Louis Raymond experiments in his own gardens like

a mad scientist, searching out plants that most people have

never seen before & figuring out how to make them perform.- The Boston Globe

…Louis Raymond ensures that trees can grow in Brooklyn…

or just about any other place where concrete consumes

the dirt and skyscrapers shield the sunshine.- USA Today

 
 

NEW Trips to Take!

Myrtle's easy when the conditions are right.

 
 
 
 

NEW Plants to Try!

Louis tries to capture the exact words to describe the fleeting but deep pleasures to be found in these Summer-into-Autumn incredibles.

 
 
 
 

New Gardening to Do!

Allergic to bees? You can still have an exciting garden, full of flowers and color and wildlife.

 
 
 
 

Plant Profiles

Dwarf Swiss Pine

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Dwarf conifers are the lapdogs of the garden, demanding a friendly pat and a kind hello.  Unlike some, Dwarf Swiss pine doesn't bite back: Its needles are soft, and its branchlets are flexible. 

 

I've planted mine in a trough where, millimeter by millimeter, year by year, the pine and a tiny Ilex crenata creep ever closer.  In four or five years, it will be time to do some transplanting.

 

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Meanwhile, the pine's perch in the trough, which is itself resting upon concrete blocks, elevates the little tree by almost two feet.  I can appreciate its knobby stem buds without having to kneel first.

 

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Here's how to grow this extremely hardy conifer:


Latin Name

Pinus cembra 'Pygmaea'

Common Name

Dwarf Swiss pine

Family

Pinaceae, the Pine family.

What kind of plant is it?

Evergreen coniferous shrub.

Hardiness

Zones 3 - 7.

Habit

Densely growing, upright and multi-branched, full to the ground even in adolescence.

Rate of Growth

Slow.  An inch or two a year.

Size in ten years

Two to three feet high, one to three feet wide.  Sources vary dramatically on mature size: some say five feet tall, others ten.  Always taller than wide. 

Texture

Dense and soft.  This is a needle conifer that doesn't prick.

Grown for

its foliage:  The plant fills in as it grows up, to become an irregular but very approachable pile-up of bluish green needles to which you'll want to give a friendly pat.

 

its habit: 'Pygmaea' is consistent in appearance through all sizes and ages.  It increases almost imperceptibly, and so provides a secure and constant note year-round.  This is a strong contrast to so much else in the garden, which is growing for a few months but then getting pruned way back—or doing the pruning all by itself, by dying to the ground in the Fall.  Putting out leaves in Spring and then dropping them in the Fall.  Flowering and then stopping flowering.  Through it all, 'Pygmaea' is there, looking just like it looked the year before but, maybe, two inches taller.    

Flowering season

Late Spring: The flowers are not particularly ornamental, but the cones are: a couple of inches long, they're greenish violet when young, and purplish brown when mature. 

Color combinations

Pinus cembra 'Pygmaea' goes with just about any color.

Partner plants

Because Pinus cembra 'Pygmaea' is typically full to the ground as well as completely uninterested in anything other than full sun, it's not the plant to mix with front or even side-to-side neighbors of any height.  Fronters, especially, should be as low as possible while still providing contrast in leaf shape and size.  And they need to welcome the pine's preferred conditions: blazing sun, full-force Winter, and well-drained soil that might become downright dry.  And they need to be able to keep growing out of range of the pine's slowly-expanding footprint. 

 

Now where is that absolutely prostrate bayberry when we finally need it?  Those dwarf desert hostas?  More realistically, now: Aurinia saxitalis 'Citrinum', Sempervivum, groundcovering sedums such as 'Vera Jamison', Callirhoe acaeoides, low and colony-forming Opuntia cultivars, Delosperma basuticum—think alpine gardening and your list will explode.

 

If possible, site Pinus cembra 'Pygmaea' as the south-most plant of any height in its bed, so any others that might be tall (or at least not prostrate or miniature) won't cast the pine into any shade, even obliquely. 

Where to use it in your garden

Although 'Pygmaea' will become as large as a medium-size shrub in many years, it's so slow (and, therefore, small at planting if you don't spend the big bucks for an old specimen) that it can be difficult to use in any setting with companion plants that grow at a more normal speed.  I've planted mine in a trough, where it will be happy for many years—probably as long as the trough itself lasts.  By then, it will be large enough to plant into the garden itself without getting swamped or stepped on.  If you're blessed with rock ledge, a south-facing crevice would make the pine feel like it's back home in the Alps.  A bed atop a south-facing retaining wall is another great opportunity, in that the pine can be planted close to the front and yet wouldn't be at risk of being stepped on.  

 

Like 'Vermont Gold' dwarf spruce, 'Pygmaea' is so deeply hardy that it can grow year-round in sturdy planters.  Whereas 'Vermont Gold' appreciates a bit of shade, and so belongs on the east-facing terrace atop an eighty-story skyscraper in Chicago, 'Pygmaea' is the conifer to plant on the west- and south-facing terraces, so it doesn't miss a moment of sun.  And right out by the parapet, so this cold-loving pine doesn't miss one piercing blast of wind, either.

Culture

Full sun, period.  Full exposure to wind.  Well-draining soil is a must as well.  Pinus cembra is fairly xeric when established, so Summer-dry soils are fine.

How to handle it: The Basics

Pinus cembra is one tough little shrub.  Just give it absolutely full sun, absolutely no relief from sweeping Winter wind, and almost any soil as long as it is absolutely well-draining.  Water during drought the first Summer, but don't bother thereafter.  Pruning or primping isn't needed.

How to handle it: Another option—or two?

None.

Quirks or special cases

None.

Downsides

None

Variants

Pinus cembra is somewhat unusual for a pine in that there are only a few cultivars.  'Stricta' / 'Columnaris' is, indeed, taller than broad, growing slowing to over twenty feet.  The needles of 'Glauca' are more blue.  'Nana' is small, but not as small as 'Pygmaea'.  'Compacta' is dense but matures taller than fifteen feet.

 

There isn't such variety in this genus that anyone else but a pine-nut, so to speak, would develop a Pinus cembra collection.  There aren't cultivars with yellow needles or striped needles.  No cultivars that weep or are prostrate.  No cultivars with interesting bark (not least because growth is normally so dense that the bark isn't visible).     

Availability

On-line and, only occasionally, at retailers.

Propagation

By grafting. 

Native habitat

Dwarf Swiss pine is, indeed, native to central Europe in general, and Switzerland in particular.

 
 
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