Evergreen - the word conjures up a picture of a Christmas tree. In a garden
context, we picture that same Christmas tree, or one of its coniferous cousins,
beaming green in a snow-covered landscape. But in the winter garden, evergreen
is more than just coniferous trees: broadleaf shrubs, perennials, even hardy
annuals and vegetables also count. I'm putting together this page to explore
just how different kinds of evergreens figure in the garden scene.
Let's define what I mean by evergreen here. I'm not a botanist, so my
definition may not be the official one - but it will suffice here. To me,
an evergreen is any plant that maintains live leaves through part or all of
winter. Just winter color doesn't count. Nice bark doesn't count. Buds
don't count. It's gotta be leaves.
As part of this project, I walked through my garden on January 1, 2005
and took pictures of lots of plants showing leaves that hadn't given up.
Some barely hanging in there, others as vigorous as ever. By that date,
we'd had two nights down to 2°F, but only a little bit of snow. I plan
to do another walk-through in a few weeks to compare results.
Let's start with the most familiar cast of evergreen characters - coniferous
trees and shrubs. Most of the clan are, in fact, evergreen, although there are
a few deciduous conifers as well, for example the dawn redwood.
Our garden isn't particularly rich in conifers, but we do have several. The
biggest lineup is on a raised berm along the back of our garden, planted by
the builder to separate the yard from the street behind it. I recently
identified these as douglas firs, one of
the common Christmas tree types.
Other conifers are mainly in our front yard and garden. We have two types
of yew planted along the foundation (no, not very original - but at least we
don't clip them). Also a skyrocket juniper and its unidentified cousin, a few
Alberta spruces (still small after years in our garden), a Bosnian pine, and
some sort of false cypress. Separating our side garden from the neighbors'
driveway is a hedge of arborvitae. Even though we never water or fertilize
them, they seem to do better than most of our neighbors' arbs. Go figure.
Not all conifers make a statement from afar. One of our favorite front-yard
evergreens is the blue rug juniper, creeping near the base of the
aforementioned yews (which in this photo are suffering the additional
disgrace of Christmas lights). In summer it has a bluish shade of green,
but in winter it turns a dusky purple. Either way it's functional, if not
Other conifers are the dwarf ones, small in all directions - mugho pines,
dwarf hinoki cypress and false cypress. Photos of those will follow in the next
Broad-leaved evergreen shrubs
The second category of evergreens gardeners usually think of is broadleaf
evergreen shrubs. For reasons unknown, all rhododendrons and most azaleas
we've tried in our garden have failed, but we do have some hollies and others.
A few portraits from January 2005 are shown below.
'Carol Mackie' daphne isn't quite as lustrous as earlier in the season, but still
holds her own
Euonymus 'Moonshadow' holds its colors and luster much better than other wintergreens
Sky Pencil holly is nice year-round
After exposure to sub-zero temperatures, the leaf margins of variegated English holly
have dulled somewhat, but they're hanging on
Many herbaceous perennials also keep some of their foliage through winter.
Some just barely hang on, while others shine. Let's start with the latter first.
Hellebores really are the aristocrats of the winter perennial garden. Most
of the ones we grow never skip a beat, looking as good or better in January
as they did in the warmer seasons. Of course, they follow up this act with
early-season flowers, some while snow still covers the ground, but that's
not the focus of this article.
My personal foliage favorite is probably Helleborus argutifolius
The seven-fingered leaves of Helleborus foetidus aren't shabby either
Taking on new colors
While we use the term evergreen, that doesn't mean the foliage is
necessarily verdant. In fact, some of the most striking perennials in the
winter garden take on different tones. Some carry these other colors throughout
the season, while others reserve them for freezy times.
Beautifully burgundy-and-green sea thrift.
bronze bugleweed gets even darker in winter
Rock garden plants
Many alpine and other low-growing plants keep their posture, small as it may be,
better than their taller cousins.
Arabis alpina stays nice and fresh, too
Sempervivum darkens up, but is a model of hardiness
In the rock garden, cotula hispida is still cute and fuzzy
Myrtle spurge is better now than during summer, when its sprawling stems can get ratty
Grasses and such
Many grass-like plants stay perky through winter.
Dwarf variegated bamboo doesn't have as bright a variegation, but otherwise hangs
'Ice Dance' sedge was still nice as could be in early January, but got bedraggled-looking
after a few more hard freezes and snowfall
About the last kind of plant you think about when you hear evergreen
is the lowly annual. But in fact, hardy annuals (those able to tolerate freezing
temperatures) sometimes grow from seed in fall, persist through winter, and
quickly grow and bloom in spring. Our classic example is nigella, pictured at
love in a mist
I wouldn't call our vegetable garden a lush zone in wintertime, but some
vegetables, if left to their own devices, will continue to show life into
Most of Swiss chard's leaves are spent and sad, but some new ones take on almost irridescent, translucent colors.
They wouldn't last much longer - another round of hard freezes did them in
Even though it's not the prettiest sight, red cabbage still colors things up
Visitors to this page have left the following comments
|beulah||Jul 05, 2006||i have had a helleborus plant for several yrs and bloomed during the colder months ,now the problem ..... i pulled up a leaf and they all came off at the top of the ground,now i hear people talk about having small plants come up .does this mean more will come up or is it dead for good ?
I assume the small plants would be seedlings - if you're lucky, you may get some. Hellebore stalks are biennial, so some of them will die off every year, while the plant lives on. If your plant has no visible growth left, I'm not too hopeful for its chances of survival. Perhaps the plant rotted from too much moisture?
|diane||Jul 21, 2006||We have moved from Calif. to Colorado. I am looking for broadleaf evergreen shurbs to give me something green in winter. Your site has already been a big help.|
|Alicia||Mar 12, 2007||I enjoyed your information. I am going to need a replacement for a Skimmia (SP?)that has been a joy for 20 years or more. Shiney folage & winter berries gave floral greens & added to Christmas Holly.Also was easy to retain size wise. I think I will just replace it with a young one. Thanks,Alicia
|justine||Mar 05, 2008||I have just taken some notes from your site, am from the uk and have a blank garden in Latvia. Everybody has mainly conifers and rocks here, so i will try some of your recommendations...if I can find them
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March 15, 2014