June 20, 2008

Constant Conifers These Workhorses Add Enduring Interest to Any Landscape

By Carol O'Meara

Stand in their presence and it seems they anchor the world, their branches heavy in green yet light with air. Coddling is not for them; they prefer independence, and shrug off the care their deciduous companions demand.

From spruces to ponderosas, firs to bristlecones, conifers form the backdrop of our gardens, and Colorado loves them. Bring them into your landscape and give them the tough spots - they'll be happy with the challenge.

"The beauty of conifers is that there are a lot of varieties with different textures and year-round interest," says Robert Brudenell, board certified master arborist and owner of The Natural Way Inc. in Englewood. "Plus, they're low maintenance and don't typically need a bunch of sprays or a lot of pruning."

These tough plants handle snow loads, wind or dry weather if given good care, and in return they provide privacy and wildlife habitat in urban yards, he said. Dwarf varieties like Baby Blue Eyes or Black Hills spruce are the perfect answer for areas with limited height or under power lines.

"You can depend on the look of conifers in the landscape," says Robert Cox, horticulture extension agent with Colorado State University Extension in Arapahoe County.

"They block the wind, give a little privacy. The screening they provide is a big thing, especially if you don't want to look at your neighbor's Winnebago or the neighbors themselves."

As a living wall, evergreens can help with winter heating bills, yet more than one tree is needed for windbreaks or screening. They're not a fast fix, so be patient and allow the trees to gain enough size to provide protection or screen the yard.

Cox, 53, has spent 25 years helping people succeed with trees. When planting conifers, he says, location is everything.

"Consider the ultimate size of the tree before you plant it. That cute little blue spruce in a two-gallon pot gets 30 feet tall and 20 feet wide. You've got to be able to get into your house without a machete."

If you must put other plants nearby, think past how the tree will look in one year to its size and footprint as it grows bigger.

"Too many people space plants too close to their conifers and never pull them out when the tree grows up. This crowds everything."

They prefer a drier soil than most lawns and suffer if placed in a yard that's watered to please the bluegrass.

"The No.1 problem with conifers is water-related," says Brudenell, 40, a registered consulting arborist whose specialty is struggling trees. "The sprinklers hit them, or they're over- watered. This causes trouble, like ponderosas losing needles prematurely or spruce developing cytospora disease."

Figuring out how much water your conifer needs is a challenge, he says, and varies by exposure, wind, reflected heat or rainfall. Invest in a moisture meter to check the soil around the tree.

Push it all the way into the ground at the drip-line to measure moisture, since absorbing roots are only a few inches below ground.

Ideal conditions will be moist, not soggy or dry. "Watch out where you place the meter on newly planted trees," Brudenell says, and make sure you're measuring the root ball, not the surrounding soil.

Beyond limiting the water, conifers are easy to care for. "Just don't freak out over interior needle loss in August and September; it's normal for the oldest needles to drop," Cox says.

"Being an evergreen doesn't mean every needle is there forever. They'll get new ones."


Get conifers off to the right start

* Place conifers in drier locations, away from lawns or chronically moist sites.

* Plant them high in the hole, making sure the knees of the root ball are 2 to 4 inches above soil line. Prevent sinking by making sure the floor of the hole is firm.

* Remove burlap from the top of the root ball and cut wire off the top one-third of the basket before you fill in the hole. If the tree is staked for wind, remove the straps and stakes after one to two years.

* Once the tree is established, move the drip line away from the trunk to encourage roots to form out and away from the tree.

Tips for conifer care

* Treat them like their native environment. If they come from places with not much rainfall, water sparingly; if they're exotics from wetter areas, irrigate them more often.

* Fertilize once a year, in May.

* Check trees for mites and aphids. Aphids are small, brownish- gray to black insects. Mites can be spotted by tapping a branch over a white sheet of paper. If specks fall off and leave red smears when squashed, mites are present. Call a tree care company for treatment.

* Prune interior deadwood to keep the tree beautiful and reduce insect-breeding areas.

* If pitch masses of resin show up, call an arborist to check out the tree.

* In winter, water conifers and apply anti-dessicant spray to reduce water loss.

Conifer varieties

* White Fir (Abies concolor), a good substitute for blue spruce, with the same look and color, but not as many problems.

* Bristlecone pines (Pinus aristata) are fun to have with their quirky, unusual growth habit. But growing character takes time; don't push it with water and fertilizer, or the rapid growth eliminates the charm.

* Southwestern white pine (Pinus strobiformis), whose flexible branches and finer needles are not as hard-looking as Ponderosa or Austrian pines. Though faster-growing, it doesn't like heavy clay soil.

* Bald Cypress (Taxodium distichum) loves irrigated lawns but must be planted in older yards where soil alkalinity is not as high. A deciduous conifer, it sports unusual cones and the soft foliage turns orangey- bronze in fall.

* Tannenbaum mugo pine (Pinus mugo) makes a nice compact holiday tree. Unlike its counterparts, this mugo grows upright.

Originally published by Carol O'Meara, Special to the Rocky.

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