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Author Interview with John Albers of Growing Conifers

Today’s blog features an interview with John Albers, the author of the just-released book Growing Conifers: The Complete Illustrated Gardening and Landscaping Guide.

1. What are the benefits of planting conifers in the garden?

Conifers are long-lived, drought-tolerant, and adaptable, and therefore are a key component of sustainable landscapes. They provide many advantages to the urban and rural environment, like taking up the greenhouse gas carbon dioxide, thus helping to combat global warming; soaking up rainfall to minimize runoff and erosion; capturing air and water pollutants year-round; and conserving energy and water. They do all this while enhancing wildlife habitats (nutritious seeds, safe roosts, and sheltered nesting sites), and nurturing our physical and mental well-being. From an aesthetic point of view, conifers add unique forms, colors, and textures to the garden that are not found in deciduous or broadleaf plants. With their many shades of green, blue, and yellow, conifers complement other plants and flowers, enhancing the beauty of the garden. Furthermore, their varied forms can serve many different garden functions, such as providing privacy, screening out unsightly views, serving as a vertical accent or low maintenance groundcover, supplying a framework for the garden, and even acting as a harmonizing agent.

2. How do I go about selecting the right conifer for the right place in the garden?

The first step in selecting your conifer is to assess the different zones of your garden, the soil type, the drainage, and the amount of sunlight. Next, learn the cultural requirements of the conifers you are considering, so you can match each conifer to the specific conditions of your planting site. The critical first step is to ensure that your chosen conifer will thrive in your microclimate. If you are not sure of the specific requirements of your conifer, ask the nursery from which you plan to purchase the conifer. Note that most conifers do best in sunny conditions with healthy, fertile soil that is slightly acidic, reasonably moist, non-salty, and with good, but not excessive drainage. However, you can find conifers that break this mold, as some prefer wet conditions while others like dry soil, and some even do well in light or dappled shade. Regardless of your garden characteristics, do your best to match your conifer to the specific site and microclimate. Also, the conifer you select should not only provide year-round interest and color, but may also provide one or more specific functions. Therefore, next decide what role you want the conifer to play in your garden. Will your conifer serve as a hedge or screen, frame a special vista, or anchor a perennial bed or shrub border? Take into consideration the conifer at mature size and its ultimate scale in relation to the chosen site and other plants in the area.

3. How do I plant and care for my conifer?

Planting a conifer at the right time is key to planting success. In mild climates the ideal time is from late fall to late winter when the soil is not frozen solid. In cold climates a more optimal time to plant may be in late summer/early fall or early spring when the soil has thawed. Although conifers in containers can potentially be successfully planted throughout the growing season, it is best to plant your conifer when it is dormant to help minimize transplant shock. Plant on cool, overcast mornings to minimize water loss from the roots. Remove your moistened conifer from the container and remove the bulk of the “soil-less” container mix from the conifer, so the feeder roots can be placed in direct contact with native soil. Dig a saucer-shaped hole nearly as deep as the root mass and about three times the root spread. Spread the roots radially over a mound in the center of the planting hole, while holding the conifer in an upright position with the trunk flare slightly above the surrounding grade. Backfill with native soil, then thoroughly water the conifer. Add three inches of coarse organic mulch around the cover to enhance moisture retention and inhibit weed germination.

Keeping your conifer healthy is the best defense against pathogens and pests. Add enough organic matter to your soil to ensure adequate water-holding capacity and facilitate mycorrhizal associations. Use integrated pest management (IPM) for the prevention, monitoring, and management of conifer pests and diseases. Regularly monitor your plants to determine the cause of any damage, try to identify the host conifer and the responsible pest, and establish a plan of action for dealing with a pest or disease problem. When necessary, take effective, timely actions, using the least-toxic method to control the problem generated by the pest. If the pest is absent, insect signs and the damage pattern can help narrow your suspects.

Winning Giveaway Question

What made you first fall in love with conifers?

Although I always liked conifers, my love for conifers blossomed as I began to develop a 4-acre sustainable botanical garden and horticultural laboratory 22 years ago. A sustainable garden endures over time without excessive expenditure of resources or maintenance, while enhancing biodiversity and creating habitat for wildlife. As conifers are long-lived, drought-tolerant, and adaptable to a wide variety of site conditions, they became a key component of this sustainable landscape. The conifers were first to be incorporated as the structural backbone of the garden and eventually became part of the multilayered plant community. The conifers serve as a screen to minimize the view of the neighboring homes, frame the view of the saltwater, foothills, and mountains, provide stunning additions to island beds and mixed borders, and serve as focal points throughout the garden, while some are used as durable groundcovers. Conifers can be used in almost any garden design and serve many different functions. Perhaps now you better understand my passion for these exceptional plants.

About the Authors

Author John J. Albers

John J. Albers is an educator for the Washington State Nursery and Landscape Association, a certified sustainable landscape professional, a former Master Gardener, and the creator of Albers Vista Gardens, which contains 1,200 different plants. Author of The Northwest Garden Manifesto, he lives in Bremerton, Washington.

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