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How Does Your Garden Grow? Conifers for the home landscape

Fat Albert spruce
Fat Albert spruce

In mid-summer, many of our evergreens have naturally repaired themselves or have been pruned to correct any damage they incurred during the winter. Perhaps you are tired of what you have and want to change things a bit. Whatever your motive, the purpose of this column is to help you decide what coniferous plants are available and appropriate for your property.

The “cone bearers” include the pines, firs, spruces, yews, hemlocks, cypresses, junipers, the tall coastal redwoods of California plus the largest living things, the giant sequoias.

Botanically, these plants are classified as gymnosperms because of their naked seeds formed in cones. This method of reproduction preceded flowers evolving during the Permian period which is famous for its dinosaurs and oil deposits.

Known as evergreens, they have needle or scale-like leaves. None are really evergreen as they shed and replace their needles.

There are two Illinois species of needled trees that are deciduous. They are the larch and the bald cypress.

So, let’s go shopping!

The hard-working conifers are planted as shelter belts/windbreaks, privacy screens, home and garden focal points and wildlife shelters.

They provide seasonal color in winter landscapes and are the stars at Christmas time.

Trees to consider would be Fat Albert spruce, Norway spruce, concolor fir, bald cypress and Dawn redwood. Emerald Green Eastern arborvitae makes a dandy screen of four-season backdrop.

Some folks like the look of the weeping Norway spruce or concolor fir. These always are a topic of conversation in the home garden.

On the smaller ornamental side of things, consider Kalley’s, Hetz Chinese or Blue Rug junipers.

Mugo pine has graceful, pendulous branches. Proper selection of cultivars whether regular, dwarf or miniature will maintain a true shrub size that you will be satisfied with.

Austrian and Scots pine are not recommended as their life often is cut short by the pine needle nematode worm. The widely planted Colorado Blue spruce often disappoints the homeowner after 15+ years of looking good when two fungal diseases tend to infect them.

You may have noticed that the Eastern White pine has been left out even though it is fast-growing and native to the Midwest. This is because this beautiful tree does OK in town where the wind is softened; however, it suffers from a burning effect when used as a windbreak in the country.

Douglas fir also is absent because it is readily damaged by winds and has significant insect and disease concerns. The above two examples are why it pays to obtain as much information as you can when purchasing conifers.

Several things to consider when selecting conifers for your home or farm landscape are use/purpose, ultimate size, shape, color, texture and the conditions the plant needs to grow.

I recommend you buy from local nursery businesses. Many of these plants are expensive and the people in the business know what works and what won’t. It pays to take their expert advice.

• The Master Gardeners are available to answer questions from 9 a.m. to noon Monday through Friday at the University of Illinois Extension DeKalb County office location in the Farm Bureau Center for Agriculture, 1350 W. Prairie Drive in Sycamore. Call 815-758-8194 or email

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