How to Care for Your Growing Conifer and Evergreen Garden

By Bill Blevins

Discover the lessons learned from a conifer collector about keeping a garden of evergreens.

The conifer, Picea abies f. pendula (pendulous form of Norway spruce)
The conifer, Picea abies f. pendula (pendulous form of Norway spruce)

I planted a Metasequoia glyptostroboides (dawn redwood) seedling in my Rochester, NY, backyard in 2007. My garden sported, at the time, dozens of other, newly-planted perennials, annuals, vegetables, and trees, but the dawn redwood made an impression on me.

It grew fast and was uniformly shaped like a pyramid, with no help from pruning. I learned that it was one of only a few deciduous conifers. Dawn redwoods have an interesting history, too, and, as a result, I thought it was just perfect. That plant became my tree, and I became a conifer collector.

A Conehead's Journey!

A few years later, my wife, Tracy, and I moved to Spotsylvania, VA. We bought a house on a two-acre lot in a new subdivision. The building contractor had planted an ornamental plum tree in front of the house, along with three azaleas, four nandinas, and a holly as foundation plantings in a row below the front porch.

The front yard was in full sun, with hard-packed, fill dirt that had been bulldozed smooth, and covered with a layer of straw and grass seed. Tracy started her new shade garden in the backyard, filling the edge of the woods with her favorite plants, such as hostas, pulmonarias, hydrangeas, viburnum, and many uncommon native trees.

Whenever we went plant shopping, I kept my eye open for unusual conifers. One day I said: “Since you’re gardening in the back, I’ll handle the front.” She agreed.

Learning from a Conifer Collection

I began planting conifers in 2013 – a lot of them. Since then, I have planted hundreds of other trees and plants in my part of the yard. Today, I would guess that our garden contains about 1,800 taxa.

Here are some things I have learned as a new plant collector:

  • If you don’t have irrigation, locate plants that need a lot of water close to the house.
  • The height, width, and spacing sizes printed on plant labels are an approximation. (Here is a tip: Attend your regional American Conifer Society meeting for the conifer tours. Also, the ACS Conifer Reference Gardens are a good way to see how big conifers mightultimately get in your yard.)
  • Many botanical names and most family name printed on plant labels are either misspelled, or just wrong.
  • Home improvement big-box stores display and sell lots of plants that are not hardy in the zone where the store is located.
  • Once Japanese beetles find a plant they like, that plant is doomed to look bad 10 months of the year.
  • Roses are best planted in the yard of someone else.
  • Daylilies do not ever look good as a border plant.
  • Make drainage a top priority when planting conifers.
  • Educate yourself about rootstocks suitable for your zone before you buy grafted conifers.
  • Thoroughly check and try to fix the roots on every conifer that you plant.

I could probably list another dozen things that I’ve learned and that I could write a book about for each point above, but, after the heat and lack of rain at my house this summer, I’ve got to make some changes.

The conifers, Acer palmatum ‘Orangeola’ (Orangeola lace-leaf Japanese maple) and Picea glauca var. albertiana ‘Gold Tip’ (gold-tipped Alberta spruce) in the front yard of Bill and Tracy Blevins' garden in Spotsylvania, PA
The conifers, Acer palmatum ‘Orangeola’ (Orangeola lace-leaf Japanese maple) and Picea glauca var. albertiana ‘Gold Tip’ (gold-tipped Alberta spruce) in the front yard of Bill and Tracy Blevins' garden in Spotsylvania, PA

Watering Conifer and Evergreen Trees

I spend 75% of the time in my garden holding a hose. Due to the soil type and the layout of the beds, an irrigation system is not an option. It takes at least six hours to water my part of the yard with a hose.

This year, I’ve had to water my plants at least once a week. I water some areas in my garden two or three times per week.

Here is a shortlist of things I’ve learned while watering:

  • Watering every other day lets me see every plant frequently. I’m not expert enough yet to be able to solve the problems I find, but I can spot them early. I’ve mastered finding sawfly eggs and I was successful at getting ahead of them this year before they ate my conifers.
  • Another good thing about spending so much time with each plant is that I can make minor pruning cuts regularly, rather than being surprised and needing to make a major cut.
  • That’s about it for the benefits. Navigating three carts with a couple hundred feet of hoses through trees and around beds, while constantly disconnecting and reconnecting them, is a real pain.
  • Newly planted conifers initially require more water and, as a result, I’ve started planting annuals near them to remind me to keep them watered.
  • Once established, conifers do not require a lot of water.

Spacing Out Conifers and Evergreens

I mentioned that I initially followed the suggested spacing that is printed on my plant labels. I quickly learned that those are normally wrong for my yard. Consequently, I started to spread out my conifers when planting, which led to another problem.

I suddenly had more space between my conifers to plant something else and, so, I did. Those unusual and interesting filler plants are what I’m constantly watering, and they also require the most hands-on maintenance!

I’ve figured out that it is not conifers that require work. It’s all of the other plants!

Planting Between Conifer and Evergreen Trees

After six years, I’ve started relocating plants to make being out in the yard more enjoyable. Conifers are being spaced out appropriate to their real, eventual, and mature size. I’m starting to accumulate pollinator plants in one place.

Milkweed for the Monarch butterflies grows where I can easily mow around the bed. Lower-maintenance, ornamental grasses and bulbs are filling in the new, empty spaces between the conifers.

Hopefully, after another five years, I’ll be spending a couple of hours every other day enjoying my plants, while holding a glass of wine, rather than the end of a hose.

Or, maybe it will just rain.

Favorite Conifers

Conifers I Can’t Grow

Plants I will Never Grow Again

  • Passiflora incarnata (purple passionflower)
  • Pole beans
  • Roses
  • Iris
  • Conifers from seed

Fun, But Not Conifers

  • Aralia spinosa (devil’s walking stick)
  • Aralia cordata ‘Sun King’ (Sun King Japanese spikenard)
  • Tulipa sylvestris (wild tulip)
  • Athyrium felix-femina ‘Godzilla’ (Godzilla lady fern)
  • Oenothera glazioviana ‘Tina James’ (Tina James red-sepal evening primrose)

Photographs by Bill Blevins.

This article was originally published in the Winter 2020 issue of Conifer Quarterly. Join the American Conifer Society to access our extensive library of conifer-related articles and connect to a nationwide group of plant lovers! Become a member for only $40 a year and get discounts with our growing list of participating nurseries in our Nursery Discount Program.