Saturday, November 22, 2003

Pros and cons about conifers


By Beth Burwinkle
Enquirer contributor

At this time of the year, our thoughts turn to conifers. To what?

They're the Christmas trees we bring inside our homes and the evergreens that take on a starring role in our winter landscape.

To prepare us for conifer season, Richard Feist, horticulturist, plant breeder and adjunct instructor of horticulture at the University of Cincinnati and Cincinnati State Technical and Community College, answered some questions about growing and caring for conifers.

Is it a good investment to buy a live Christmas tree and plant it outside after the holidays?

That depends on the individual and the landscape conditions. Select a tree that is suitable to your yard. Some people buy live trees and donate them to parks or schools after the holidays. Most of the trees we use for Christmas trees get too large to use in most residential landscapes. For a small- to medium-size residential landscape, the Rocky Mountain Douglas fir, Serbian spruce and Black Hills spruce are good choices.

Realize that live trees and their root balls are very heavy and awkward to handle. Once it is inside your house, keep the tree in a cool room away from direct sunlight and heat registers. Make sure the root ball remains moist. Don't keep the live tree in your house more than five to seven days.

For nearly two decades Vicky and Wilfrid Scheele have been among the few Tristate farmers growing and selling organic Christmas trees - grown without pesticides - at their farm at 3152 Forrest Road in Batesville, called Will-O-Vic Farms.

They sell about 1,000 trees per year, although Vicky Scheele says many of her customers may not realize that the trees are grown organically.

The Scheeles are believers in the benefits of organics. They try to eat organic meats, fruits and vegetables. They don't use pesticides, herbicides or other chemicals on their 120-acre farm.

The advantage of an organic tree, Scheele says, is that the tree won't emit any chemicals.

"It's just grown from the nutrients in the ground," she says.

The couple sells scotch pine and white pine trees for $15.

What are some (non-Christmas tree) conifers good for planting in the average size residential landscape?

Bald cypress and dawn redwood are good deciduous conifers. If you prefer large pyramidal conifers, the Serbian spruce is great. Compact cultivars are available. Oriental Spruce and Colorado blue spruce, especially the smaller cultivar 'Globosa' are nice.

Dwarf forms of Norway spruce, 'Nidiformis' and 'Pumila' are also good.

Swiss stone pine is a super landscape pine. There are also many good cultivars of Canadian hemlock, which tolerates some shade.

False Cypress and Alaskan Cedar are excellent plants. Hinoki Falsecypress 'Filicoides' and 'Nana Gracilis' are nice small cultivars. Japanese Falsecypress 'Filifera' and 'Flilfera Aurea' are nice thread leaf forms.

You can see plants at their mature size by visiting an arboretum where the plants are labeled. Good arboretums include Mount Airy Arboretum, Spring Grove Cemetery and Arboretum and Rowe Arboretum. If you are looking for dwarf conifers, Rowe is a great place to visit.

Are there any conifers that are overused?

Yes, Alberta spruce and mugo pine. Also, blue spruce, Norway spruce and white pine grow so large that they obscure the landscapes and become a liability in the landscapes.

What conifers would you recommend for screening between properties?

Arborvitae is great. Good cultivars are readily available. 'Emerald' is tall and narrow and 'Techny' is dark green. Both grow 8 to 10 feet tall.

If you want something taller, giant arborvitae is a good choice. 'Green Giant' and 'Spring Grove' grow to about 20 feet. 'Spring Grove' is resistant to deer browsing. These plants make excellent dense screens. They do best in full sun, but also grow in part shade.

Canadian hemlock also makes a nice screen in sun and shade. It adapts well to shearing.

Should you be concerned if you see yellow needles on the evergreens in your yard?

All evergreens lose interior needles, generally in the fall. White pine is probably the most conspicuous. You'll notice the interior yellow needles just a few weeks before the general leaf drop. However, if the exterior needles are turning brown, you should contact your extension agent because your tree will need some diagnostic work.

This time of the year you can also watch for bag worm egg cases, which can be found on evergreen and deciduous trees. They are 11/2 to 2 inches long and are pointed silk-like bags. Pull them off and throw them away or burn them.

Can you offer any tips for pruning conifers?

Spruce, falsecypress and hemlock can be pruned in the spring, generally from March through May. You can do some corrective pruning in the early summer, but stop by the Fourth of July.

With pines, you can cut by half the shoots that look like candles and also prune a few branches in late April through May. You can prune or lightly shear pines from mid June through early July.

Any tips for planting?

You can plant most needled evergreens all winter. Add a 2-inch layer of mulch around the base of the tree, but don't let the mulch touch the trunk. You'll need a wide hole - two to three times the diameter of the root ball. Dig no deeper than the root ball and it is even better if you plant it slightly higher, to allow for settling. Water the tree right away and remember to monitor it next spring and summer to make sure it gets enough water.


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