The Colorado Front Range is a challenging place for many trees to grow – extreme cold, fierce winds, lack of rain and wildfire threaten all trees, but especially newly-planted ones. Still, the many benefits trees provide as they mature make it well worth planting one (or more!) on your property.
While deciduous trees, such as our iconic aspen trees, get most of the attention, it’s evergreen trees that give us the most “bang for the buck”.
Evergreens (including conifers) can block the wind, shielding your home from harsh winter weather (and lowering heating costs). When planted as a windbreak, evergreen trees or shrubs can block wind, snow gusts, and more.
These trees and shrubs are also good at muffling sound, so if you’re near a highway, some of the noise can be reduced.
What’s the Difference Between an Evergreen and a Conifer?
Conifers form cones. These cones contain the seeds from which new trees are grown. Common conifers include pine, spruce, yew, fir, and arborvitae.
Evergreens retain their leaves or needles throughout the year. Some produce cones, some do not (they produce flowers instead).
Most conifers are evergreen, but some (such as larch and bald cypress) are not – they drop their needles in fall.
Be Careful Where You Plant Conifers
Unlike other areas of the country, we have to be cognizant of fire danger at all times here in the Colorado Front Range. This is especially true when it comes to planting conifers. While evergreen trees work best for blocking wind, snow, and noise, they are less fire-resistant than deciduous trees.
Here are a few things to keep in mind when planting evergreen trees and/or shrubs as a windbreak, privacy screen or sound barrier:
- Don’t plant too close to your home or any other buildings or structures. Evergreens should be planted in defensible zones 2 and 3, or 30 to 100 and 100+ feet away from the house.
- Don’t plant any trees too close together. Plant evergreens separately, not in groups or lines.
- Don’t plant smaller trees under larger trees as these can become ladder fuels, where the shorter tree catches on fire and then spreads the fire to the taller tree.
- Use native trees whenever possible.
- Plant shrubs in defensible zone 1, which is 15 feet away from any building. Plant singularly, not in clusters or dense rows.
- Keep the area clear of needles, grasses, and any other debris that could act as a ladder fuel.
The evergreen conifers we recommend are hardy in our part of Colorado, are dense enough to create a privacy screen or windbreak, and require little supplemental care. Most are native to Colorado, can tolerate drier conditions and are appropriate for use in areas where wildfires are a concern.
Colorado blue spruce (Picea pungens)
The Colorado blue spruce is our state tree but, despite its name, it’s found natively in other parts of America besides Colorado. That being said, it is most common here in Colorado and the unique blue tint of its sharp, stiff needles are a nice change from other conifers’ dark green shades.
Colorado blue spruce trees can grow up to 75 feet in the wild but usually grow around 50 feet in yards and gardens here. Blue spruce trees are great at blocking the wind because of their height and because they are able to withstand large gusts of wind.
Blue spruces prefer moist soil but they can withstand drought periods better than any other kind of spruce tree.
Eastern redcedar (Juniperus virginiana)
Known also as red cedar, this tree can be shrublike in the wild but will usually form a dense, 10-40 ft tall pyramidal tree when grown in favorable conditions. Its green summer foliage turns a rusty brown in winter, giving it a different look throughout the year, and the reddish-brown bark creates a nice contrast against the surrounding foliage.
It grows best in dry, rocky soils with full sunlight and is winter hardy in our area. Like most junipers, it is very slow-growing and is moderately long-lived.
Although Juniperus virginiana is native to eastern North America, it is cultivated in Colorado where it’s used as a windbreak and for ornamental uses below 6,000 feet. In fact, many of the windbreaks in the great plains planted during the Dust Bowl drought in the 1930s consisted of rows of redcedar (called “shelterbelts”).
Plant Eastern redcedar with caution as it can be a ladder fuel in a wildfire situation, is a known allergen-producing tree, and is considered invasive in some areas.
Pinyon (or Piñon) pine (Pinus edulis)
Also known as the Colorado pine, you’ll find pinyon pine trees growing naturally in our area. This dense, bushy conifer is a good choice as a privacy screen or noise barrier. It can grow up to 70 feet tall, but is usually much shorter than that in the Front Range, growing to about 30 feet. It has short grayish-green needles that give it a unique look in the landscape.
The cones of the pinyon pine contain the highly-sought-after pine nuts (both by birds and by humans).
This tree can be targeted by Ips beetles so be on the lookout for signs of an attack. We have details on our Ips beetle page.
If you’ve ever been to the south rim of the Grand Canyon in Arizona, pinyon pine is the most common tree that you will spot there. If it can withstand the winds coming off of that canyon, it should do fine in your own yard!
Rocky Mountain juniper (Juniperus scopulorum)
Another hardy tree that makes an excellent windbreak, the Rocky Mountain juniper grows to about 35 feet with an irregular crown. A native of western North America, it’s found throughout Colorado at elevations of 5,000 to 7,500 feet, often on dry, rocky ridges. It does well when planted on properties in our area.
Juniperus scopulorum is adapted to a wide range of soils and moisture conditions, slow-growing, and very long-lived. There is a Rocky Mountain juniper tree in Utah, called the Jardine Juniper, that is estimated to be over 1500 years old. So suffice to say that, if well cared for, a tree of this type could easily outlive you (and several generations after you!).
Ponderosa pine (Pinus ponderosa)
This long-needled pine is native to Colorado where it grows at elevations up to almost 10,000ft. It’s a fast-growing and cold-hardy tree that’s resistant to fire due to its thick bark and is a good species to use as a windbreak.
Ponderosa pine is a beautiful tree with lush green needles, roundish shape, and orange-brown bark. It does, however, tend to lose its lower branches so it’s a good choice for privacy screening if you want to block a view at ground level.
It’s a large tree (reaching heights of 100 to 150 feet tall) so is best planted in open spaces where it can live 300 to 600 years. Pinus ponderosa grows well in a variety of soils and can even be found growing on bare rock with its roots in the cracks and crevices. Once established, it survives hot and dry conditions, exhibiting medium to good drought tolerance.
If you have limited space and would like to plant a conifer, we’ve got you covered! Check out our article on best trees for small spaces – we include three conifers.
Another good option is the Douglas-fir (Pseudotsuga menziesii).
And if you’re not sure which conifer would be best for your property, give us a call at 303-674-8733. Our Certified Arborists would be happy to consult with you to find the best option for your location and needs.