Join the Ranks of
Conifer Nuts & Cone Heads
Upon discovering the effortless rewards of dwarf conifers you’re likely to become ‘susceptible’, joining the ranks of those who’ve been bitten by the conifer bug. When you realize there is no limit to the variety of dwarf and unusual conifers, you’ll want to own a sampling… Before you know it, you’ll be seeking more, more and many more dwarf and unusual conifers; a sure sign of the affliction, earning the affectionate labels of ‘conifer nut’ and ‘cone head’.
Variety in Your Garden
Dwarf and unusual conifers come in a full range of colors from the bluest blues through all shades of green, yellows, gold, and even purple. They crawl, sprawl, creep, weep, and grow upright as pillars, pyramids, fountains and globes in sizes from small to tall and with foliage from soft to sharp. Available in all sizes, some cultivars grow only a quarter inch a year, while others grow up to a foot a year. Most do best in full sun, yet a few prefer partial shade. Besides adding beauty to your garden, a true gardener’s bonus is the minimal upkeep beyond proper planting and a bit of TLC the first year or two.
The term ‘Winter blues’ takes on a whole new meaning when you grow blue conifers in your garden. Because lone blue conifer overwhelms the landscape, design repetition justifies including many cultivars. There are many brilliant blue cedars, firs, junipers, spruce, and a few pines. You can enjoy a seasonal bonus as the blue junipers turn a plum color with the cold of winter. The blues shown here are just a small sampling of the many available – Once bitten by the conifer bug, you’ll enjoy the hunt for more.
- A Sampling of Blue Dwarf Conifers
Provide spots of sunshine throughout your garden by planting golden and yellow cultivars. When you plant golds near blues, both plants appear more brilliant.
- A Few Golden Dwarf Conifers
Though close to effortless once established, a bit of initial care protects your plants.. Because it takes a few years for the roots to develop well before there is much evidence of top growth, the initial planting and first year are critical.
With the exception of the pond cypress, conifers require good drainage. Covered in water, their roots will die in only 2-3 days. Once established, however, most conifers can survive a 3-week drought. The first year, frequent watering is necessary. Keeping the soil moist – not wet – encourages good root growth. Do not allow the soil to dry out., but remember too much water kills.
Mulching an inch to two inches keeps your plants healthier as it maintains moisture and moderates soil temperature. Plus, the few weeds that poke through are easier to pull. Pine bark mulch is an excellent choice for conifers.
Besides adding aesthetic interest to the landscape, using rocks around your plants maintains moisture, moderates soil temperature, and gives support to small conifers. Place the rocks to support the limbs of the smaller dwarf conifers, preventing breakage from accidental tromping. Dogs chasing a squirrel can play havoc with your treasures! Learning this the hard way, I immediately mended the broken limb by using masking tape & supported it with a rock. To my relief, it healed completely.
Placing rocks around the base of your plants as soon as they’re planted discourages squirrels, chipmunks, raccoons, skunks and possums from digging for grubs in the newly turned soil, uprooting your new plants in the process. Check under the rocks occasionally for voles and/or mice tunnels: They eat your plant’s roots.
- Examples Using Rocks
Although many dwarf conifers tolerate pruning quite well, it is seldom necessary. Occasionally, however, the plant attempts to return to its origin, sending out a fast-growing or larger limb. This reversion is a rogue growth that can overwhelm the dwarf habit, resulting in the whole plant reverting to standard size. Prune reversions as soon as they appear.
- Examples of Reversions (more examples soon)
Dwarf conifers grow: Some faster than others. Growth rate is an important factor when choosing your plants. While many cultivars become more attractive with age, others loose their character and charm. After about ten years many of my own dwarf conifers had grown into what I considered boring green blobs. They had grown too large to move and were blocking more interesting views. My choices were either cut them down or open them up by pruning. Because I know the bark and branch structure become more interesting with age, pruning is my first choice.
I call this ‘creative pruning’ because I never know what I’ll end up with. Most onlookers would consider it drastic pruning because it’s hard to believe it’s the same plant. I start by taking out dead and weak branches. Then I choose which branches have the most personality. I do a lot of standing back as I try to visualize the final form. The first year each dwarf conifer is pretty much in shock as they heal their wounds, showing very little growth. I do always wonder if I’ve actually killed it, as I remind myself that the alternative was to cut it down. A pleasant reward — each dwarf conifer has become an attractive specimen.
- Examples of Pruning (more examples soon)
Candling – The term ‘candle’ refers to the upright new growth at the ends of pine (Pinus) branches. On some pine candles, there is a small raspberry red male pollen cone at the tips of the new growth, further enhancing the illusion of candles.
In our Zone 5, the pines push their candles in late May, just as the spring blossoms are starting to fall. Candles are the pine’s spring show, and it is the perfect time to prune pines without damage. Most conifers respond to pruning by sending out new growth along their branches. Not so with pines. New growth emerges only from the tips of the branches. If the tip is damaged, the branch eventually dies.
- Examples of Pine Candles (available soon)
Candle Pruning Directions – Timing is important. When the candle is fully extended, but before the needles emerge, it is crisp and easy to snap clean. Grasp the candle firmly between your thumb and forefinger, then bend it until it snaps free. It is all right to remove up to ¾ of the candle. The clean break heals completely as the needles mature.
- Examples of Pine Candling (available soon)