Colorado blue spruce needles

Spruce Trees and Fertilizer

spruce image by kasiap from

Spruces are exceptionally tough conifers capable of surviving for up to two centuries in the face of brutal winter cold. Recognizable from their sharp, stiff square needles and suspended, bractless cones, most spruce species need full sun. Large spruce tree varieties–including Norway, Colorado, Black Hills white and Engelmann spruces–make excellent windbreaks. Smaller cultivars are attractive additions to less spacious yards. Like all evergreens, spruce trees have specific fertilizer requirements.

Fertilizer Type

As conifers, spruce trees perform best with fertilizers that have nitrogen (N) levels higher than their phosphate and potassium concentrations. Reading the three prominent numbers on the fertilizer’s label reveals its respective percentages of each ingredient. The nitrogen percentage (N) appears first, followed by the percentages of phosphate (P) and potassium (K). Spruce trees need fertilizers with nitrogen levels of less than 10 percent, say Montana State University plant disease diagnostician Martha Mikkelson and colleagues. Diluting fertilizers with higher nitrogen levels with water is acceptable.

How Often to Fertilize

In spring, deciduous trees must replace the leaves they dropped the previous autumn. Healthy spruce trees, however, shed their needles only once during a three- to six-year span. This economical needle production means that spruces require many fewer fertilizer applications than deciduous trees. Fertilizing these trees is a matter of waiting for them to show that they need it.

Need for Fertilizer

Stunted needles, slow growth, discolored foliage and dead new twigs are some indications that a spruce needs fertilizer. Yellow needles over an entire tree are an indication of iron deficiency. Purple needles are a sign of low phosphorus levels, advises Doctor Bert Cregg, Michigan State University associate professor of horticulture. Yellowing needle tips mean a spruce tree needs more magnesium. As spruce trees can develop these symptoms for other reasons, testing the soil before applying fertilizer is advisable.

When to Fertilize

Fertilize newly planted spruces with slow-release pellets scattered just beneath the trees’ roots. Fertilizers older trees during the spring after the final frost date. Liquid fertilizers are more likely to reach the trees’ roots. Watering the trees thoroughly after applying dry fertilizers improves their soil penetration.

Avoid fertilizing spruces in summer. Fertilizing too late in the year can stimulate autumn growth that will die back in freezing temperatures, advises University of Minnesota extension horticulturist Deborah Brown. The exception to this rule applies to trees growing in extremely poor soils. They may benefit from a late summer or fall feeding with slow-release fertilizer to get them through the winter.

How Much to Apply

Apply enough fertilizer to provide 2.4 ounces of actual nitrogen per 1000 square feet for spruces less than 6 inches in diameter, recommend Mikkelson and associates. Mature trees should get no more than twice that amount of actual nitrogen. Multiplying the percentage of nitrogen listed on the label by the weight of the fertilizer bag determines how much actual nitrogen the bag contains. Spreading the fertilizer evenly over an area 1 1/2 times the diameter of the trees’ canopies ensures full root system coverage.

Cow manure depending on bedding amounts weighs in at a dismal 0.5% nitrogen 0.5% phosphorus and 0.5% potassium low in all three elements. Blue Spruce Tree Fertilizer so try an organic lawn-food blend such as Concern or Espoma cottonseed meal or dried poultry waste. The very best way to feed your plants is to use a potting mix that contains compost. Texas Fertilizer Plant Explosion And Boston Marathon Explosion? Why Is Everyone Talking About The Boston Bombing But Not The Explosion In Texas? Alaska All Purpose Fish Fertilizer comes in a convenient ready-to-use bottle –

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What is spruce decline and what should you do about it?

What’s wrong with the blue spruce trees in my neighborhood?

Colorado blue spruce trees have long been among the most popular conifers for landscaping in Michigan and the upper Midwest. Blue spruce trees are widely planted due to their good growth rate, stately form and, of course, their blue foliage. Unfortunately, blue spruce trees are subject to a wide range of insect and disease problems that can impact their growth and aesthetic appeal.

The prevalence of diseases on blue spruce trees has intensified in recent years and trees are declining rapidly in many areas (Photo 1). The key symptom of spruce decline is branch dieback, which progresses over two to four years and renders the plant’s appearance unacceptable for most homeowners (Photo 2). The rapid decline of many spruce trees in Michigan and surrounding states appears to be related to an increase of canker diseases coupled with other disease and insect problems that plague the species.

