Gardeners in the Know…It’s Conifer Time

11/14/2012 | Ken Lain, mountain gardener Trees, Uncategorized

Conifers are those evergreen plants that have needles for leaves. Spruce, cypress, cedar, arborvitae, and the local pine are all conifers. They are harvested in October for shipping to retailers, so the largest selection of sizes and varieties is at garden centers in November. Anticipating the holiday shopping rush ahead, gardeners “in the know” pick from the best of the conifers by shopping for them early. This is so whether shopping for an addition to a landscape or for use as decoration.

The 20% rule pertains to plants as they are harvested from the fields. The first 20% just look better; they are more shapely, and richer in color. This 20%, the best of the crops, go fast so that by the second weekend of the holiday shopping season the perfect evergreen becomes harder to find. The secret is to buy before the post-Thanksgiving rush. Even if you’re not quite ready for your holiday greens, buy them now and hold them until you are ready to use them.

Today’s column is written with this conifer timing in mind, and to highlight some unusual evergreen choices that may be new to some of you. All of the plants prefer cold weather planting in the higher elevations of Arizona. First, let’s cover the plant of the week which is an evergreen, but isn’t related to the conifer recommendations that follow.

Sienna Sunrise Nandina – Our late summer into early fall growing season was perfect for producing really nice nandinas. Come spring Sienna Sunrise has clusters of white flowers with intense fiery red foliage that cools to lush green in summer. Its brilliant red highlights reappear from now through winter. The perfect shrub for high profile accents or nooks in architecture, it’s the consummate foundation plant that won’t outgrow its allotted space. It adds pizzazz in shade gardens and it particularly beautiful in classic glazed ceramic pots. Plant it in fall and enjoy the drama from this evergreen right through winter. Sienna Sunrise is offered in varying sizes, but a lot of plant can be bought for under $30.

Now, for the most popular, the truest blues, and some surprising new conifer varieties: Fat Albert Blue Spruce, with a striking silver blue color, is undisputedly the most popular fir. Cousin to the Colorado spruce without the huge stature, Fat Albert often is referred to as the ‘Christmas Tree’ variety and deservedly so. Its perfect holiday shape presents branch layers that are easy to lace with ornaments.

Giant Sequoia is the largest tree growing on the courthouse grounds in Prescott. Visitors don’t even see this tree because it is so tall. Buy it when it is small and easy to plant as a great accent tree at the back of the landscape or to define a property line. Once established it takes little care, little water, and no pruning or shaping. Just give it room to grow up, up, and away!

Wichita Blue Juniper is my personal favorite for a small silvery blue conifer good for lining a driveway or in containers flanking steps at the front door. All junipers grow naturally in the mountains, but this one has an almost tidy appearance that won’t outgrow its space. Plant in a good-sized clay container and you could use this variety as a Christmas tree for many years to come. Absolutely beautiful when Christmas lights are added.

The Noble fir is the most desirable cut Christmas tree in December, but the tree itself will not grow in Arizona. Fortunately, its close relative the Concolor Fir, grows wild throughout the mountains all around us, and once established in a landscape, requires virtually no care to keep its good looks. With the softest needles of any conifer this tree almost begs to be hugged. The thick needles retain moisture making this fir very drought hardy, but pleasing to the eye. Like the sequoia, this tree grows very tall so give it a lot of space.

Any artist would love the Hinoki False Cypress as a yard accent. This unusual tree has a great shape and an intense green color with very uncommon conifer foliage. A tall central leader heads up from the ground with unusual fan-shaped branches protruding at all angles. The shape is so extraordinary that it begs to be placed as the centerpiece of an ornamental garden, the anchor of a raised bed, or simply as a stand-alone plant in a jade green glazed container. Gardeners who have “seen it all” are surprised and awestruck when they first see this cypress.

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You’re invited to join in on the Facebook fun, where you can share some gardening inspiration or simply follow the happenings of the local garden scene. Free mums were given away to the fans of my Facebook page who were first to identify the most common and misunderstood of all our native perennials. I plan to come up with other garden I.D. games for fun and education. If you’re on Facebook join the fun at . Who knows, you just might be the winner of the next free plant!

Until next week, I’ll see you at the garden center.