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Caring For Conifers By Kathleen Franklin

Conifers are chiefly evergreen, with needles or scale leaves. They are cone-bearing trees that have evolved over hundreds of millions of years to form glorious forests that shelter an endless variety of wildlife. Conifers include pines, hemlocks, cypress, yews, junipers, fir, cedar, and spruce. Many conifers are slow growing, measured in just a few inches per year. Patience is a necessity, but the rewards are great. They are wonderfully low-maintenance trees as long as they are properly sited and planted. Just about every type of conifer likes an open, sunny location. They require consistent watering, but they aren’t crazy about heavy clay soils. Good ventilation and drainage helps prevent some of the fungal diseases that can plague conifers. Some cold-loving conifers, such as firs, hemlocks and spruces, are starting to struggle a bit in the mid-Atlantic region as we experience increasingly warm winters and even hotter summers. The best time to plant or move a coniferous tree or shrub is late summer or early fall. Conifers usually do not require heavy pruning except for those grown as formal hedges. Light pruning of most evergreens – except for pines and spruce – is best done in late winter/early spring before new growth starts. Pines and spruce should be pruned in mid-summer, after the season’s growth has been completed but before stem tissues harden off. Fertilizing should be done very sparingly; too much fertilizer will cause conifers to produce too much growth too quickly, often resulting in an excess of sap that will attract pests and diseases. Conifers typically have shallow root systems, so they appreciate mulching with composted leaves every autumn. One note about blue spruce: do not use insecticidal soap or horticultural oil on this variety of spruce. The reason it is “blue” is that it has a waxy substance that gives it its bluish-silver cast; soaps and oils will strip this wax off the needles. It’s harmless, but your “blue” spruce will be green for at least a season or two!

Next week: Starting Seeds

(c) 2006 – Kathleen Franklin, All Rights Reserved. Kathleen is a county-certified Master Gardener and a longtime employee of a local garden nursery. To ask a question or to schedule a garden consultation, contact kfranklin@potomacnet.com