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Hort in the Home Landscape

A blog devoted to sharing timely horticulture topics and answering the questions of gardeners and homeowners.

Right Conifer for the Right Location

There seems to be many calls from homeowners coming in this year about conifer problems. Likely, many of the problems are as a result of drought stress, but there are certainly some instances of disease as well.

Many of these problems can be avoided by simply choosing the right conifer species for the right location. Plants well suited to our Illinois climate will be healthier to start with, and will likely result in less money and time spent resolving various problems.

Colorado Blue Spruce (Picea pungens) is one of those conifers that doesn't really have a great location for growing in Illinois. It's much happier in places with cooler, wetter summers and moist, well-drained soils. The hot and often dry summer periods combined with heavy clay soil in Illinois are a source of significant stress on these trees. Rhizosphaeraneedle cast in particular is a disease that affects spruce trees, and Colorado blue spruce happens to be the spruce considered to be most susceptible to this disease. Other diseases like Cytospora canker and SNEED (Sudden Needle Drop) can also affect this spruce as a result of poor location choice.

Instead possibly try an Eastern White Pine (Pinus strobus). Though white pine tends to brown easily due to salt damage and winter injury, this native has many good properties. It is one of the fastest growing conifers and has only a few disease problems. White Pine prefers full to partial sunlight, well-drained conditions, and a rather loose soil that lacks clay. Avoid overly wet areas, do not water excessively and avoid planting near roads or sidewalks where salt exposure may occur.

Eastern Hemlock (Tsuga canadensis) is one of the best evergreen options for foundation plantings, groupings, screenings, and as an accent plant. What's unique about the eastern hemlock is that it is adaptable in terms of sunlight, surviving in full sun, full shade, and part shade. It prefers moist, well drained soils, and slightly acid soil. It is sensitive to prolonged periods of dryness and is not drought tolerant, so this may be your best choice for a moist location.

Norway Spruce (Picea abies) is a another versatile conifer adaptable from full sun to full shade. It is perhaps the most adaptable common evergreen tree to harsh conditions, including poor, clay, rocky, dry soils of acidic, neutral, or alkaline pH. It thrives under seasonal drought once it is established, and takes well to city pollution. Norway spruce is however susceptible to many of the same disease as the Colorado Blue Spruce.

If you need a conifer that tolerates dry sites, alkaline soils, and salt, try the Austrian Pine (Pinus nigra).Though take caution due to its susceptibility to a wide variety of diseases and insects.

Similarly, the Illinois native Eastern Red Cedar (Juniperus virginiana) prefers full sun and moist, well-drained soil, but tolerates drought, alkaline pH and salt exposure. Eastern Red Cedar is an alternate host of a fungal disease, cedar-apple rust, so it may not be desirable to plant this tree near apples and crab apples.

Bald Cypress (Taxodium distichum) differs from the previously mentioned conifers in that it is a deciduous conifer, meaning that it drops its leaves in the fall. What is great about the bald cypress is that it is adaptable to a variety of soil conditions. It is native to moist waterways, but also tolerates drier conditions. It prefers a full sun location and moist, well-drained soil, but can grow in wet sites, even shallow water.

So clearly there is no perfect conifer out there. They are all susceptible to disease and pest issues, but planting in the right location will help keep your conifers as healthy as possible. Whichever tree you decide will go well in your location, always be sure to plant more than one species of tree in a given area. I think we've learned well now from Dutch Elm Disease and the Emerald Ash Borer that it's not a good idea to plant a large number of one species of tree. Same goes for conifers. If planting a windbreak, plant more than one species!

For more information on selecting the right tree for your area, try out U of I Extension's Tree Selector Tool: Or call the Master Gardeners at your local Extension office for more information.

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