Many homeowners in the Pacific Northwest have a love/hate relationship with coniferous plants, and especially the big coniferous trees like pine and spruce trees.
Conifers – meaning plants that produce cones – are an incredibly important part of the landscape in the PNW, contributing to the beauty and health of the natural environment and habitat for local wildlife. Trees and plants can also increase your home’s property value and even improve your mental health! But if you have conifers on your property, taking good care of them is important.
In this article, we’ll go over the definition and types of conifers, where to plant them, how to care for them, some pros and cons, and how to incorporate them into your landscaping!
What are conifers?
Simply put, conifers are a subgroup of plants that produce woody cones. Just like other plants, conifers grow from seeds. However, unlike flowering plants, a conifer’s seeds are embedded at the base of the scales in their cones. These cones, therefore, allow these plants to reproduce.
Basic Characteristics of Conifers
Conifers can vary in terms of size, taking forms that range from small shrubs to massive trees. Just like the plants themselves, their cones will also appear different in shape, size, and texture. However, regardless of size, these cone-producing trees will have a sturdy wooden stem or trunk covered in bark.
Their foliage is often described as “needle-like” and usually bears a waxy coating that helps the leaves retain water. This waxy material is why many conifer trees maintain their foliage throughout the year.
Examples of Conifers
The Pacific Northwest is dominated by large coniferous forests, and conifers play an important role in the ecosystems in city parks and neighborhoods in the region as well. The most common conifers in the PNW – referred to as “The Big Three” – are Douglas Fir, Western Red Cedar, and Western Hemlock.
Other coniferous trees that are native to the Pacific Northwest include:
- Alaska Yellow Cedar
- Common Juniper
- Engelmann Spruce
- Grand Fir
- Mountain Hemlock
- Noble Fir
- Pacific Silver Fir
- Pacific Yew
- Ponderosa Pine
- Rocky Mountain Juniper
- Shore Pine
- Sitka Spruce
- Subalpine Fir
- Western Larch
- Western Red Cedar
- Western White Pine
As previously mentioned, not all conifers are big evergreen trees. Most nurseries in the PNW also carry a variety of miniature conifers!
The Importance of Conifer Trees
Conifer trees aren’t just beautiful and mighty in appearance. They’re also essential to the healthy functioning of the local environment and ecosystem. Conifers store carbon and provide shelter and food for a variety of animals and insects. They also provide shade and noise control for humans and play a role in the economy by providing lumber, nuts, and berries.
Types of Evergreen Trees
As discussed briefly, evergreen trees and conifers often overlap in terms of species. However, these terms are unique and the differences between these groups are important to understand when it comes to properly caring for them.
An evergreen is defined as a tree or plant that maintains the green appearance and functionality of its foliage throughout the entire year, even during the winter months.
Different Types of Evergreen Trees
There are many different kinds of evergreen trees and plants, and Pacific Northwest forests are well-known for their beautiful and diverse evergreen tree species. Some common types of evergreen trees include:
- Douglas Fir
- White Spruce
- Giant Redpine
- Red Cedar
- Southern Magnolia
- Western Hemlock
- Grand Fir
Evergreen Trees vs. Coniferous Trees
Due to the protective nature of conifer leaves, many cone-producing trees are evergreens. However, not all evergreen trees are conifers.
The term “conifer” specifically refers to species that use cones to reproduce, while “evergreen” is simply a description for any tree which maintains its foliage throughout the year. For example, many broadleaf evergreens do not qualify as conifers because they reproduce via flowers instead of cones.
How to Care for Conifers
Conifers are an excellent addition to just about any landscape in the Pacific Northwest, and most nurseries carry a pretty diverse range of sizes, colors, and textures to choose from! Here’s some basic advice when it comes to caring for your coniferous trees and plants.
Watering and Fertilization
Newly planted conifers need to be thoroughly watered to encourage proper contact between the roots and the surrounding soil. For the first few weeks after planting, conifers should be checked every couple of days to check for signs of stress and watered whenever the soil feels dry to the touch.
Older, established conifers generally don’t need supplemental water at all during the rainy season, but may need to be watered occasionally during the dry summer months. Conifers aren’t heavy feeders. In general, there’s no need for fertilizer unless the soil is highly compacted. In these cases, most conifers still only need an annual application (ideally in the early spring) of general, complete fertilizer.
Conifers tend to do pretty well in most soil types. Most coniferous trees and plants prefer soil that is slightly acidic and well-drained. In general, unless there’s a problem with highly compacted soil or drainage issues, there will be a conifer suitable for most soil types and situations.
Pruning and Maintenance
Pruning is essential to keeping the coniferous trees on your property healthy and prolonging their lifespan. Regular conifer maintenance and pruning should be performed during dormancy (generally from late summer to early winter). However, dead or diseased branches should be removed as soon as possible, regardless of the season.
It’s important not to over-prune conifer trees and plants. Unlike many deciduous plants, most conifers aren’t able to re-sprout from older wood. Only prune what needs to be removed, and keep in mind many miniature/dwarf varieties don’t require any pruning.
Pest and Disease Control
Conifers can become vulnerable to diseases that impact their roots and needles as well as species of pests such as mites, caterpillars, beetles, and more.
Protecting your conifers from disease usually comes down to basic maintenance to keep them healthy and strong. If you see signs of existing problems, you can remove the affected areas and apply a specialized spray containing active ingredients such as chlorothalonil or copper to prevent the disease from spreading.
If you want to control pests, consider managing the population with natural predators such as birds. Place some bird feeders around to attract them and they may significantly reduce the impact of pests on your tree. If you prefer a more direct approach, you can also use heat applicators or low-toxicity pesticides.
Blessing Landscapes can help you!
The right type of coniferous trees and plants for your property depends on where you live, how much space you have, and the conditions in the area such as soil type, slope, irrigation, and other factors. At Blessing Landscapes, we’re certified experts in landscape design and native plants! We can help you determine the perfect combination of conifers and other plants for your property.
Let us help you transform your landscapes and keep your trees, plants, and lawns healthy now and for years to come! Call us at (503) 284-3557 or get in touch online with any questions or to discuss your project today!