Gardening: Adding green to a suburban yard

Do spruce and pine trees have a place in a suburban yard? They add green to the landscape all year which is very noticeable between October and April. The plants are easy to grow and needing very little care or attention.

On the down size, the majority of the older varieties grow into very large trees dwarfing yards and taking all the moisture and sunlight from areas around the bottom of the plant. What looked cute and great when planted will dominate most yards within 15 years if left to grow untouched.

Pruning needled evergreen plants every June can keep the plant smaller and denser for a longer period of time. New growth appears covered with a brown paper like husk. When the brown husk falls to the ground the growth is tender and prunes easily. Take the new growth between your thumb and first finger and snap off up to ½ of the new growth at the stem. All the needles should still be intact. Needles that are cut by shears or hedge trimmers will have white tips. The size of the tree or trees can make using equipment necessary.

Cutting into old growth is not advised unless absolutely. Once a pine branch is cutback it will not regrow as the buds are at the end of each branch. Spruce are a little more forgiving. It is possible to cut back to another branch that is covered in needles but do not expect new growth for about 2 years. If one has to cut back further, remove the branch at the truck as new growth will not form.

Removing the bottom branches of a spruce or pine tree may make maintaining the lawn easier but it won’t improve the appearance of the tree or yard. Evergreens with their bottom branches intact drop needles and shade the ground making it next to impossible for other plants even weeds, to thrive. Leaving branches intact covers this area.

Once the bottom branches are removed the area is open to view. A few weeds or straggly plants will make it their home. Lush plants under a mature spruce or pine are rare as the tree absorbs all the moisture and blocks the light; making it a poor growing environment for most plants with the exception of some native ones. A viable alternative is to plant shade loving plants in planters.

Never remove the top of a spruce or pine tree. All topping and evergreen will accomplish is to encourage the plant to produce two or more leaders making a weak junction. Large open cuts on the top of a tree allow moisture to enter which often causes the wood to rot.

While one hates to cut down trees, and cutting large ones in an urban environment can be expensive, any plant that is too large for an area should be removed and replaced with a plant that will be smaller at maturity.

For those people that are wanting to plant evergreens in an urban setting, there are new varieties on the market that are suitable for small lots. One of the best places to search for varieties of plants is to use a plant finder app. found on garden center web sites. Most Albertan sites bring up the same or similar varieties but there will be differences as the results are skewed by the plants entered into the program. Most often they are the same plants as sold by the garden center.

A search of dwarf varieties show plants of many different heights and spreads. Look at the size of the plant and the cultural requirements, sunlight, soil space and moisture to see if what plants are a good fit. The next step is to visit a garden center and discuss the selection with a knowledgeable member of their staff that can answer questions.

Evergreens play an important part in the landscape. Older varieties can be kept small through careful pruning or purchase a newer more compact variety.

Linda Tomlinson is a horticulturalist and educator living by Rocky Mountain House. You can contact her at

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