Wet Feet

Clients of ours, who have quite an extensive piece of land in Far Hills, New Jersey, have a few tricky sites on their property with regards to landscaping. An appreciation for plants and sound design, the owners have employed us for over a decade to develop and maintain their gardens.

And during this time we have had a few challenges trying to meet their expectations, satisfy their tastes for plants all the while trying to be horticulturally correct. Enthusiasts of conifers, together we have broached, on more than one occasion, the idea of forcing plants into areas that simply won’t perform well. Struggling with shade and “wet feet” (areas where roots will be soggy) are two problems that many conifers simply don’t enjoy. I have said time and again that gardening is not an exact science. You have to kill many plants before you can be considered a good gardener. Meaning, like anything else, you have to learn from your mistakes.

Atlantic Whitecedar, Chamaecyparis thyoides is one tough conifer. In the wild this tree grows as an overstory and is dominant in peaty swamps. Proven itself as a survivor in wet areas, along stream beds, Atlantic Whitecedar is more than useful in low lying wet areas. And while this plant is seldom found in residential landscapes and even more infrequent in nurseries, it can be had by better independent garden centers. A needled evergreen, useful for screening in wet and somewhat shady areas, has solidified the usefulness of this tree.

There are several cultivars to seek out here too. ‘Shiva’, our choice for our clients grounds, has gorgeous feathery, blue-green markings. Achieving a narrow spire or slight pyramid form with time, the ‘Shiva’ we tagged for our client at the nursery was approaching 20 feet. ‘Top Point’ has interesting texture and a narrow habit. Possessing both needle-like and scale-like foliage this narrow beauty has a muted green color in warmer months and rich purple markings in colder months. I have seen this plant used thoughtfully in containers and as a small entrance piece to an Italian-style courtyard. ‘Aurea’, as you might expect is a bright yellow cultivar that grows in a pyramid some 10-15 feet. ‘Emily’ has rich green scale-like foliage that is soft-textured. ‘Heatherbun’ seems to be making a push in our industry. There are several larger plant growers in the country that have embraced this one. A compact, mounding globe type, it too has blue-green markings in the summer and a great plum color in the winter months. Slated to grow some 5-10 feet tall and 4-5 feet wide, time will tell if ‘Heatherbun’ will achieve the status so many have placed their trust in. ‘Purple Heather’ shows the frustration I have, at times, with the industry. Often I feel that there are so many cultivars coming at us too fast that there is almost a redundancy of plants already named. This I hold to be true with ‘Heatherbun’ & ‘Purple Heather’. ‘Glauca Pendula’ has graceful nodding branches. An upright grower with great blue foliage, you can expect this beauty to get over 20 feet with time. ‘Ericoides’ is another popular one that has been thrust into the mainstream and is seen with some regularity now. Sharing similar color markings that many others do, ‘Ericoides’ is compact making a small conical shrub. More are seen closer to 5 feet tall than the reported 30 feet that they are said to obtain with years. The list goes on

While Atlantic Whitecedar can reach some 40-50 feet tall and 20 feet wide with age, the national champion is over 90 feet in Maryland. Native to the Eastern United States in swamps, Chamaecyparis thyoides is often a “Go To” plant for wetland reclamation projects. I have been told that one of the strongest sites you could see of this plant is the White Cedar Swamp in the Cape Cod National Seashore. While I have not personally seen this, I have “Googled” images and concur. A noteworthy footnote is that many cultivars of Atlantic Whitecedar have reportedly struggled over the years because of drought stress. Perhaps it is this reason that Whitecedar has done remarkably well in its native environment, as most other trees simply can’t compete. Either way, today there are lots of gorgeous cultivars to choose from in a species that will not only hold its own in a boggy area but will excel there.