Evergreening Your Yard
My favorite children’s book is a fable called The First Forest, a story about why some trees lose their leaves in winter and others don’t. It seems that in the first forest the trees got into a fight over who was the tallest. The treemaker was so saddened he punished the trees that took part in the brawl by making them shed their leaves each winter, while those that did not fight were allowed to remain evergreen.
Nothing is more spectacular on a cold winter day than the sight of strong evergreens covered with snow, and they are by far the favorite tree for holiday lights. But selecting the right evergreen to plant in your yard presents an intimidating array of choices. Here are some tips:
Plenty of pine choices
Pine is probably the most diverse group, with sizes ranging from compact to more than 75 feet tall. The most common is the Eastern white pine, Pinus strobus. The soft texture of this pine is an excellent complement to the ridged winter garden. It can grow up to 80 feet tall and 30 to 40 feet wide, so give it room to grow.
It’s a popular tree but prefers acidic, moist, well-drained soils, making it difficult to establish in some parts of Kentucky. And it’s much too wide for a small yard; for a more compact alternative, look for Columnar white pine, Pinus strobus Fastigiata.
The Swiss stone pine, Pinus cembra, is considered one of the best specimen evergreens commonly available throughout Kentucky. It has a dense, uniform, narrow habit, growing only 15 to 20 feet wide and up to 40 feet tall. This slow-growing pine is great for smaller yards or areas with narrow locations for planting.
The more unusual Japanese red pine, Pinus densiflora, called Oculus-draconis or Dragon’s-Eye pine, has two yellow bands on each needle, making it particularly attractive in fall and winter. This adaptable species has more of an open shape and can grow wider than it is tall. The bark becomes orange, similar to Scotch pine, and exfoliates with age.
Spruces are prized for their strong pyramidal shape and slow growth habit. When mentioning a spruce, the color blue immediately comes to mind but not all spruces are blue; in fact, most are green. Spruces tend to have a shallow, spreading root system, making even large specimens easy to transplant, but this characteristic also makes them unsuitable for extremely dry, hot areas. Just as with pines there are many sizes and types available.
The Colorado spruce, Picea pungens, is widely available throughout Kentucky. Seedling-grown nursery stock can range in color from green to bluish-silver.
I am often asked, “What can I do to make my spruce turn blue?” Unfortunately you can’t change a green spruce to a blue one. If you want a blue Colorado spruce, I recommend buying a named cultivar like Hoopsii, Bakeri, or Fat Albert. These plants are vegetatively propagated so what you see is what you get. For example, Picea pungens Koester Colorado spruce has reliable silver-blue needle color.
The ideal white fir
One of the largest and most commonly planted spruce is the Norway spruce, Picea abies. When found growing natively, this spruce can easily reach 60 to 75 feet high with a spread of 25 to 30 feet. Like white pine it needs room to grow. There are also several weeping or pendulous forms available. They will have a slightly different shape, depending on how they were pruned in the nursery. It is definitely a plant that you have to personally pick out to fit in with the character of your garden.
An evergreen that is frequently identified as a spruce but is not is white fir, Abies concolor. It is considered the best fir for our area because it readily adapts to heat, drought, and cold equally well. It also has a strong pyramidal growth habit and has an overall silvery-blue appearance. It can grow up to 100 feet tall and 30 to 50 feet wide.
Beware of Frasier firs
Another popular Christmas tree sold in Kentucky is the Frasier fir, Abies fraser. It is indeed a beautiful evergreen in the right area.
Unfortunately, Kentucky is not that area. It suffers badly under our hot dry summers. It is best grown in the mountainous regions of the Carolinas, Tennessee, and Georgia. Our closest substitute would be Nordmann fir, Abies nordmanniana. It forms a dense, uniform pyramid with dark-green foliage. It is more adaptable than Frasier but can be difficult to find.