Although ‘fir’ is a name often given to any tall tree with needles that looks roughly like a Christmas tree, it is actually a particular type of tall tree, which grows all across the northern countries of the world, form North America, through Europe and across into China and Japan. They are important forest trees, often covering hundreds of square miles with the same tree, creating valuable ecosystems. In gardens they are popular evergreens, and as well as the natural trees there are many garden forms, with different foliage coloring, different shapes and often smaller growth for smaller spaces. For easy growth, especially in colder parts of the country, they are wonderful for screening, as lawn specimens, or in their special forms as interesting specimens to use in your garden and bring a unique touch. They are easy to grow, tough and undemanding, so when looking for evergreen trees, consider the fir tree.
Using Fir Trees on Your Property
One important use of Fir Trees is for screening. A row of these handsome trees will soon become an attractive barrier that is green and protective all year round. They can be planted alone, or you can add other trees and shrubs to create a full wind-break, of you have room. This will totally protect your property, giving you privacy and a beautiful garden.
Usually Fir Trees as screening will be allowed to grow naturally, but you may be surprised to learn that they can also be trimmed into a tight hedge. This is an interesting alternative to more common plants such as arborvitae or cedar, and gives you a different look, with options for foliage colors other than green.
Fir Trees are also often planted in lawns as specimens. They have a beautiful symmetrical structure and grow with a strong central stem and radiating branches. Many are fast-growing too, so you won’t wait long for a beautiful tree to develop. Remember to allow enough room for the branches to spread out, as you don’t want to spoil the form by trimming. A Fir Tree in a lawn is also a great Christmas tree for the holiday season, and it can be decorated with lights to spread joy to everyone who sees it.
Some of the special forms of Fir Trees are smaller, and they can be used in garden beds for their interesting foliage, hardiness and winter color. Most grow well in sunny spots, and often enjoy rocky places where other plants may not do so well. Add some other evergreens in different colors and shapes, and you have the perfect low-maintenance garden interest all year round.
Appearance of Fir Trees
Fir Trees look very like the more well-known spruce trees, such as the popular blue spruce seen in many gardens, but they can easily be recognized as different. The needles (leaves) of fir trees are normally arranged in two rows down either side of the stem, instead of growing all the way round. They are flat and they have two white stripes on the underside. As well, the cones usually stand upright on the stems, rather than hanging down as they do in spruce and most other evergreens. They also do this in the true Cedars (Cedrus), but in those trees the needles are wrapped around the stem and not in two rows.
Almost all Fir Trees have a single central trunk. From this trunk branches radiate outwards in all directions, more or less horizontal, creating a layered look with the lowest layers being the widest. The needles remain in place for several years, and the lower branches will also stay for many years, especially if there is room for them, and if the tree is growing in full sun. Eventually lower branches will stop growing, so that older trees develop a trunk. If you want to, you can speed this process up by removing the lowest branches as the tree grows, to allow clearance for a car, or a pathway, for example.
The foliage of a Fir Tree is evergreen, so your tree is always attractive every day of the year. The needles may be long and soft, or shorter and stiff. The often have a notch at the end, rather than a point, and they are quite flat, not rounded. The color may be all shades of green, as well as blue or gold, depending on the species and variety of tree. The cones are often large, as much as 10 inches tall, and they look wonderful standing proudly up along the branches. They are often green, turning brown as they mature, but they can also be exciting colors of purple or blue, and very dark. They are often a very attractive feature of these trees.
Fir Tree Hardiness and Growing Conditions
Some Fir Trees are very hardy, into at least zone 3, such as the Colorado White Fir. Most are hardy to zone 4, but a few, like the Spanish Fir, as hardy only to zone 6. So almost wherever you live there is a Fir Tree you can grow, and for hotter areas they are often better choices than spruce trees, which do best in cold climates.
Fir Trees mostly prefer well-drained soil, and often grow well in gravels and sands, making them perfect for poor soil and difficult environments. They also grow easily and well in ordinary garden soils, but they are not often an ideal choice for heavy clay soils, when spruce may do better. They only very rarely suffer from any pests or diseases, and they need no special care to grow well, and little or no maintenance work is needed once they are established – a great tree for busy gardeners.
