Grow a Living Christmas Pine – In the Desert

Pine trees once covered the Southwest, and they can still grow well here. Pines can be excellent low-water landscape trees – if you select the correct species.

pine-soule-gardenWhy Grow A Pine?

When you plant a tree that grows really big – like a pine tree – you are creating a future home for really big birds – like hawks and owls. You are also creating future shade for your home and garden. If you save the pine needles and mulch with them – you can save a ton of money on garden mulch, and they add much needed acidity to our alkaline soils. (and if you don’t want them – call me!)

Pines can also be useful to block a view that you might not want.  I have a short little YouTube video on  pine placement in the landscape.


Living Holiday Trees Grow Memories

Live pine trees can make a nice addition to the yard. Growing up, we had three in succession, one per year – one for each kid. Within a few years of being planted in the ground, they made a lovely small grove of climbable trees – and our own secret spot under their boughs.

Pines may need very little “limbing up,” because lower limbs naturally age and die as the plant grows and ages.

Grandpa and Grandma so loved the sound of the wind in the pine needles, they planted one right outside their bedroom window in Tucson. As it grew they carefully “limbed it up” – cutting off the lower limbs – so they could look out under it and watch the sunsets. It also kept it from rubbing on the roof. (This is also better from a security standpoint – but that will be a later post.)

Which Pine?

Southwestern nurseries commonly offer two species of pine at this time of year. Afghan or eldarica pine (Pinus eldarica) from Afghanistan. Less common is the Aleppo pine (Pinus halepensis) from the area around Aleppo in the Middle East.

Over time we local plant people have discovered that the Afghan pine does better in our region. This is no doubt because Afghanistan is more like our Southwest desert than the almost coastal region around Aleppo – which is more like San Diego.

Trees have different forms. Aleppo pine on the left – Afghan pine on the right.

And What Size?

The topic of tree size was recently discussed in a guest post by plant guru Carianne Funicelli. She owns Strategic Habitat Enhancements (SHE), a local company that provides a variety of natural resources consulting services, with an emphasis on native plants and creating bird and pollinator friendly yards.

Pines fall under the heading of “the bigger the better” because they tend to grow slowly. Get on that is as big as you can afford – and that will fit into your living room.

Multi-Tasking Pine

But if you are going to plant it, water it, and take care of it – how about some food from it? Pine nuts are tasty. Four species of Southwestern pinyon pines do okay in Middle Desert locations, as do two common species of nut pine, the source of most commercial pine nuts. Sorry Low Desert Gardeners, most pinyon cant take the valley heat.  You can try an Italian stone pine.

Pine nuts – yum!

These species can currently be found in the nursery trade and are known to survive in the Southwest.

Pinyon pines:
Pinus cembroides – Mexican pinyon
Pinus remota – Texas pinyon or papershell pinyon
Pinus edulis – Two-needle pinyon or Colorado pinyon 
Pinus monophylla – Single-leaf pinyon

Nut pines:
Pinus pinea - Italian stone pine 
Pinus koraiensis - Korean pine

Start This Weekend Even

This article is going live in Thanksgiving Week – because people often shop for trees on the day after Thanksgiving. I took a peek at the cut tree prices – and trust me – you can get a lovely living tree for just a few bucks more!

PLEASE! Do not try to grow a spruce tree in Low or Middle desert. It will struggle, and may even survive for a few years before it dies.

Four Critical Care Tips

One. Don’t shock your tree with temperature. It has been sitting outdoors in a nursery where it is cold at night. If you can stand it – leave it our on your porch for a few days so it warms up a bit. Gives you a chance to give it a nice shower and wash off any dust. Then move it indoors. But not under the heater vent.

Two. Do NOT overwater! Pine trees are dormant in winter and will not use much water. Just a few ice cubes on top of the soil should be enough. It is sadly easy to overwater them and then they will die.

Three. Don’t ruin your carpet. I set the pot inside a contractors bag and taped it to the sides of the pot. Then draped everything with a tree skirt.

Four. Temperature in reverse – avoid taking your pine from a toasty warm house directly out into a freezing yard. Some time in a transition zone, like on a sheltered patio, will help increase it’s survival chances.


I do hope you will consider a living holiday tree – be it a Chanukah bush or Christmas tree – for your home this year.

Need Some Garden Help?

May I recommend my (out of print) book?  The Month By Month Guide offers tips for your landscape (yes even lawns and roses) in every month of the year.  I have a few copies left and am offering them to you – my loyal readers. Price is what you would pay on Amazon – only when you buy from me you get a signed copy!soule-books-buy

From the review:

“A great reference book is key to successful gardening in the region where you live. Arizona, Nevada & New Mexico Month-by-Month Gardening takes the guesswork out of gardening for anyone residing in the Southwest. With this book, you’ll know what to do each month to enjoy a thriving garden all year, from January to December. Chronologically organized, this guide is full of critical gardening when-to and how-to advice, along with illustrated step-by-step instructions.

The book’s author is Jacqueline Soule, a Tucson-based gardening expert. She knows this arid region inside and out, and she’s written several articles and books packed with her gardening advice. Arizona, Nevada & New Mexico Month-by-Month Gardening showcases Soule’s expertise in one easy-to-read guide.”


soule-garden-successScience Nerd Shares – Pine Tree History

Yes pines lived in what is now desert – back during the last Ice Age anyway. It is true that here in the Southwest there were open places, and prairie-like spaces where woolly mammoth roamed – but there were also pine forests. Careful analysis work by researchers at the Tumamoc Desert Laboratory and Arizona-Sonora Desert Museum (both in Tucson) reveal that as recently as 4000 years ago there were pine trees in what is now Organ Pipe National Monument.


© Article copyright Dr. Jacqueline A. Soule. All rights reserved. You must ask permission to republish an entire blog post or article. Okay to use a short excerpt but you must give proper credit. You must include a link to the original post on our site. No stealing photos.

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List of Pines for Pine Nuts

Pinus pinea - Italian stone pine 
Pinus cembra - Swiss pine
Pinus koraiensis - Korean pine 
Pinus gerardiana - Chilgoza pine 
Pinus sibirica - Siberian pine 
Pinus pumila - Siberian dwarf pine 
Pinus armandii - Chinese white pine [reputed to cause "taste disturbance"]
Pinus bungeana - lacebark pine

List of Pines for Pinyon Nuts

Pinus cembroides – Mexican pinyon
Pinus orizabensis – Orizaba pinyon
Pinus johannis – Johann's pinyon (now includes P. discolor – Border pinyon)
Pinus culminicola – Potosi pinyon
Pinus remota – Texas pinyon or papershell pinyon
Pinus edulis – Two-needle pinyon or Colorado pinyon 
Pinus monophylla – Single-leaf pinyon
Pinus quadrifolia – Parry pinyon

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