Little Giants

South Seattle Community College’s dwarf conifers come alive in winter.   

By Roger Brooks January 4, 2009 Published in the March 2008 issue of Seattle Met

THE SOUTH SEATTLE Community College Arboretum sits tucked away on six acres near the West Duwamish Greenbelt in West Seattle. Thousands of busy commuters pass it each day as they speed down 16th Avenue Southwest, most never knowing that just behind a row of towering beech and pine trees lies the Coenosium Rock Garden. The rocky outcropping, whose name comes from the Greek word for “plant community,” represents one of the most comprehensive collections of dwarf conifers in the country—an evergreen forest in miniature. “We’re a fairly well-kept secret,” concedes Van Bobbitt, an SSCC instructor and coordinator for the arboretum. “People who live just a few blocks away will come to an event and say, ‘I never knew this was here.’”

The pint-size specimens that call the Coenosium Rock Garden home are every bit as beautiful as their bigger brothers. In fact, dwarf evergreens display a stunning array of textures, shapes, and even colors, making them a favorite among gardeners looking for unique specimens. Many come from grafts created from “witches’ brooms,” genetically mutated growths sometimes found on large conifers. To the naked eye, a witches’ broom looks like a rat’s nest of twigs and needles sprouting from the branch of a stately evergreen. To dwarf conifer expert Bob Fincham, they look like opportunity.

Fincham, who helped form the American Conifer Society and served as its first president, has been championing the dwarf conifer’s cause since 1979, when he opened a mail-order nursery called Coenosium Gardens with his wife Dianne. They began developing new varieties, selling the diminutive evergreens almost exclusively. “Dwarf conifers are great for rock gardens and they don’t grow into forests you look up into, you just look at them,” Fincham says. “Everyone has small plots and wants maintenance-free yards. Dwarfs don’t choke everything out so you end up replanting everything in a few years.”


The plants have grown in popularity and commercial success as gardeners look for ways to landscape smaller plots of land. But because most dwarfs don’t often occur in nature, few amateur landscapers get a chance to see examples of them outside planned gardens.

Enter the Coenosium Rock Garden. Former SSCC horticulture instructor Steve Nord, who spearheaded the arboretum’s creation in 1978, approached the Finchams at a trade show in 1995 to gauge their interest in donating plants for a proposed dwarf conifer garden. The couple agreed to participate, but Nord’s retirement put the project on hold until 1999. Then, construction of the one-third-acre garden took another five years, in part because students completed all of the labor. The arboretum doubles as a learning center for SSCC’s horticultural students, so landscape construction students prepared the area piece by piece, semester by semester, installing everything from irrigation pipes to decorative stones and boulders, and SSCC landscape design student Yuki Kato determined the garden’s layout.

Dwarf conifers have grown in popularity as gardeners look for ways to landscape smaller plots of land.

The Finchams donated all of the dwarf conifers in the garden and enlisted Rick Lupp, owner of the alpine-specialty nursery Mount Tahoma Gardens, to donate the garden’s alpine plants. Today, more than 300 different conifers dot the landscape. And while most gardens lie dormant in winter, Coenosium springs to life with an array of textures and colors. Yes, colors. Every shade of green is represented, but several specimens sport golden hues that blaze like fire against the dark-green backdrop, while others produce steely, blue-gray foliage that is just as impressive. “My favorite time of year here is midwinter,” Bobbitt says as he tours the area. “Most gardens are not at their best, but this one thrives. People think that evergreens are static, but they change.”

Enthusiasts pour into the garden in winter to see the ‘Berrima Gold’ incense cedar’s golden needles or the ‘Sulphur Smooth’ Arizona cypress’s yellow-gray foliage. It’s a love affair that Bobbitt says can sometimes go too far: “People fall in love with the golds, but the garden will look sick,” Bobbitt warns. “Mixing dark greens with a few golds helps them to stand out.”

The Coenosium Rock Garden’s success is shattering the arboretum’s reputation as a hidden jewel. Local clubs and sophisticated horticulturalists stop by frequently, and members of the American Conifer Society made a special trip to the garden when the group convened in Seattle last year. The response has been so positive that Coenosium has been labeled as one of the best dwarf conifer gardens in the country. One couple visiting from Connecticut deemed the collection better than that of the famed New York Botanical Garden. “It was the best compliment I’ve got yet,” Bobbitt says.

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