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MMWD Blog: Think Blue Marin

Welcome to our blog! Written by staff at MMWD, “Think Blue Marin” explores all things water in south and central Marin—water supplies, conservation, new projects, watershed management, and more.

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Dec 18

Conifers

Posted on December 18, 2015 at 9:46 AM by Ann Vallee

by Charlene Burgi

During the years we owned the nursery, November and early December would find us busily preparing for the once-a-year arrival of ball and burlap conifers of all types and sizes. The anticipation of their arrival left one recalling the fragrance and sense of being amidst a forest.

On the West Coast, these needled trees of various sizes and shapes are field grown (typically in Oregon). At the time of delivery, we prepared for additional planting into fiber pots with the intention many would be brought into homes for living Christmas trees.

Christmas trees of past - blue spruce planted
Christmas trees of past: Blue spruces planted on "the mound" at Lassen ranch
Norway pines, Douglas-fir, and Sitka, blue, and green spruce typically went out of the gates first with instructions on the care of these beautiful conifers. Living trees require special handling in that they are not accustomed to living next to a roaring fireplace, or a thermostat set to 70 degrees. To acclimate these trees to indoor living, first move them into the garage for a few days, before moving them into the house just a few days before the Christmas gathering. They should be moved back outdoors a day or two after Christmas with a brief layover in the garage to re-acclimate to the temperature changes.

Christmas tree of present - fir in container
And present:
Fir (Abies nordmanniana)
in its container
Many of the conifers in nurseries already come potted up in plastic containers, which frees you from handling the field-dug trees. However, if you bought a ball and burlap tree, be certain to cut the twine that is wrapped around the trunk of the tree holding the burlap in place. All too often, the twine is forgotten and it will eventually cut into the cambium layer of the tree, cutting off the food supply vessels and sending the tree into decline.

The annual delivery of ball and burlap trees also included other conifers to accent the garden. Conifers are an incredible asset to your landscape design. Many dwarf varieties fit into a small backyard. One of my favorites is the dwarf hinoki cypress (Chamaecyparis obtusa 'Nana Gracilis'). The coloration reminds me of deep green velvet. In Marin, this extremely slow growing shrub (1/2 inch of growth per year) will thrive in the shady location of your garden and attain a maximum height of three feet. Plant this beauty in well-drained soil.

Bristlecone, foxtail, and white pines (respectively: Pinus aristata, balfouriana, and albicaulis) would also come through the nursery gates at this time of the year. These trees also added to my passion for conifers. The wonderful fragrance of pine would saturate the senses when one brushed against their needles. Each pine carries its own gift. Bristlecone is known to live more than 4,500 years. I would strongly recommend visiting the Bristlecone Pine Forest in the White Mountains southeast of Bishop, California, to witness these Methuselahs. Their weathered appearance and harsh growing conditions will leave one speechless.

Conifers are a plant often overlooked in landscape plans. They are more than something to decorate once a year and cast aside. Visit your nursery or several nurseries in the coming months and find a home in the garden for these trees that are sure to bring years of joy. And remember, they can grow big. The instructions from years past still remain: They will eventually need to go into the ground. They cannot be placed in public lands! Think dwarf for your garden if there is no room for a big tree!

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