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Size matters when it comes to conifers

December 19, 2014
Dot Zanotti Ingels

We tend to associate conifers with the Christmas trees we carefully select for their shape, scent and beauty and take home to decorate this time of year. The silver tip fir is one of the most popular Christmas trees in Marin. The noble fir is native to the Pacific Northwest and has strong branches for hanging ornaments. The Douglas fir responds well to shearing on farms and has become a popular choice for its economy and fullness.

Conifers are also beautiful plants that serve many uses in our landscapes all year long. I cannot imagine the Tuscan landscape without Italian cypress. I love seeing them all over Marin.

Conifers are a collection of trees and shrubs that produce cones that carry seeds. Most conifers are woody evergreens and their thin leaves are commonly called needles, but some varieties do lose their needles periodically. They are grown as ground covers, accent shrubs, foundation plantings, privacy hedges, and sources of seasonal color and specimen trees that can anchor a landscape.

There are more than 550 types of conifers that come in a wide range of sizes, shapes and colors. Most conifer species in California belong to the pine family (Pinaceae). When we think pine we usually think long needles. But in this family you will also find hemlocks, spruces and red firs. Most other conifers in California are in the cypress family (Cupressaceae). These include junipers, cedars, giant sequoias, yews and redwoods.

You can find conifers in all sorts of sizes, from small (12-inch Juniperus connumis 'Compacta') to the towering giant sequoias and old-growth redwoods we cherish here in California. You can find conifers living at sea level and in alpine conditions.

The shapes of most conifers are definite and distinct, which makes them great focal points. Some are flat and hug the ground, while others are naturally columnar. Some conifers are naturally pyramidal, some are tiered and some spill or are globe-shaped.

Conifers come in green, but they also can be red, bronze, yellow or blue. Sometimes color can be influenced by the fluctuating temperature of the habitat.

Choosing the right conifer is important. They are usually long-lived, so thoughtful selection from the beginning can save problems in the future. Structure and color are also important considerations. Conifers make a strong statement and should be placed accordingly in the landscape.

Most conifers planted in the home garden require full sun and good air circulation to thrive, and may need quite a bit of water as they establish themselves. In the Bay Area, conifers are best planted in the early fall to early spring, while the weather is still cool. They can do OK in a wide range of soil conditions, but do not do well with waterlogged roots, so adequate drainage is critical. Prepare the site for planting by digging a hole no deeper than the root ball and at least 12 to 18 inches wider than its spread. Backfill with native soil. The top few inches of soil can be mixed with organic material if desired. Finish by applying 3 to 4 inches of mulch in a 3-foot radius around the tree.

Are you planting your conifer for structure, a shelter, a windbreak, a specific style or as a focal point? Size is important. There are fast-, medium- and slow-growing conifers available. Planting a specimen tree in an urban setting requires knowing how it will affect foundations, streets or sidewalks. There is a wide range of dwarf, slow-growing and miniature conifers that extend the possibility for planting a conifer in a small garden. With careful selection, a conifer can make a great container plant.

Some believe that to prune a conifer is to spoil its natural shape. However, to maintain a desired size or shape there will come a time to prune. Pruning techniques vary with the variety of conifer. Before tackling the job it is best to consult your nursery professional or arborist.

As you wander the open spaces or urban neighborhoods, start looking for the conifers in the landscape. You may be surprised how many are there that you just had not noticed before and how much they enhance the vista. Then look through your garden for places that a conifer might serve your home well.

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