Cutting Up The Evergreens
Author: Chad Kennedy, Landscape Architect, ASLA
Each year Mother Nature paints her leaves producing non-replicable autumn shows of brilliant shades and colors. Eventually these shows succumb to the cold north winter air leaving only the color of evergreen trees to decorate the landscape. Each year millions of Americans invite these stalwart trees into their homes. In fact, between the Thanksgiving and Christmas holidays, over 24 million evergreen coniferous trees are cut down and sold for use indoors.1 After all, there are many more of these trees thriving in our nearby outdoor environments than are ever sold for temporary decorative purposes. It seems fitting that this month's article be focused on evergreen trees in the landscape. The topic will be cut up into two discussions: misconceptions surrounding them and their myriad uses.
Misconceptions Surrounding Evergreen Trees
Evergreen does not mean less maintenance - The misconception that evergreen trees require less maintenance is likely the result of tight consistent growth patterns typical of many evergreen conifers. Though a great deal of pruning is not usually necessary, pruning is only one facet of maintenance. Irrigation management, soil maintenance, pest management and selective pruning are necessary for long-term success of horticulture evergreens. Particularly in urbanized areas, the term "maintenance free plant" is a misnomer.
Evergreen does not mean there is no leaf drop - Most people associate fall leaf drop with deciduous trees and shrubs and the fact that evergreens don't lose all their needles/leaves at once. This is the most likely reason why many believe that evergreen trees do not drop their leaves. This could not be further from the truth. A short walk through a high elevation coniferous forest would reveal layer upon layer of needles on the ground surface as a result of leaf drop. The timing and intervals may be different than typical deciduous trees, but leaf drop is still occuring.
Not all evergreen trees are pine trees - Interestingly, most people think that the Christmas trees they bring into their homes are pine trees, when in fact the top four tree species sold for this purpose in the United States are not pines at all but fir trees (Fraser, Noble, Douglas and Balsam).1 A fir tree can be deciphered from a pine tree by inspecting its needles. They will be soft and rounded rather than stiff, flat and pointy like pine needles. Furthermore if the needles are compound, short and squared or scale-like the tree isn't a pine tree at all but perhaps a redwood, spruce or cedar respectively.
Some conifers are not evergreen - Arborists are often called out to sites to remove or evaluate dying pine trees only to discover that the tree in question is either a Dawn Redwood, Bald Cypress or Larch that has dropped its leaves for the season. These trees drop their leaves similarly to deciduous trees despite their evergreen tree shape and form.
Uses of Coniferous Trees in the Landscape
Evergreen conifers are versatile and can be used for a variety of purposes in the landscape. The following are a few of the many ways they can be effectively used:
Though often lumped in to one large group, "pine trees", evergreens are quite diverse offering many interesting characteristics and features to the landscape. There are many valuable ways to incorporate them in any sized landscape, not just in the living room during the holiday season.
Many evergreens, with their vertical forms and dense foliage are very effective at screening views when properly placed. They can be used to cover unsightly views or to create security by limiting views into a space.
Many evergreens with their dense foliage create strong wind breaks that protect against soil erosion, heat loss and other wind damage.
In conjunction with other plantings, land forms and wide planting areas, evergreens are very effective components of landscape sound barriers.
Evergreen trees can be used as landmarks, tall vertical structural elements and dark backdrops for other bright and colorful landscape features.
Many evergreen trees have very distinct aromas. These aromas are so popular and desirable that they are often mimicked in commercially available home and beauty products.
Modern plant production techniques have produced dwarf evergreen species allowing designers to use them in much smaller spaces than has historically been possible.
Many parts of evergreen trees are used in decorations, crafts and flower arrangements. The cones, bows, needles and even bark are used.