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It’s Plant a Pine Tree Time

April 30, 2018

Written by Dave G.

Spring is the big season in the garden, and this is when we all go out and look at our gardens, to see what we can grow that will make them more beautiful. Evergreens are popular choices for easy-care gardening, and pines trees stand out for their very different appearance, and suitability for many different areas. Pines have a special kind of beauty, and their soft needles sigh in the wind. They don’t have the rigid look of many other evergreens, and they give us the opportunity to give a more casual and artistic look to our gardens. Pine trees are a diverse group, and with many unusual garden forms available too, there are pine trees for every size garden, and for all climates. So here is a selection of trees for different purposes and areas – but first some general pointers about growing pines in any garden.

What Conditions do Pine Trees Like?

There are pines adapted to cold areas, and ones that do best in hot places, but most pines have a few things in common. They grow best in sandy soils – ones that are well-drained and neutral to acidic. Some, like the Austrian Pine, are tough and will grow in most places, but if you have sandy soil, then pine trees will love you. Many grow in rocky, poor soil too, so if that sounds like you, choose a pine tree.

Pines are more sensitive than many other trees to being planted too deep, so its important to plant only to the depth your tree is in the pot. When planting, don’t dig a deep hole, dig a wide, shallow one, so that after you plant the tree will not accidentally sink deeper into the soft ground. Pine needles make the best mulch – they will do this naturally after a few years – so if you can find some under other trees, use that. Never put mulch of any kind near the trunk – keep a space of several inches clear around it. Fertilizer for evergreens can be useful in the early years, but after a while your tree will need no special care. Pruning is not necessary either, just remove any branches that might die, cutting close to the trunk, but leaving the thickened collar of bark around the base of the branch uncut.

Pines for Cold Areas

Gardeners in colder zones have fewer choices for trees, but there are several pines that grow extremely well in colder places. Eastern White Pine, Pinus strobus, is at the top of the list if you live in the north-east. This beautiful native pine grows from Maine to Virginia, and all around the Great Lakes. It is often seen on rocky shores, perhaps even with a bird-of-prey perching on top. If you have a larger garden, then you can’t grow wrong planting this tree, but if you have a smaller garden, you can still grow it in several dwarf forms. The Dwarf White Pine and the Weeping White Pine are both beautiful shrubby trees, and that weeping form is perfect to cascade down a slope or over a wall – a thing of true beauty.

Another popular dwarf pine is the Mugo Pine, Pinus mugo. This European pine tree is widely grown for its lovely compact form, and it makes a broad mound that can in time be several feet tall, and even more across. It is easily grown in almost every garden, and it is hardy down to zone 2. Look out for a very special form – Carstens’ Wintergold, which turns strongly golden in the colder months, brightening the garden during those dull days.

Pines for Hot Areas

Gardeners in the south and west can also easily find pine trees that love the heat, that and are very drought tolerant too. One of the very best is the Longleaf Pine, Pinus palustris, which also has the virtue of being a native tree – and one that need restoring to its previous abundance. If you live in the south-east, choose this pine tree, which is fast-growing, drought-resistant, and salt-resistant too. It has unusually long needles, attractive silver winter buds, and quickly forms a graceful, open tree with a special charm.

Another pine that grows in hot areas is also unusual for growing in wet ground too – the Loblolly Pine, Pinus taeda. This pine will add 2 feet every year while young, so you will soon have a large tree for a screen or background. It thrives in heat and humidity, so if that sounds like you, this pine is a great choice.

Asian Pines

We all admire those beautiful Japanese gardens, with their picturesque pine trees, but those pines will grow in most parts of America too. If you are ambitious you can even train them into niwaki, those trees like full-sized bonsai that you see in Japan. Even if you don’t do that, a Japanese Black Pine, Pinus thunbergii, or a Japanese White Pine, Pinus parviflora, are great choices for both Asian-style gardens, or any garden really. Black Pine is the best choice for hotter, coastal areas, and White Pine in cooler regions, so as long as you live in zone 5 or warmer, you can grow your very own Asian pine tree. If you are a bonsai enthusiast, both these trees are classic subject for bonsai, and even when young have a rugged and attractive look.

If you have a smaller space, then a fantastic choice is the Kotobuki Japanese Black Pine, which is a rare upright-growing dwarf form. It grows just a few feet tall, and can easily be trained into an artistic form, bringing great character to your tranquil space.

Keeping Pine Trees Small

There is a secret to keeping dwarf pines, and even larger ones, smaller and denser. Gardeners say they are going to ‘candle’ their tree, and it is this technique that develops those dense Mugo Pines you see, and those exotic Japanese Pines too. With this easy technique you can keep any pine tree much smaller, and also train it to have a more interesting form. Here is what to do.

In spring you will see your pines pushing up new shoots. These grow upright and tall, and for a while the needles stay very short. These are the ‘candles’ and you can pinch them back at this stage to be as short as you want. Snap them off by hand, while they are young, so you don’t damage the baby needles. Leave at least ½ an inch of new growth, but you can leave as much as you want –the more you take, the more compact your pine will become. The needles will expand, and instead of getting one large bud on the end you will get several smaller ones, producing a dense, more branched plant next year.