Photo 2. Decline usually starts on lower branches. Photo credit: Dennis Fulbright, MS

What kind of diseases affect blue spruce trees?

There are three principle types of diseases that affect blue spruce trees: needlecasts, tip blights and canker diseases. All of these diseases are caused by fungal pathogens and each produce specific symptoms that can be useful in diagnosing the problem.

1. Needlecasts. As the name implies, trees with needlecast diseases shed needles. Needlecast fungi often infect needles on the current year’s shoots. As the disease progresses, the needles die, usually the year following the infection. As a result, trees affected by needlecasts often have an outer “shell” of live needles on current shoots and dead needles on older shoots (Photo 3). The two most common needlecasts we find in spruce are caused by the fungal pathogens Rhizosphaera and Stigmina/Mycosphaerella.

2. Tip blights. Tip blights are fungal diseases that typically cause dieback to new, emerging shoots (Photo 4). Tip blights are most common on pines, especially Austrian pines, but can also occur on spruces.

3. Canker diseases. Canker diseases are caused by fungi that infect branches or the main stem of trees. Typical symptoms of cankers are sunken areas along a stem that may ooze resin (Photo 5). Trees may produce ridges of wound tissue around older canker infections as the tree attempts to restrict the fungus’ growth. As cankers develop, they can interfere with the branch’s ability to transport water and nutrients, resulting in the death of individual branches often referred to as “flagging.”

Photos 3-5. Left, Needlecasts kill older (inner) needles, but leave newer needles unaffected. Middle, New shoot tips killed by Phomopsis tip blight. Right, Resin oozing from a branch canker caused by Cytospora. Photo credits: Left and middle photo, Dennis Fulbright, MSU; right photo, Michael Kangas, NDSU,

What kinds of insects affect blue spruce trees?

Numerous insect pests can impact spruces in Michigan’s landscape, but the two most common are gall adelgids and spruce spider mites. In both cases, the insect pests are tiny and you may need a hand lens to see them. Often times, people are more likely to see the damage as opposed to the insect pests themselves.

1. Gall adelgids. Adelgids are small insects that feed on shoots by sucking plant sap. As they do so, they cause the shoots to deform and produce galls that resemble cones (Photo 6). Damage from gall adelgids is mainly aesthetic.

2. Spruce spider mites. Spruce spider mites cause needle discoloration and eventually kill needles, which can be mistaken for a needlecast disease (Photo 7). Technically, mites are not insects, but are related to spiders. This distinction is important since not all insecticides will control mites.

Photos 6-7. Left, Gall caused by Cooley spruce adelgid. Right, Needle damage caused by mites. Photo credits: Jill O’Donnell, MSU

Why are we seeing increased decline in blue spruce trees?

There are a number of factors contributing to the decline we see in blue spruce trees, including environmental changes, poor site conditions and new pathogens. Colorado blue spruce is native to arid regions in the Rocky Mountains. Michigan’s climate is generally more humid, especially in the summer, which is ideal for fungal pathogens to thrive. In landscapes, Colorado blue spruces have been planted on some sites that are marginal for their success. As a result, they are stressed and more susceptible to fungal pathogens.

Finally, for decades the default diagnosis for most problems with blue spruce has been Rhizosphaera needlecast or Cytospora branch canker. However, a recent survey by Michigan State University researchers suggests two other fungal pathogens, Diplodia and Phomopsis, were much more commonly associated with branch death and tree decline than Cytospora (Photos 8-9). Diplodia and Phomopsis are both considered weak or secondary pathogens, so it is unclear at this point why they appear to cause major disease problems for spruce. Also, in many cases there may be more than one issue that is affecting your tree’s health.

Photos 8-9. Left, Decline symptoms moving upward. Right, Wood staining on branch with Phomopsis canker. Photo credits: Left photo, Christine McTavish, MSU; right photo, Dennis Fulbright, MSU.

Can I do anything about these spruce problems?

As with any tree health problem, the first step in dealing with declining spruce trees is to diagnose the problem and identify the cause. For large or important landscape trees, homeowners should contact a professional arborist or tree care company.

For some disease issues, such as needlecasts, fungicides may be effective in preventing or controlling the disease. It is important to note that fungicide treatments for needlecasts only protect new growth. For control to be fully successful, it may take two to three years of yearly fungicide applications. For canker diseases, the effectiveness of fungicides is usually limited. Removing affected branches is usually the best action to improve the tree’s appearance and slow the spread of disease within the tree.

