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Let’s Talk More About Trees: Conifers

By: Joan Bergsund Master Gardener

Most of our deciduous trees have shed their leaves for the season. Some, like the liquidamber (Sweet Gum) and Chinese pistache (Pistacia chinensis), put on a brilliant show of color as they bid farewell to autumn. Equally spectacular were the yellow groves of Aspen (Populus) in the high country, and the bronzy hue of our large population of Black Oaks (Quercus kelloggii). These colors seem to glow in the late fall sunshine, reminding us once again that nature is on the march.

We can now turn our attention to evergreens and conifers for the winter season. With the exception of incense cedars (Calocedrus decurrens) this year, most conifers have survived our blistering summer heat. We received many calls about incense cedars which have been browning off, and experiencing die-back in the canopies. As usual, there is no single factor to blame, but we can point to a combination of conditions that stress the trees and make them susceptible to the fungus seiridium canker. Droughts, followed by a late freeze and, as in this year, a long, cool, damp spring with drenching rains seem to set the stage for problems. Pathologists at the California Department of Forestry and Fire Protection (CDF) as well as U.C. Davis have identified the fungus, and expressed concern for the cedars ranging from the Sierra Nevada up into Oregon and Washington. Larger trees, with well-established root systems, seem to weather these conditions, while small trees in groups, competing for the same water and nutrients, are the ones to fail. If you can identify a sunken canker, prune out the nearby branches and twigs. The fungus spreads by wind blown spores on wet foliage and branches, and can probably infect other trees besides the incense cedar.

Let us move on, however, to the happier topic of seasonal use of evergreens. When you plan your holiday decorations you´ll probably be purchasing a Christmas tree, a festive wreath, or perhaps some garlands for the mantle. There are many forms of evergreens and conifers offered for the holiday season. And don´t forget the delightful variety of cones these trees display.

Many people have turned to a living tree, in preference to the cut tree. The nurseries already have them in stock. With care, these trees can stand the warmth of your home for a short period of time before being planted in the garden. Imagine a series of small evergreens about your garden that represent a number of holiday celebrations. I like the picture

Another approach is to visit one of the several Christmas tree farms in Tuolumne County. Here you can select the perfect tree, cut it down and haul it out—a great old-fashioned experience for families with small children. Don´t forget the hot chocolate.

Do you have an evergreen in your yard that you plan to remove? Sometimes a tree is just not in the right spot, no matter how hard we try to incorporate it into the overall design. For the holidays, try lopping off the top 6, 8 or 10 feet, to serve as the Christmas tree. Then you can remove the rest of the tree without total guilt. We did this with some feeble looking grey pines (Pinus sabiniana) for several years. Adorned with tiny lights and the accumulation of family ornaments each tree made a happy statement, although a different one. My grandson said, “Grandma, your tree is weird!”

I have a group of Deodar Cedars that were planted too close together. In a 1-gallon can you can´t imagine the eventual height. I anticipate thinning out this grove before too long. What lovely Christmas trees they will make. If we can turn the mistakes we make in the garden into positive statements, all is not lost.

A word must be said for those who have given up the hassle of the living greens in favor of the (dare I say it) artificial tree. These man-made specimens look more realistic each year with improved technology, and some even come sprinkled with tiny lights. No more struggling with the tangled web of lights. One could argue it also saves one tree in the woods.

So enjoy our wide range of evergreens and conifers through the winter months. For your holiday decorations, the choice is yours. See you in the garden.

Joan Bergsund is a Master Gardener who gets caught up in the holiday fervor each year, using fresh greens throughout the house. Her tree is a delightful little table model, complete with lights, that her grandchildren decorate with small ornaments during their Thanksgiving visit.