By Jane Milliman
What’s not to like about evergreens, those adaptable, versatile plants? Evergreens can shine year-round, adding structure to a mixed border, standing out as specimens, or even comprising an entire garden.
In the mixed border, well-proportioned evergreens can give a feeling of the garden being grounded while providing a neutral place for the eye to rest. Keep in mind, though, that those cute little bird’s-nest spruces in their diminutive pots might ultimately grow to 5 feet tall and 6 feet wide — so plan accordingly or be prepared to clip them back.
As a privacy hedge or windbreak, tall, dense evergreens rule. Look for upright yews, and arborvitaes such as ‘Green Giant’, right. If you have the space and budget and want a fuller hedge quick, stagger the plantings and/or plant them a little closer than recommended — they knit together just fine.
What about winter, that garden downtime? Evergreens are essential for the winter landscape, providing windbreaks, nesting sites, and a color other than gray or tan. Besides, the needles look great dusted with snow!
Of course evergreens aren’t always just green. This prostrate creeping spruce, right, is a delicate icy blue. False cypress (Chamaecyparis spp.) comes in an array of chartreuse and variegated forms, as well as shades of green. Its flat needles resemble those of the arborvitae and can be sturdy and sculpted or lacy and fluttery.
In their various forms, evergreens can have white tips, variegated needles, and purple leaves. That’s right, leaves. Not all evergreens have needles. Don’t forget about broadleaf evergreens to add color and texture. Azalea, rhododedron, mountain laurel, holly, pieris, barberry, and cotoneaster — with its fat, shiny red berries — might make you start to forget about deciduous plants.
One of the most useful broadleaf evergreens is the humble boxwood. You can prune it to any shape, and it’s practically required edging in a formal garden. My favorites are the widely available Korean varieties and their crosses because they keep good winter color, are exceptionally hardy, and stay relatively small.
Once you start planting evergreens, don’t be surprised if you develop a little bit of an obsession — it’s not uncommon. The owner of this upstate New York garden plants evergreens almost exclusively. Paired with rocks, gravel, and a little mulch, they create a serene and sophisticated air. In a display like this, where everything is “special,” give each plant some room to show off.