For insect or mite issues, insecticides or miticides can be effective, however selection of the proper product and timing are critical.

Should we continue to plant blue spruce trees?

Blue spruce does best on exposed sites with good soil drainage. Photo credit: Bert Cregg, MSU

This is a difficult question. Although spruce decline is widespread and appears to be increasing, it is not a certainty that all trees will be affected. In fact, it is not uncommon to see healthy, thriving spruce trees near or adjacent to trees that are in severe decline. Another complicating factor is that trees may be healthy for a number of years and then begin to decline as they mature and are more difficult and costly to remove.

The likelihood of having success can be improved by planting blue spruce trees on sites with conditions they favor. Key site factors for blue spruce trees are full sunlight, good air movement and excellent soil drainage. Michigan State University Extension recommends homeowners diversify their landscapes to help make their landscapes more resilient to pest and environmental changes, and seek to plant a variety of species wherever possible.

Additional resources

  • Alternative conifers for Michigan landscapes for suggested alternatives to blue spruce trees from MSU Extension
  • MSU Extension website for up to date information on spruce decline research
  • Gardening in Michigan website for more information on planting and caring for trees in the landscape

Print a PDF of this article.

Photo: Shelly Nold

With time, you’ll have one gorgeous tree

Everybody loves a beautiful blue spruce. Picea pungens, or Colorado spruce, is most known for its blue-foliaged forms like Glauca, Hoopsii, Bakeri, and Baby Blue Eyes. It’s hard not to notice one growing in the landscape, especially in the winter.

This stately pyramidal evergreen has melted the hearts of many, yet it is not as popular as it would seem, for two main reasons: cost and performance. Its slow growth habit requires it to spend time in the nursery to grow, and more time equals more money. While it is not considered a difficult tree to grow, i have seen some decline of blue spruces due to a variety of reasons. Unfortunately, when an expensive plant dies we usually notice.

Don’t let this talk you out of planting one. The best location is in full sun to partial shade with moist and acidic soils. Once established, they can withstand some tough conditions such as drought. In a long dry summer, supplemental watering is helpful. Whatever color it is when you buy it is usually the color it stays. So don’t buy a bluish-green one and expect it to turn bluer, it won’t.

Knowing mature size is important for proper placement in the landscape. The species picea pungens can grow more than 50 feet tall and 20 feet wide. If you don’t have that much space, consider one of the semi-dwarf forms like baby blue eyes and hoopsii, or glauca, which is a little larger. As a general rule, the intensely blue forms are smaller, but 30 feet tall is still pretty tall. Pruning a spruce is difficult and specific, so give it room to grow and avoid having to prune it altogether.

Planting a fabulous blue spruce is definitely planting for the future. In the right location there is nothing more beautiful to see out your window on a cold and snowy day. Consider planting one in your garden this spring and be rewarded for many years to come.

Shelly Nold from the 2016 March issue

Colorado Spruce

Beautiful specimens of mature Colorado Spruce

Typical Green Spruce. Over half of natural seeded Colorado spruce end up close to this color.

Caught this shot in fall.

This one is between 3 and 4 feet.

Colorado can be planted as an understory tree in poplar forests. If you go with seedlings, mark them so you don’t step on them.

Styroblocks — 1 liter root ball.

A 12 year old in my demo garden. When young the branches stick almost straight out, so it looks layered.

1 gallon pots, ready to go.

2 gallon pots. Need one more year before sale.

1 yr old seedlings. Also available as 4 yr olds, about 4″ taller but much bushier.

Picea pungens

Colorados come in a variety of colours. Only about a third can be called blue, and only a few percent are that lovely blue-white. The colour comes from tiny beads of resin on the needles. More beads = lighter colour. Smaller beads = bluer colour. Lots of tiny beads = blue white. With time the beads fall off, which is why the new growth is always bluer than the old. Soapy water will wash the beads off, turning the tree greener. Be careful washing the car.

Colorado’s have a huge variation in color, ranging from chartreuse to a deep green, to a variety of blues. For this reason, if you are going to plant a row, buy a named cultivar. You are much more likely to get a set that are close in colour. (To some degree colour is determined by environmental conditions. If you want exact matches, buy a container load of artificial Christmas trees, and paint them the colour you want.)

Colorado’s grow slowly, typically only half the speed of white spruce. This makes them more full as young trees, but it will take them much longer to become imposing and elegant.

