LESSON 4 | Evergreen Textures & Foliage

Everyone is drawn to flowers. If you have a number of “impulse buys” in your yard, they are more than likely flowering plants. We are going to talk about flowers and flowering shrubs and trees in the next lesson, but in this lesson we are going to get you to look more closely at foliage texture and color.

Unfortunately, the majority of flowering plants are in flower during a period less that half of the year. So what about the other half? Board up the house and go to Florida? Why not design your gardens with the idea that you will be enjoying them year round?  Why not invite plants into your yard that will “Wow” you in the middle of the winter because it is this time of year that you can actually see and appreciate the intricacies of leaf and needle pattern and color and texture of evergreen foliage.

Photo courtesy of Iseli Nursery.

We have gone over general layout of plants in a bed so you have a guideline of the size and spread of the plants that should go in the space. Now what plants? One of the biggest mistakes of novice gardeners is to buy all perennials, annuals and flowering shrubs for their foundation plantings. This looks amazing in the summer and early fall but by Nov 1st, everything is gone. The moral of the story is to plan for all seasons. That starts with evergreens. They are the “bones” of your landscape.

Does an evergreen= an evergreen = an evergreen??

Absolutely not! There are many different types of evergreens starting with the two major classifications: Needle evergreens (leaves that are composed of small or long needles) and Broadleaf evergreens (Evergreen leaves that are small to large but leaf-like) . Within these classifications is a great deal of variety and textures and colors of foliage.  Mixing these textures creates a great deal of interest. Mixing them with coordinating flowering plants can be outstanding. Below are some very interesting evergreens that you can incorporate into your design. They are by no means the entire list but they are very unique and will get you to start noticing what is available.

Photo courtesy of Iseli Nursery.

Noteworthy Evergreens

Chamaecyparis obtusa “Nana Gracilis’ – Dwarf Hinoki Cypress along with the other cultivars of Hinoki Cypress have unique fan-like dark green foliage. Depending on the variety they grow from 2’- 12’ tall. They have very dense, layered foliage that creates a very unique look in the garden. Because of the very dark green foliage, they will allow lighter plants to pop!

Camelllias – Camellias have amazing flowers that look like roses. However their foliage is just as stunning. Since their blooming time is late Fall into early Spring, these beautiful shrubs are mostly appreciated for their foliage during late Spring, Summer and early Fall. The simple leaves are very shiny and most are serrated (little teeth along the edges). They make a great background for other flowering plants because of their dark green color and shininess of their leaves.

Chamaecyparis pisifera filifera Aurea Mop – Ok, this plant is just fun looking. And the golden color is incredible! Remember- the more sun it gets, the brighter yellow it will be. The weeping form makes it really stand out among other shrubs. It looks great with other conifers in shades of blues and dark green. Also if you can plant it above a rock wall or in a rock garden, it will drape over gracefully.

Pinus strobus ‘Blue Shag’- This dwarf variety of Eastern White Pine is a gorgeous addition to any garden. It has long, soft, blue-green needles that you can’t help but run you hands through. It loves full sun and it is a slow grower but can reach 6’ across in time. It would mix nicely with blue or yellow flowering perennials or even yellow foliage conifers.

Prunus Laurocerasus ‘Otto Luyken’ – This compact broadleaf evergreen is a cultivar of Cherry Laurel. It grows 3-4’ tall and 6-8’ wide and tolerates shade. The shiny dark green leaves are narrow and point upward giving the plant a unique form.  It blooms in the Spring, but after the blooms go by, it has a beautiful dark green appearance that will give a perfect backdrop to the colors of the shade garden.

Euonymus japonica ‘Aureo-marginata’-  This evergreen shrub has green leaves edged in gold- that is how it got it’s latin name Aureo (gold) Marginata ( Border or Margins). It grows in sun to part shade but the rule of yellow foliage plants is that the more sun, the more yellow. The vibrant foliage is very dense so it would make a great backdrop or low hedge to grow other smaller plants in front. It would make a nice specimen mixed with dwarf conifers in a completely evergreen garden. It grows 5-10’ tall and 4-6’ wide, but can be kept lower with pruning.

Picea pungent ‘Globosa’- This Globe Blue Spruce gives you the beauty of a treasured Blue Spruce without the huge size. The stunning bright blue needles keep their color all year round. This shrub really is too spectacular to be used as anything but a specimen. It is slow growing but will eventually reach 3-5’ tall and 5-6’ wide. It prefers sun but will take a little shade. Planting this in combination with other cool colors and whites would be gorgeous.

Pinus mugo ‘Valley Cushion’- This dwarf Mugo Pine is even a more compact version. Mugos have such a distinctive look and have been a staple in the Cape Cod landscape for decades. The candles that extend upwards are very unique and give this plant an unusual texture and form. This particular variety gets only 1’ tall but will spread 4’ wide. It is worthy of a being a specimen plant in a space all its own.

Ilex x meservaea ‘Blue Princess’- This is one of the most popular female hybrid holly selections. As far as texture, these gorgeous leaves, have it all. They have so much texture, they might bite. A holly, well placed in the yard will give seasons of enjoyment to you and your wildlife. A holly grower once told me that a holly will take sun and will take wind, but not both. So in his mind, the best placement would be part shade and protection. These are acid-loving and do prefer soil with organic matter.  This hybrid with grow 10-15’ tall and 8-10’ wide.

Cedrus deodora ’Snow Sprite’- This plant is like nothing you have ever seen! It is a dwarf mounding selection of Himalayan cedar. In the spring it has dramatic ivory-white new growth which turns creamy yellow in the summer. This conifer grows in a tight irregularly mounding form and will reach 3’ tall and 2.5’ wide.  This is so shockingly beautiful, it would have to stand alone and be admired. I would pair this with tight-growing grey foliaged perennials.

These are not the only evergreens with interesting foliage but they are some of our favorites. Within each of these groups are many other varieties and cultivars. The trick is to notice them. Go to the nursery before the flowers are out and look in the fields and the display gardens and see how beautiful and unique evergreens can be and use these as the bones in the garden design.  This will give your design more structure and you can then fill around it with flowering, deciduous shrubs, perennials and grasses.  As we have learned in earlier lessons, always make sure you know the eventual size of the shrub and give it the room it needs to grow to maturity. Have fun!

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