In the Garden: Cedars… or Junipers?

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Charles Kidder In the Garden
In the Garden
by Charles Kidder

Everyone is familiar with the ubiquitous Red Cedar (Juniperus virginiana), found across much of the eastern United States. You might conjure it as many little exclamation points reclaiming an abandoned field, or as a distinguished mature specimen with gray sinewy bark lining a country lane.  Red cedars were commonly harvested for Christmas trees before we started growing other species on farms. And you might have seen—and smelled–its reddish, pungent wood when you opened a cedar chest. But as the scientific name indicates, this tree is actually a juniper and not a true cedar.

Junipers are victims of their own success. With scores of cultivars available and a tough nature, the genus Juniperus is used extensively in the landscape. Or, some might argue, overused. And even in some cases, misused. Still, a properly selected juniper can add interest to your property.

First, be sure you can supply your juniper with the appropriate conditions, i.e. sun and good drainage. True, there are a few cultivars that can take some shade and others that are more tolerant of less than ideal drainage, but play it safe by providing full sun and a well-drained location.

Then, decide what role the juniper is going to play in your landscape. Are you looking for a focal point or strong vertical element? A few pyramidal or columnar cultivars of J. virginiana that fit the bill are ‘Burkii,’ ‘Brodie,’ ‘Hillspire’ and ‘Stover,’ These cultivars can also be grouped to form a hedge or allee.

If you need a shrub, junipers of almost any size or color can be found at garden centers. Most have a spreading habit, so they grow wider than tall and work well under windows without much need for pruning.  J. chinensis ‘Gold Coast’ sports golden yellow needles, tops out at three feet and spreads to about five feet. ‘Nick’s Compact,’ another cultivar of the same species, has green foliage with a slight blue overcast. It will reach 2 ½ feet by six feet in eight years.

Photo courtesy J.C. Raulston Arboretum.
Photo courtesy J.C. Raulston Arboretum.

Continuing down the height spectrum, we get to groundcovers, where many good junipers go bad.  Actually, the junipers themselves don’t usually go bad, but rather the planting scheme. Many homeowners understandably don’t want to mow on a steep slope, and so they put in umpteen junipers as the solution. Use a little imagination here! Why not three, or even five, different juniper cultivars in order to get a variety of colors, heights and textures? Or even mix in some plants other than junipers, such as yuccas or ornamental grasses? Large stones would also be a good foil to the junipers’ texture and color, and once you wrestle them into place, they require no maintenance.

A final caution about foliage color: some junipers are green, while many are bluish, yellow or even variegated. But many varieties change colors in cold weather, often to what is charitably described as “dark plum.” You might consider it “dirty brown,” so it pays to check out junipers in winter to see what you’ll be getting.

But what about the true cedars, the genus Cedrus? There are only three species, at least according to most authorities, and all hail from the Old World. And except for a few dwarf and weeping varieties, all the cedars grow to be magnificent, large trees, up to one hundred feet tall and with an equal spread.

The deodar cedar (Cedrus deodara) hails from the Himalayas and is probably the species most widely planted in Virginia. It is also the most graceful in youth, with a fuller, fluffier appearance than the other cedars. The top growth, or leader, often droops gracefully, as do the other branch tips.  Unfortunately, the leader of mature trees often dies, yielding either a flat-topped tree, or one with several leaders, but this does not ultimately destroy the tree’s beauty. If you are looking for extra hardiness, ‘Shalimar’ is the cultivar to buy.

Atlas cedars (Cedrus atlantica) grow in the mountains of the same name in North Africa. They are not as soft and graceful as the deodars in youth, but mature to be grand specimens. (A couple of impressive atlas cedars can be seen by the west parking lot at Maymont in Richmond.) It is most often seen as the cultivar ‘Glauca,’ with blue-green needles. Also frequently seen is ‘Glauca Pendula,’ a weeping, or more accurately, prostrate form. If not staked up, this variety will just crawl along the ground. In nurseries, you generally see it trained into “S” curves or waterfall shapes. All these odd shapes can either be interesting or grotesque, depending on the context. Not to mention, your particular take on plant abuse.

The Cedar of Lebanon (Cedrus lebani) is native to Turkey and the Levant and is mentioned in the Bible.  It is probably the least grown of the cedars in Virginia, being happiest in somewhat cooler climates.  The most memorable specimens I have seen were in England and Ireland, where they were free to spread to immense proportions on the lawns of great estates.

All the cedars prefer well-drained, moist, deep loamy soil, but will put up with the less than ideal conditions most of us can provide. Stagnant moisture is bad, and shelter from strong, drying winds is desirable. Atlas and Lebanon cedars prefer acid soil, while the deodars like soil that is neutral to slightly basic. If you grow the latter, an occasional dose of lime would be helpful, perhaps just when you are treating your lawn.

I can’t stress enough that the cedars spread to great widths, so don’t condemn one to a small space.  If you can’t provide sufficient room, at least admire the ones in public places. The National Arboretum in D.C. has a very good cedar collection.