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Conifers In the Winter Landscape

Growing evergreens takes planning, care … and water.

Snowy ConiferOur latest cold snap here in Bozeman is breaking and the forecast says that tomorrow the temperature will rise above freezing for the first time in, well, I don’t even want to think about it. As winter sets in more than a month before its calendar arrival, it reminds us how much we love evergreens. With the leaves dead and mostly gone from the deciduous trees, we never lack in our favorite color. Luckily conifers of all types keep us in green through the long winter.

We in the West love our pines and firs and spruce and junipers. Not only are there native varieties to plant, but grafted or otherwise naturally altered evergreens will also do well in cold and colder environments.The native conifers tend to be water-wise plants, able to exist in your natural xeriscape. Many are appropriate for planting on inclines and side hills where drainage is good. That’s because they can get by on less water.

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There are so many shapes, sizes and types of evergreens that they give landscapers a myriad of options. Dwarf conifers are cherished for their unique shapes and ability not to tower over everything else. They are placed both as background and accents in landscape designs. Some are cultivated and pruned like bonsai.

Because they don’t lose their leaves, er, needles (except for the larch), evergreens can serve year-round duty as privacy screens. They’re a good choice for your hedges. A single fir tree in your front yard, attractive all year long, takes on a special glow this time of year as you and your neighbors string them with holiday lights.

Planting season is over for most folks. Evergreen shrubs and trees, like spring-flowering bulbs, are best planted in the fall four to five weeks ahead of the ground freezing solid. This gives them a chance to send down roots and establish themselves before everything goes solid. If you live in a more temperate zone, you can get away with planting conifers appropriate to your climate right up until the new year. Some trees, again like bulbs, need a good dormant period caused by the cold.

For all the above reasons, it’s a good idea to check with your nurseryman, your neighbors, and the local extension service or master gardeners program to get advice on exactly which conifer to plant. Your elevation is as important to consider as well as available moisture, soil type, and sunlight needs. Almost all conifers do well in full sunlight. But their moisture and soil requirements can vary drastically. The always reliable Colorado State University Extension site has a good guide on the care and selection of evergreens here.

While all growing conditions are important, it’s moisture — both lack and abundance — that most contributes to “conifer dieback” (PDF). Certainly there are other reasons for “site stress” — compacted soils and extreme pH levels, among them — but providing just enough moisture, lots or a little, is critical. You can help maintain even moisture by laying two or three inches of mulch — wood chips and bark always look good under a tree — around the base. But don’t pile the mulch right up against the trunk. This delivers any pests that are lurking direct entry to the tree bark. Instead leaving five or six inches between the trunk and the mulch should frustrate any larvae that spends the winter in litter, PDF — or beauty bark — around the base of the tree.

And speaking of moisture: just because we’ve had a good solid freeze doesn’t mean the care of our conifers is over until spring. Take advantage of any warm spell to water your evergreens. This will help the tree’s roots stay strong and keep the tree in shape to resist disease and pests come spring. Don’t water your plants if there’s still snow cover. But absolutely water when winds and low humidity make it imperative. Your beautiful conifers will reward you with stronger growth and continuous health.

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One Response to “Conifers In the Winter Landscape”

  1. Hanna Daniels on November 18th, 2014 at 5:51 am #

    That’s really useful and informative post! You gave me a lot of ideas for my trees. I wasn’t sure if I have to water them, thank you for the advice!