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Gardening column: Time for conifers to come into their own

Holiday season puts spotlight on these hardy plants.

Friday, November 29, 2013 - 8:41 am

A conifer is a tree that bears seed in a cone. Conifers have quite a few relatives, although some look almost totally different from each other, including the cones they bear, and most are evergreen.

All of these trees and shrubs do go dormant and lose some (leaves) needles at times during the year, but not always in the fall along with our deciduous trees and shrubs. Sometimes we see this happening and worry that our trees, or shrubs, have been attacked by pests or disease.

Rather than going for an expensive treatment, get a correct diagnosis of the situation — call the Allen County Extension's Horticulture Department (481-6826) and let them help you determine if there is a crisis in progress or if it is just nature doing what nature does. If spider mites or some other pest that has an appetite for certain conifers should be the culprit, there are ways of handling the problem that usually won't cost a fortune.

These versatile plants are used in many ways. They add character and beauty to our buildings and landscapes. They act as windbreaks that protect our more rural homes from those sweeping, freezing winds of winter while looking stately, always green, and decorative when snow settles on their graceful branches. In the city they provide a living fence which is a friendly way of achieving privacy.

Their needles make excellent mulch especially under and around acid loving plants — and weeds seldom gain a foot hold in their planting bed.

Conifers' cones when tossed on already burning logs in the fireplace or a fire pit flare up and burn hot and the sap and seeds within the cone react to the flame with a sizzling hissing sound. Then there is a brief surge of color like a halo that develops over the cone. Some cones even give off a fragrance when used in this way.

At the Christmas season, we buy certain members of the conifer family and use the trees and all parts of the plant to transform our homes into a festive place where our children (and even ourselves) believe once again that there is a Santa after all.

In Fort Wayne, many members of the conifer family are used to celebrate the holidays. We take drives during the season to see the wonderful decorations downtown and surrounding parks and neighborhoods. The main decoration is almost always a beautifully lit conifer.

This year, don't say no to either buying a live one to plant later or a freshly cut tree from a local merchant. These wonderful plants come in all sizes so whatever space you have; you can find one that will fit. When the season is over, don't toss the tree away – not yet – instead anchor it outside so it won't blow around and string popcorn and other goodies on it for the birds.

Jane Ford is an Advanced Master Gardener. Email questions to jaf701@fron This column is the opinion of the writer and does not necessarily reflect the views or opinion of The News-Sentinel.