Growing Conifers in the South

Often thought of as plants best-suited to cold climates, the rich textures and subtle color combinations of conifers can also be enjoyed in the South.

Spruces, fir trees and their ilk have always been a favorite of northern gardeners, but some of their cousins grow nicely in hot, steamy climates, as well, bringing their evergreen beauty to southern gardens. Successfully growing conifers south of the Mason-Dixon Line is partly a matter of choosing the right varieties, but you also need to provide suitable growing conditions.

Sun is a prerequisite, but for some of the more sensitive species it’s best to avoid fully exposed south-facing slopes where they will be blasted with heat like a furnace—6 hours of direct sun or 8 to 10 hours of dappled light is perfect for most species. The other requirement is drainage. Most conifers are adapted to freely drained soil with a high percentage of organic matter, so they often fail in the heavy clay that is common in many parts of the South. You can always plant them in raised beds, or on mounds, if needed. The acidic nature of most southern soils, however, is much to their liking.

Pines are one group of conifers that are widely adapted to the South, including the many ubiquitous (though still handsome) species like white pine (Pinus strobus), as well as some of the more regal and exotic species like the picturesque Japanese black pine (Pinus thunbergii). Junipers are another good choice, and given that they range in size from groundcovers to full-size trees, they can fill a variety of functions in the landscape.

Japanese cedars (Cryptomeria japonica), which are unrelated to true cedars also grow fairly well in all but the steamiest regions of the South.

Perhaps the most striking conifer for southern climes, however, happens to be one of the few that loses its needles in winter—the bald cypress (Taxodium distichum), which actually prefers to grow in poorly drained soil, turns an unusual coppery color in autumn before going dormant for the winter.

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