Growing the Desert Garden

Welcome to the Desert Garden, with garden coach Tyler Storey, where we talk about everything having to do with gardening and landscaping in the Desert Southwest. From composting to Cercidium and agaves to arugula — we'll cover everything you want to know to grow your own beautiful Desert Garden.

Monday, December 15, 2008

Plant to Ponder: Italian Stone Pine

Comus and the Christmas Tree © Tyler Storey

Many of the plants we look for in our local nurseries are only seasonally available, but one of the best trees for the Desert Garden is available only one time of year, and that's right now, just before Christmas. More than that, it's almost only ever available in one size: very small.

The Italian Stone Pine (Pinus pinea) is widely sold in nurseries and all kinds of other stores as a table-top live Christmas tree. What many of us don't realize is that once its Yuletide duties are complete, it can be successfully planted out in the landscape and will become a stunning, large, and eventually edible addition to the Desert Garden.

Pinus pinea is the typical pine tree seen in Italian and Portuguese travel brochures and postcards, and is perhaps the finest of the pine trees for the Desert Garden, though not as frequently planted as the Aleppo and Eldarica Pines. In shape, the Italian Stone Pine is rounded to slightly excurrent in youth, maturing to a broadly flat-topped or umbrella shape, and growing at a moderate to fast rate to 40 to 60 feet tall and 30 to 50 feet wide. It's hardy to about 10°F, takes low to moderate water once established, and will thrive in full to reflected sun.

If you're going to plant out your table-top tree, be certain to keep the soil damp, but not soaking while it's indoors (use a saucer to water the tree, but then empty the saucer after 10 minutes or so), and keep it away from direct heat sources. Plant it out in the landscape when Christmas is over, in a hole no deeper than the rootball in the container, and two to three times as wide.

Remember that this will eventually become a large tree, so plant it away from the house or overhead power lines, and not too close to pavement. Water it in well, and don't let the soil dry completely for several weeks. As the tree grows, be certain that you are watering in a circle as wide as the expanding tree canopy, and to a depth of three feet each time. This will encourage strong and wide rooting.

Gradual removal of lower branches will encourage high growth but clear no more than 6 to 8" of trunk per year or the tree will be spindly and awkward looking forever - when in doubt, leave it alone. The tree pictured above was planted out here at The Ranch shortly after the photograph was taken, about 6 years ago; it is now several feet above the roof line, and about 12 to 15 feet wide.

Eventually, your Pinus pinea will produce pine cones, and these are the source of the pignoli nuts you use in cooking; each cone takes about three years to reach maturity. Plant some basil and some garlic, and you give a whole new meaning to home-made pesto.


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