Planting Fir Trees
Choose a well-drained location for planting. A slope or a high area is a better choice than a low-lying part of the garden. To avoid any future problems with circling roots, remember to cut through the roots that wrap around the bottom or sides of the pot. A cross-cut on the bottom, about 1 inch deep, and three or four similar cuts from top to bottom down the sides will encourage the roots to grow outwards, seeking water and nutrients. When planting, make sure you water thoroughly, and that the water goes right down into the root ball. Water regularly, at least weekly, for the first growing season, and in the early years, to encourage good growth.
If you see two equal branches growing vertically upwards (this central stem is called the leader), remove one, so that you have a single strong central trunk, not two separate ones, which can weaken the tree in the future. You can prune or trim to develop a denser growth if you wish to. Cut the new shoots in half once they have fully opened and are beginning to mature. This will encourage a dense and attractive appearance, but it is not necessary for good growth.
Types of Fir Trees
There are about 50 different wild species of Fir Trees, but only a few are regularly grown in gardens. Some of the most popular species and varieties are:
Colorado White Fir – Abies Concolor
This tree grows wild on mountain slopes of the western USA, in the southern Cascades and Sierra Mountains. It also grows in the Rocky Mountains from southern Idaho to Arizona and into New Mexico. This beautiful tree is hardy to zone 3 and grows well all the way into zone 7. It grows best in moist but well-drained soil, and becomes a tall tree, at least 40 feet tall, and one day over 100 feet tall. It will spread 20 feet or more across, so allow room for this magnificent specimen. The lovely blue-green foliage is very distinctive, and softer than spruce needles. The large cones, which are fat and purple, are a major feature, and look fabulous lined out along the branches. In colder regions this tree is a real ‘must have’.
Korean Fir – Abies Koreana
Fir Trees are also found in Asia, and one of the most attractive for gardens is the Korean Fir. This is a smaller tree, growing perhaps to 40 feet tall, and it has several attractive dwarf forms which are especially good for small gardens. The best is definitely the Silver Curls Korean Fir, Abies koreana ‘Horstmann’s Silberlocke’. This has silver-frosted needles, and beautiful purple cones that develop even on young trees. It grows between 6 and 12 feet tall and just a few feet across, so it is perfect for even the smallest garden. It will also grow in some shade, which is unusual for a Fir Tree, so it can be grown in almost any garden – a real winner.
Spanish Fir – Abies Pinsapo
This popular European Fir Tree is not grown as much as it should be. It grows well in warm zones, from zone 6 to 9, and makes a very beautiful tree in those areas. The needles grow all the way around the stems, so it looks a little different to other Fir Trees. It is not often available, and if you live in a warm area, and love Fir Trees, then this is the one. The blue-needles form, called Blue Spanish Fir (Abies pinsapo ‘Glauca’) is the replacement for a blue spruce in the hottest states, and looks fabulous on a large lawn.
It is easy to grow, and fast-growing too. An even rarer and very beautiful form is the Golden Spanish Fir (Abies pinsapo ‘Aurea’). This is a small tree, between 12 and 25 feet tall in time, and the needles are bright yellow, the color of buttermilk, in spring, turning darker over summer. In warm climates they stay golden all year round. This striking tree makes an eye-catching addition to a smaller garden.
Balsam Fir – Abies Balsamea
This is one of the hardiest Fir Trees, growing well in zone 3, and it does best in cold areas, growing throughout the north-east and in Canada. It is grown commercially for Christmas Trees, because the needles don’t drop off quickly, and cut trees stay beautiful indoors for weeks. It will grow in almost any soil, from wet to dry, and it has beautifully scented foliage. A great tree for the cottage if you live in the north.
Sacred Fir – Abies Religiosa
We mention this fir not for gardens, but because it is the winter home of the Monarch Butterfly, which migrates thousands of miles into Mexico, where millions of them spend the winter hanging on this tree – amazing!