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Twinkle Tree

One reason I enjoy winter so much is the sense of peace it brings to a garden. For most of the year the garden is a very busy place, with a constant stream of changes, chores, and activities.

December is the month that it really starts to feel like winter to me. As I gaze out into my garden from my warm kitchen, I always find something new about it that I haven’t enjoyed or appreciated before. It is hard to imagine that there is anything beautiful in the garden during this harsh and gray season, but if you look closely, beauty is all around us.

The evergreens are a wintertime classic. Many gardeners may never consider planting an evergreen tree or shrub if it weren’t for the winter season. Evergreen sales rise sharply each fall as the leaves begin to fall, opening the garden up in all sorts of ways.

Is it really blue?
One evergreen that is commonly recognized and requested is the Colorado spruce, Picea pungens. You will also hear it called the Colorado blue spruce, even though in many cases the foliage may not be very blue. The color can range from green to grayish- or bluish-green when you purchase a seed-propagated Colorado spruce.

I am often asked, when someone is purchasing a Colorado spruce, will it get bluer? Unfortunately, no. What you see is what you get, so if it is green when you buy and plant it, that’s the color it will remain for its entire life. Also, if you are looking at new growth it may appear blue, but then mature to a green color.

If you want a Colorado spruce that is blue, look for cultivated varieties like ‘Bakeri,’ ‘Fat Albert,’ or ‘Hoopsii.’ These vegetatively propagated varieties, or cultivars, have distinct powdery-blue colored needles and they will remain blue their whole lives.

Growing habits
As with any spruce, the growth rate is considered to be slow to medium slow. It does take a long time to get a big beautiful Colorado spruce. One advantage is that the slow growth produces a tree that is dense and uniform in shape.

The Colorado spruce can grow 30 to 60 feet tall, although in our area 20 to 40 feet seems more accurate. It is not a particularly wide plant compared to many other needled evergreens, as it grows only 10 to 20 feet wide. Many of the distinctly blue cultivars are even smaller and slower growing than regular Colorado spruce.

Spruce trees are known for their stiff habit, which comes from the four-sided, 1-inch-long needles that radiate from all around the stem. If you’ve ever bumped into one, you quickly find out how sharp or prickly a spruce can be.

Spruce trees in general like a moist but well-drained, rich soil. The Colorado spruce is known for being the most tolerant of a drought when fully established. They are best planted in full sun, but will tolerate light shade. Too much shade results in a plant that is more open, not as full, and may lose lower branches due to the shade that destroys the shape.

String of lights
The consistent stiff habit and traditional cone shape have also gotten spruce the title as the most popular tree to put twinkle lights on for the winter holidays. In fact, I would estimate that the majority of spruce trees that get planted in the fall are selected for the main purpose of having something to string lights on for the holidays.

As a child, I remember how much I enjoyed riding in the car at night from Thanksgiving to the new year because I could see everyone’s holiday lights. It’s like every child’s dream. I have even added a spruce to the front garden in some of my designs with the thought that, if a child ever lives there, they will want something for their parents to put twinkle lights on.

Because of the dominant color and habit of the Colorado spruce, it is not the easiest plant to design around or incorporate into a garden. Many of the smaller, or dwarf, varieties are easier to work with, such as ‘Montgomery’ or ‘Thume,’ which grow more like sculptures in the garden than trees. They can provide needed winter color and structure to a dormant perennial garden that would otherwise be bare for the winter.

Plan for growth
One word of caution when planting Colorado spruce or any other evergreen: always know the maximum height and width of the evergreen you are planting. Nothing is more frustrating than having to recommend removing a spruce because it was planted too close to a house, a walkway, or driveway. Pruning a spruce tree is generally not an option and is no easy chore. They do not respond well to pruning and, if pruned improperly, they can become misshapen and irregular in growth.

Even though they seem so small when you plant them doesn’t mean they are going to stay small. A little research and a tape measure go a long way when choosing that perfect spot for the spruce that will hold your twinkle lights each year. Think of proper planting as a necessity for the future and the tradition that a winter garden can bring to our homes and families.

With winter comes a new year, new opportunities, new goals to set, and new opportunities to change old gardening habits. If your garden is as much a part of your life as mine, the garden in winter is always a beautiful place.

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