Magazine article Sunset

Conifers That Won't Outgrow You

Magazine article Sunset

Conifers That Won't Outgrow You

Article excerpt

The selection of vertically challenged plants includes firs, hemlock, junipers, pines, and spruces

Much of the west is prime country for conifers, and winter is the season when we fully appreciate just how much they contribute to our landscape. But many conifers are forest giants, and growing them in your garden is like trying to keep a whale in a bathtub.

Fortunately, a group of smaller plants - the dwarf conifers - is ideally suited for home gardens. This month, many nurseries will be well stocked with these plants in 1- and 5-gallon cans. You can plant them in the ground anytime the soil is workable.

Nurseries typically classify conifers into four sizes: miniature (plants that seldom grow taller than a foot); dwarf (plants that will be between 3 and 6 feet tall in 10 years); intermediate (6 to 15 feet); and large (more than 15 feet tall).

The dwarf plants are the easiest to use in most home gardens. They stay compact and fit well into the landscape or a container. They are long-lived and relatively free of disease and pests.

When choosing conifers for your landscape, consider plant form and color. Do you want a plant that grows upright, or one that cascades or sprawls near the ground? Do you want foliage that's green, gold, or blue?

Before you dig a hole, set the plant in different places around the garden to see where it will work best. Consider the seasonal colors of neighboring plants: a 'Blue Star' juniper or a golden cedar may be a handsome focal point in a winter landscape but would look insipid in summer surrounded by pink petunias.

Most conifers grow happily in any light from full sun to partial shade. Give them rich, loose, well-drained soil. Once plants are established, they'll take summer drought in stride. Fertilize most of them lightly in spring to promote strong, healthy new growth. Pines are the exception: they generally don't like to be fertilized at all. …

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