Trees in constant shade tend to be less blue. (Makes me think that blue may be a slight survival factor during drought.)

Colorados are not fast growers. Under average care they grow 6-10 inches per year. By comparison our native white spruce grows about twice as fast.

In their natural environment they show a lot of variation in form, ranging from broad, to conical to almost a column-like pillar.

Colorado spruce are extremely drought resistant. Water their first year, then ignore. You will get faster growth if you water a couple times per summer.

I’ve yet to find any explaination in books for a survival advantage for the beads, which may be why it’s so variable. (Maybe my guess above is right. Then again, maybe not.)

If you want consistent colour, stick with the named cultivars.

Mine are open pollenated stock, so expect a fair amount of variation.

Size: 30-60 feet by about a third as wide. Branches reach to the ground.

Soil: Dry to moist. Doesn’t like wet soils. Not good in very alkaline soils.

Sun: Full sun to light shade.

Water: In our climate does well on natural rainfall once established. Water 2-3 times a summer for more growth, but your tree will be more open.

Young seedlings in our nursary

Got something to say? Email me: [email protected]

Dwarf Globe Blue Spruce

Are you hoping to find a really distinctive and extremely tough small ornamental tree? Would you love to have an ornamental tree with excellent color that can easily withstand the extremes of a Minnesota winter, and has wonderful texture? How about a small ornamental tree that requires almost no pruning, and that doesn’t shed fruit?

A Dwarf Globe Blue Spruce tree might be a good choice, since it can also stand up to heavy winds, and tolerates poor soils as long as the soil drains properly.

For best results, plant a Dwarf Globe Blue Spruce tree in a location with at least a half day of sun or more and the direct sun will make this variety positively glow with its iridescent blue foliage. Dwarf Globe Blue Spruce trees are very resistant to winterburn from winter sunlight bouncing off snow banks, and their modest size makes them useful as a focal point in a creative landscape bed.

Avoid planting in a location with chronically soggy soil to preserve the health of the root system. In a ten-year time span, Dwarf Globe Blue Spruce trees will mature to a head size of 4 to 5 feet high and wide. We have two different Dwarf Globe Blue Spruce planted here at the garden center in display beds which will enable you to picture one in your yard!

Dwarf Globe Blue Spruce

They are available for sale in several different size containers and price points.

Globe Blue Spruce On Standard

Globe Blue Spruce On Standard

(Photo courtesy of NetPS Plant Finder)

Height: 6 feet

Spread: 5 feet


Hardiness Zone: 2a

Other Names: Blue Colorado, Colorado Blue Spruce


A compact rounded evergreen with striking steel blue foliage; grafted onto a single stem to form a blue lollipop, tends to become wider with age; a great patio tree, particularly effective accent among lower growing perennials and ornamental grasses

Ornamental Features

Globe Blue Spruce On Standard has attractive blue foliage which emerges silvery blue in spring. The needles are highly ornamental and remain blue throughout the winter. Neither the flowers nor the fruit are ornamentally significant.

Landscape Attributes

Globe Blue Spruce On Standard is a dense evergreen dwarf tree, selected and trained to grow in a small tree-like form with the primary plant grafted high atop a standard. Its relatively fine texture sets it apart from other landscape plants with less refined foliage.

This is a high maintenance dwarf tree that will require regular care and upkeep. When pruning is necessary, it is recommended to only trim back the new growth of the current season, other than to remove any dieback. Deer don’t particularly care for this plant and will usually leave it alone in favor of tastier treats. It has no significant negative characteristics.

Globe Blue Spruce On Standard is ideal for use as a garden accent or patio feature, and is recommended for the following landscape applications;

  • Accent
  • General Garden Use

Planting & Growing

Globe Blue Spruce On Standard will grow to be about 6 feet tall at maturity, with a spread of 5 feet. It tends to be a little leggy, with a typical clearance of 3 feet from the ground, and is suitable for planting under power lines. It grows at a slow rate, and under ideal conditions can be expected to live for 60 years or more.

This dwarf tree should only be grown in full sunlight. It is very adaptable to both dry and moist growing conditions, but will not tolerate any standing water. It is not particular as to soil type or pH, and is able to handle environmental salt. It is highly tolerant of urban pollution and will even thrive in inner city environments. This is a selection of a native North American species.

Sizes Available:

15″ B&B, 18″ B&B, 21″ B&B

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