Conifer – Growing & Care Guide

Scientific name: Pinophyta, Coniferophyta, Coniferae | Cone season: Autumn

👍 Loves: Lots of sun, regular watering | 👎 Hates: Too much shade, very wet soil

Easily identified by their clusters of cones and green, needle-like leaves, the conifer is a stunning, iconic tree that come in dozens of varieties. They are evergreen, meaning that they make the perfect all-year plant for any garden or outdoor space. In the UK, the conifer varieties we are most familiar with include pine trees and fir trees (which are used as Christmas trees!), but conifers aren’t just limited to trees, they also come in ground-covering varieties and fast-growing hedges or shrubs.

Guide contents

  1. Identification
  2. How to plant
  3. When & where to plant
  4. Types of conifer
  5. Growing and care tips
  6. FAQs

Identification

conifer branch with pine cones
A closeup of a pine cone cluster on a branch

Conifers are quite easy to spot. They have thin, sometimes flat, green bundles of needles. All needles and branches grow in a fascinating spiral pattern which you’ll be able to see if you look closely. Every conifer produces cones, which, if left undisturbed, can stay on them for 10 years; this is an easy way to tell them apart from other evergreen trees, shrubs, and bushes. They can grow very tall, with many conifers reaching 15m or taller if they have the right conditions, in fact, the tallest tree in the UK is a Douglas fir that is currently 61.5m tall.

LeavesThin and needle-like, sometimes flat
FormationLeaves grow from branches in spiralled clusters
ColoursMainly dark green, but other colour varieties are available
Identifying FeaturesCones
Height30cm – 100m, conifers can grow 6 – 12in per year

How to plant a conifer

Video credits to Grand Prize Plants on YouTube

If you’re wanting to plant your very own tree, there are a few things you should keep in mind. The video above is really simple and easy to follow, but if you’re looking for written instructions, keep reading.

  1. Dig the right sized hole. Most conifers will come in a container, which you should make sure your hole is wider than. Dig a hole that is 2x the diameter of the container and as deep as the container..
  2. Prepare the hole for planting. Break up any clumps with a trowel or gardening fork to ensure your conifers roots won’t come up against any obstacles when they are trying to establish. Firm up the ground around the hold by pressing on it to stop the conifer from going any deeper into the ground
  3. Release the roots. Gently pull your conifer from its pot, and give any loose roots a trim if you see them poking out. Soak the ‘root ball’ in a bucket of water for about 25 minutes to loosen the soil up a bit and give the roots a drenching
  4. Get planting. Your conifer should now be ready to plant. Place it in the hole and make sure the top of your root ball is at ground level. Planting it too deep might cause the base of the plant to rot. Check it’s straight, and start to fill in any air pockets around the root ball with the soil you dug up earlier, which can be mixed with compost to help the tree to settle.
  5. Finish up. Pat down the soil around your conifer until it is firm, and give it another covering of loose soil once you’re done. You might benefit from securing your conifer with a cane or tree stake whilst it establishes.

When & where to plant

🌱 outdoors | ☁️ full sun, afternoon shade | ☂️ shelter

Conifers planted in the autumn have the best chance of quick root establishment. The soil is still relatively warm in the autumn, and the soil isn’t too wet or too dry. Planting in the autumn will help them gradually adjust to the cold of the winter and help them to survive their first cold season.

Find somewhere that won’t expose the conifer to full wind, as cold winds can scorch the leaves and discolour them. You should also make sure the soil in your chosen location is acidic and well-drained. Loamy soil works particularly well for growing conifers.


Types of conifer

There are dozens of varieties of conifer available, the majority of them being evergreen.

1. Fir Tree – you might associate fir trees with Christmas, but they stay beautifully green all year round. Also known as the Nordmann fir, fir trees can grow up to an impressive 30m tall within 20 – 50 years. They are rather low maintenance and make a great shade-giving tree once they reach maturity.

2. Pine Tree – pine trees are native to the UK and are also frequently used as Christmas trees. They grow up to 25m and have spiralling green needles, with cones that grow 5cm long. They take 20 to 50 years to grow to full maturity and are evergreen, producing their iconic pinecones in the autumn.

3. Cedar Tree – coniferous cedars are evergreen trees with magnificent, tiered branching. Their cones grow up to 12cm, which is larger than the cones of many other conifer varieties. They take 20 to 50 years to reach full maturity and can grow to be 8 metres wide (or more)

4. Yew Tree – the common yew tree is an evergreen tree (or large shrub). Although they are often kept relatively small and trimmed back for ornamental purposes, they can grow over 12m tall and reach 8m in width if they are allowed to. They make popular border plants and produce a fruit in the autumn that is toxic to humans.

5. Spruce – spruce trees grow in a conical formation, and unlike other varieties, they have grey bark and blue-green needles that grow to 12cm in length. They can grow over 12m and take 20 to 50 years to reach full maturity. They aren’t native to the UK.

Growing and care tips

branch of a conifer

Watering: As they grow, conifers adapt to survive in dry conditions, but they need careful watering whilst they are young and still becoming established. Give them at least an inch of water weekly (if it hasn’t rained). They won’t survive if they get too dry during their first year or so of life.

Fertilizing: During the first couple of years of growth, you can feed your conifer a granual fertiliser, but it isn’t necessary.

Soil: Conifers require loamy, acidic soil to grow. It should also be very well-drained and rich in organic matter.


FAQs

Are conifers fast-growing?

Absolutely! The fast-growing nature of conifers is what makes them so popular with gardeners and landscapers. They are a very safe bet and extremely easy to maintain whilst remaining lush and green all year round. The average conifer takes 20 – 50 years to reach its full height and width, but they will generally grow an impressive 6 – 12 inches a year.

How to trim conifer trees?

When trimming conifer trees, never trim back to the base of needle clusters (the brown part) as the needles will never grow back. If your conifer needs a trim, gently cut off dead or dull branches in the spring or summer to encourage it to grow back healthier. Trimming in autumn could cause more needles to die and fall off the tree.

Why is my conifer going brown?

Brown patches or sections of your conifer means it isn’t happy. It could be cold or affected by frost, the roots could be too wet, it could be too hot, too dry, or too windy. Use common sense to figure out what the tree is getting too much of, or not enough of.

Sources

[1] https://www.monumentaltrees.com/en/heightrecords/gbr/england/

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