pruned into a smaller shape, but – why? You’re busy enough, just leave room for the plant. Full sun is great for Judd Viburnum all the way to part sun. If you get too shady, you lose flowers and if you lose flowers you lose the fragrance and if you lose fragrance? It’s just sad.
Starting a few years ago, I went on a pretty huge Annabelle hydrangea (Hydrangea arborescens ‘Annabelle’) kick. I think this mass planting I saw at Barren Ridge Vineyards is partly to blame.
The thing is, Annabelle hydrangea has a lot going for it. Those white puffball blooms are striking (and if you want more of that, check out the ‘Incrediball’ hydrangea). There’s something about big, pure white bloom heads that grab you even more than the pink or blue hydrangeas. Contrast lets you dial things up a notch or three. Annabelle hydrangeas in partial shade, or against a dark backdrop like Otto Luyken laurels, just seem to jump out at you. There are so many ways you can play with these beauties. If you look closely, you can see how great Annabelles look in my landscape planting portfolio!
There are a few things to keep in mind when planting Annabelle hydrangeas. They prefer partial shade, especially shade from the afternoon sun. Believe it or not, we’ve planted them successfully in full sun, but they need babied if you do that. Getting them established isn’t quite as hard as raising a baby walrus in a backyard in Phoenix in July, but it’s still a challenge.
You can generally buy Annabelle hydrangeas in #3, #5, and #7 containers. The #3s almost always look great all season long. After about May, the bigger sizes are hit and miss. They’ll still do well, and they’ll be amazing next year, but if you want instant awesome it’s something to keep in mind.
Annabelle hydrangea grows 3 to 6 feet tall and wide, so be sure to allow plenty of room. You can prune it way back as it blooms on new wood. If you’re in an area with a lot of deer, be aware that the deer may help you with that pruning. Hydrangea arborescens is on a lot of deer safe lists as a native hydrangea, but they’ve definitely chomped on Annabelles. Still, they’re an amazing plant that I can’t get enough of!
Every time I plant a Pin Oak (Quercus palustris), I feel like the subject of a Buzzfeed article. “This designer planted a Pin Oak and you won’t believe what happened next.” What happened next is it did great! They’re just great trees that I think work well for several reasons. For one thing, Pin Oaks tolerate the water-holding clay we have here in Virginia. In fact, the species name “palustris” comes from the Latin word for marsh (palus), because they were observed in swampy lowland areas. Pin Oaks also tolerate heat, air pollution, and compacted soil.
Perhaps the most defining characteristic of a Pin Oak is its pyramidal shape. In silhouette, it looks like what you’d get if you asked a 6 year old to draw a Christmas tree. It really is a striking tree. It’s also a fast growing tree, easily growing 24 inches a year once established. Typical size for a Pin Oak is 60-70 feet tall x 25-30 ft wide.
Pin oaks are also easier to transplant than a lot of other trees, due to their shallow and fibrous root systems. Most good landscape designers are only going to suggest plants that do reliably well. We love Pin Oaks!
Fall color is attractive, with leaves turning scarlet and bronze. With fall comes acorns – after all, it’s an oak! When I think of acorns I think of squirrels (aka public enemy #1 as far as my dogs are concerned).
What I don’t think of are ducks. Ducks! Apparently Pin Oaks, growing in low swampy areas, are an important food source for ducks. They’re also loved by songbirds, wild turkeys, and deer, so if creating landscape for wildlife is important to you, Pin Oaks should be on your short list.
Forsythia (Forsythia x intermedia ‘Lynwood’) is somehow underappreciated and overused. How does that even happen? The first yellow blooms you see in Virginia, often as early as February, are Winter Jasmine (Jasminum nudiflorum). They’re a pale, sort of washed-out yellow. The next set of yellow blooms you see are a vibrant, grab you by the lapels and shake you like in an old movie kind of yellow visible from hundreds of yards away. THAT, my friends, is forsythia.
The problem with forsythia comes down to wrong plant, wrong place. Forsythia wants to get big, growing to between 6 to 9 feet tall and wide. Where do people plant them? In a space that’s way too small. That means constantly shearing the heck out of them, resulting in – best case scenario – a lumpy, twiggy, pitiful wretch of a plant. Worst case scenario, the forsythia gets sheared into a box shape right at bloom time and ends up looking like someone who lives in a pineapple under the sea.
Forsythia can be stunning if treated right. It’ll tolerate shearing if that’s what has to happen, but it’s a sprawling, loose plant. Let it be sprawling and loose. A sprawling and loose plant doesn’t make a very good specimen all on its own, so don’t use it as one. Forsythia look their best when used as a massing plant. Much like dogs, they’re going to be happier in a pack. I bet you never knew that social plants were even a thing, did you? Look how gorgeous this forsythia hedge looks:
Bottom line – give them room to do what nature intended and you will love forsythia. Trying to make it something it’s not is where we have problems.