Choosing a Conifer for Year Round Interest

Choosing a Conifer for Year Round Interest

Part of Ep. 501 Planning Ahead

Enhance your landscape by giving it life and color during the long winter months.  Dr. Ed Hasselkus introduces us to varieties of dwarf  and full size conifers that do well in the Wisconsin climate.

Premiere date: Feb 28, 1997

TRANSCRIPT+
Wisc Gardener Transcript: 

Shelley:
I'm at the UW-Madison Arboretum with Professor Emeritus of Horticulture, Dr. Ed Hasselkus, to shop for an evergreen. Ed, there's snow on the ground, the ground is frozen and it's cold out here. Why would we be shopping for an evergreen now?

Ed:
With these long Wisconsin winters, Shelley, when we select landscape plants, it's the conifers that give us life and color in the winter landscape.

Shelley:
So, it's a good time to see how it would hold up against the snow in our own yard.

Ed:
Yes. And so, we're standing in front a mature Scots Pine, and do you happen to notice anything special about it Shelley?

Shelley:
Yeah, it has a very strange growth, right there. What is that?

Ed:
We call it a "witch's broom." A witch's broom is really a bud sport that happens spontaneously.

Shelley:
Like a mutation?

Ed:
Sort of like a mutation, and it results in this sort of congested mass of twigs. This is where we get dwarf conifers from. Now, to propagate this witch's broom, we might take cuttings or ???? and propagate them vegetatively. The offspring will look exactly like the witch's broom.

Shelley:
Miniatures, then.

Ed:
Exactly. Now, if it happens to produce cones, and the cones have viable seeds, we might collect those seeds. We'd sew them out and there, the offspring will vary from looking like the witch's broom, some will be normal, some will be in between, maybe even miniature. So, we can get an array of different types in that way.

Shelley:
And this is where all dwarf conifers come from, is this type of mutation?

Ed:
Yes, that's right.

Shelley:
Could we look at how some of them work in the landscape?

Ed:
Yes. Shelley, here's an example of the dwarf form of the Scots Pine. It has the unpronounceable name of "Beuvronensis," so we'll call it the Dwarf Scots Pine.

Shelley:
Good idea.

Ed:
It's about 20 years old.

Shelley:
So, it's at its full size.

Ed:
Yes. And it's very, very dense. It's a good garden kind of conifer. This requires very little care because dwarf conifers don't put on much growth. The pruning is almost-- not really important.

Shelley:
It's an excellent low-maintenance plant.

Ed:
Yes. One of the maintenance procedures, though, that is required, is to reach in there and pull out the dead accumulated needles. That tends to interfere with air movement through the plant and may result with disease problems.

Shelley:
So, we're just improving the air circulation by taking the stuff out of there. Do we have to worry about the heavy snow load on these?

Ed:
Actually, I've never seen any winter injury from snow load or ice load. So, it's not something that we have to worry about with these pines.

Shelley:
Now, you said there are other kinds of dwarf conifers.

Ed:
Let's look at a couple of other of examples, a spruce now. Here, Shelley, we see the normal Norway Spruce, with large cones on it. And, here, up close, we see the Nest Norway Spruce, one of the most popular dwarf forms of that species.

Shelley:
It's incredible how delicate even the needles are on this compared to the full-sized one.

Ed:
It does have a depression here in the center, hence the name, Nest Norway Spruce. As we look at this 20-year-old plant, it's perhaps about two and a half feet tall and about three and a half feet in spread.

Shelley:
It's very delicate looking.

Ed:
And now, in terms of care, spruces require a little more moisture than the pines, so mulching is important to retain the soil moisture. Also, these dwarf conifers are not very competitive with weeds, so mulching is a good idea there, too.

Shelley:
So, really, other than mulching, there is very little to do with these.

Ed:
One of the great advantages of dwarf conifers. We have one more to look at, a fir in this case. Shelley, behind us is a full-scale white or concolored fir. And then, before us here, we have the compact white or concolored fir, about a 20-year-old plant that was derived from a witch's broom, again.

Shelley:
Beautiful color on these needles, it's very striking.

Ed:
They're bright blue and upturned-- a nice textural quality. This is taller than the other plants we've looked at. Instead of dwarf conifers, maybe a better term would be garden conifers. Conifers that are in scale with residential landscapes.

Shelley:
So, these are going to fit a lot easier, for most of us, than the full sizes.

Ed:
Yes.

Shelley:
Thanks, Ed. All the trees we've talked about grow in full sun, anywhere in Wisconsin.

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