If your garden is spacious enough to hold a large tree you can get a lot of benefits from it. They’re imposing, they act as a natural centerpiece and they can provide a comfortable patch of shade to relax in during the hot summer months. There’s a wide choice of large trees available but if you’re looking for something with real presence it’s hard to beat the Scots pine.
There are about 175 species of pine trees, with almost everywhere in the northern hemisphere having its own native species, but the Scots pine is one of the best known and most spectacular. It’s found in nature across most of Europe and Asia, extending up into the Arctic Circle in Siberia and Scandinavia. It isn’t native to the USA but it’s become a popular tree with gardeners, and it absolutely deserves that popularity.
The Scots pine is a classic evergreen, with a tall, usually straight trunk and branches that spread out in a wide canopy. In mature trees the lower branches are usually quite high above the ground, so it’s ideal as a shade tree – the space underneath is unobstructed. When cultivated Scots pines usually grow to around 60 feet high, but wild trees – and cultivated ones, under ideal conditions – can get much larger than that; 120 feet is common and some examples have reached up well past 150 feet. The spread of a mature specimen is usually 30 to 40 feet and it has a very distinctive form, with the branches and foliage forming a broad, flattened irregular dome. Its leaves are distinctive needles, usually up to two inches long but sometimes twice that on a healthy young tree, which show a blue-green color in summer but often turn dark green during the colder months. The Scots pine doesn’t visibly flower but does produce a plentiful crop of both seed and pollen cones, which can attract a wide variety of wildlife to your garden. One thing to consider is the fall of needles. This isn’t heavy – each needle tends to stay on the tree for at least two years and sometimes as long as nine in colder climates – but over time, unless they’re cleared, a soft brown carpet will build up below the tree. Some gardeners prefer to rake away the needles; others appreciate the natural woodland feel this carpet creates.
The Scots pine is a hardy tree, and wild examples happily grow 9,000 feet up mountainsides, and it’s suitable for anywhere in USDA hardiness zones 2 to 7. It will thrive even in northern New England. What it doesn’t like is dry soil, so it’s not an ideal choice if you live in one of the warmer southern states. Otherwise you can get great results by planting one in moist, well drained and slightly acidic soil. Neutral soil is also fine, but digging in some peat moss when you plant your tree will help get it off to a good start in life.
Because of its height – and it grows rapidly – the Scots pine isn’t a tree that needs shade. It does well in full sunlight, especially in the northern regions where it’s most at home. It’s also tolerant of urban environments, being quite unaffected by air pollution. There are a few diseases and insect pests that can affect it though. Tip blight can be a significant problem, and the pine wilt nematode will parasitize it. Sawflies, scale and moths can also be a problem, so your tree will benefit from regular checks and prompt treatment if any pests do appear. Overall it’s robust, though, and most gardeners encounter few problems.
Despite its size the Scots pine needs little maintenance beyond making sure the ground around it is moist enough. Pruning isn’t really required, and in a large example becomes impractical anyway. Exceptions are where lower branches in large trees die; it’s best to cut these away before they fall, potentially causing damage. Consider bringing in a professional tree surgeon to handle this if the tree is particularly large. You might also need to trim back branches that approach buildings or utility poles.
The Scots pine is a striking contrast to many of the smaller, more ornamental trees commonly found in gardens. Its foliage and rugged, rough-barked trunk – which often exceeds three feet thick – give it an attractive appearance, but it also has a wild look about it. Nobody is going to mistake a Scots pine in its prime for an overgrown shrub; it has a dominating presence that makes it a natural centerpiece. It’s also a haven for wildlife. Many birds will happily nest in its high crown, well beyond the reach of most predators. Others will flock to feed on the cones as they ripen. You’ll also see squirrels scampering through its branches and other critters foraging in its shade looking for fallen cones. This imposing tree will soon become the center of its own ecosystem, enriching your garden both by its presence and the other life it attracts. And it will continue doing that for generations to come.