The Homeowners Column

The Homeowners Column

Enjoy the Diversity of Conifers

Photo of Sandra Mason

Sandra Mason
State Master Gardener Coordinator

As I look out over the landscape my eyes are drawn to anything not some shade of gray or brown. Anything evergreen stands out this time of year. Unfortunately many landscapes have succumbed to the "where's the door" syndrome of evergreen placement. I'm sure you've seen them or maybe have one of your own. Years ago someone bought a cute little blue spruce and put it near the front door. It looked nice for a few years than quickly ate the doorway and most of the house.

First, a side note about terminology. Evergreens and conifers are not the same beast. Conifer refers to plants that bear cones (those woody things we use for decoration). To confuse things some conifers such as juniper and yew have cones that look more like berries. To further confuse us not all conifers are evergreen. Some such as larch and cypress lose their leaves in fall. Ah, behold the amazing diversity of nature.

Although conifers are welcome additions to the landscape for their diversity in texture and color, they have been largely underused or poorly sited. Textures may be coarse or fine. Colors range from shades of green, yellow, orange, blue and purple. Many are bicolor or change colors through the seasons. Conifers can be used as specimens to highlight a spot in the garden, in containers, in rock gardens and in companion plantings with flowers, shrubs and small flowering trees. Their forms may be rounded, pendulous, narrow upright or spreading.

However many of the conifers get to be very large trees and are not suitable to small landscapes. To the rescue are conifers that are genetically selected to remain small or at least smaller than their cousins. The American Conifer Society has adopted four size categories to help people make selections.

Here are the size categories and popular conifer examples.

Miniature conifers grow less than three inches a year. Their size at ten to fifteen years of age is about two to three feet tall. Dwarf Norway Spruce, Picea abies 'Pumila;' Dwarf Pixie White Spruce, Picea glauca 'Pixie;' Dwarf White Pine, Pinus strobus 'Sea Urchin.'

Dwarf conifers grow three to six inches per year. Their size at ten to fifteen years of age is three to six feet tall. Bird's Nest Spruce, Picea abies 'Nidiformis;' Dwarf Serbian Spruce, Picea omorika 'Nana;' Dwarf Korean Fir, Abies koreana 'Prostata.'

Intermediate conifers grow six to twelve inches per year. Their size at ten to fifteen years of age is six to fifteen feet tall. Yellow Thread Leaf False-cypress Chamaecyparis pisifera 'Filifera Aurea;' Swiss Stone Pine, Pinus cembra; Bergman's Japanese White Pine, Pinus strobus 'Bergmanii.'

Large conifers grow twelve inches or more each year. Their size at ten to fifteen years of age is more than fifteen feet. Lacebark Pine, Pinus bungeana; Weeping Douglasfir, Pseudotsuga menziesii 'Graceful Grace.'

These may not be as easy to find as the big standbys, but they are worth the search. The American Conifer Society is a good resource.

References include:

Gardening with Conifers by Adrian Bloom (hot off the presses)
A Garden of Conifers by Robert A. Obrizok
Manual of Woody Landscape Plants, 5th Ed., by Michael Dirr

For plant sources check local garden centers. Also Rich's Foxwillow Pines in Woodstock, IL specializes in garden conifers and rare trees.

Congratulations to Golden Trowel award winners Charlotte Brownfield, Bev Cotter, Beth Kawski, Sue Mauck, Gabriele Mayer, Bill Meyer, Marge Perry, Sarah Redd, Jim Simon and Ann Tice. The Golden Trowel award is given to Master Gardeners that volunteer extra hours in one season at the Idea Garden.

Simon Rosenzweig received the Friend of Master Gardener award in recognition for his many hours of service at the Idea Garden this year.

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