Winter Green


The color green has not nearly so much significance to a gardener as living green does.  I have never taken the time to record how many different plants I have on my property, but suffice it to say that there are lots.  Each of the plants have a certain shade of green associated with them.  Taken as a whole, a garden is a green tapestry.  Only a fraction of the possible colors of green represent in my garden today.  A good portion of the garden is still dormant.  My roses, shrubs and trees are bare.  The perennials are buried under snow whose crust has frozen solid.  My isotoma fluvialitis is entirely brown.  What’s to look at?  The living green in winter is a certain kind of green we call evergreen.  Given that our winter is still holding on in March, this is the perfect time to be thinking about evergreens, and how they endow the winter landscape.


That group of plants that manage to stay green over our winter-not such a big range, but impressive in their delivery.  The ability for spruce,  douglas fir, white pine, boxwood, and rhododendron to stay green over the winter is an extraordinary story of adaptation.  Evergreen trees and shrubs do not shed their needles and leaves at the end of the season.  They shed interior needles on species specific schedules during the growing season-but definitely not during the winter.  Evergreen trees has evolved such that the individual needles have very little in the way of surface area.  Those needles are vastly better adapted to resist the drying from winter winds, and survive without photosynthesis going on, than a big fat juicy leaf of a hydrangea.  Hydrangeas, and many other deciduous plants, shed that juicy liability in the fall.  The needled and broadleaved evergreens-they tough it out.


My urban property has but one large spruce.  I am sure it has been here at least 40 years.  Maybe 60 years.  This tree is green, winter and summer.  The winter green is moody and dark, unlike the summer emerald green.  I am never more appreciative of that green than I am right now.  I barely notice this tree in the summer.  In the winter, I see it coming from blocks away.  The evergreens that define my winter garden-I could not be more appreciative.


Yews are needle leaved evergreen shrubs.  Their dense and dark forest green needles provide such beautiful structure to a garden.   In the spring, the new growth is lime green.  In the depths of the winter, the color is almost black.  Watching the change in color given the season is to understand how plants deal with stress.  A yew floating in much too much water-the needles will be yellow.  A yew that dies makes a spectacular issue of that demise.  Orange needled yews-I am sure you have seen them.  Yews in the thick of enduring the winter-the needles are almost black.  The color green teaches, should you be watching.


Evergreens provide a stalwart backdrop in the winter for the snow covered branches, and the wispy tufts and remains of the perennial garden.  This black green backdrop of hedged yews brings a magnolia into clear focus.  Were this view open to the street, the delicate tracery of the branches and the overall shape of this tree would be lost.  Specimen evergreens need ample space around them-appreciative space.  Hedging evergreens whose repetition defines spaces help to create winter interest.


Broad leaved evergreens are a glutton for punishment.  Rhododendrons feature broad leaves with big surfaces that suffer much more damage than needled evergreens.  Those big leaves react to winter weather graphically.  Those big leaves are sitting ducks for serious cold and vicious wind.  The rhododendron outside my home office window tell me whether the day is cold.  In cold weather, rhododendron leaves curl and drop down.  In very cold weather, the droopy outline of the leaf is rolled in on itself- much like a pencil.  In much the same way as I curl up on a cold day, their curling and dropping mechanism helps protect them from extreme cold.  In the picture above, the leaves are hanging, dangling, from the stems.  This is a winter profile, generated by adaptation.  Once the leaves fan out, I know the temperature has moderated.  Rhododendrons prosper far better in warmer zones than mine, but my few plants grace my garden with green all winter.


Boxwood-no other evergreen shrub describes a landscape better.  Most of our suppliers winter their boxwood in tunnel houses.  How so?  A boxwood out of the ground, in a pot, is an evergreen needing protection from the winter.  Boxwood in containers require special care, as their roots winter above ground.  Lots of water prior to the freeze is a good idea.  A wilt pruf spray- not a a bad idea.  Evergreens in pots at the front door is a very good winter look.


Boxwood in the ground prospers in my yard. The evergreens, both big and small, both needled and broad leaved, define a landscape both summer and winter.


If a winter season is unavoidable, the evergreens help to make it a little easier to bear.  They organize a space when snow has all but obliterated any of the details.  Once established, evergreens are long lived, and low maintenance.

snowy-day.jpgThis day would have been ever so much more bleak, without the evergreens.

Structure From Evergreens


 The structure afforded from evergreen plantings is never more apparent in my zone than in the month of March.  Debris litters the ground in the garden, no matter the quality of my fall cleanup.  The hydrangea heads have been blown off their stems by gusting winds.  There are places where the visuals are not the best.  But my evergreens go a long way towards providing my winter landscape with structure.  This is the third season for this double ball yew topiary in this concrete pot.  The boxwood semicircle, the topiary and the hydrangeas organize this part of my garden in every season.  


spiral juniper topiaries

 Evergreens planted in pots is a beautiful look, but they require special care.  They ask for pots of a good size.  Beware evergreens that have small rootballs.  Healthy and well grown evergreens oftentimes have rootballs wider than their tops.  They need water early in the spring, late in the fall, and perhaps in the winter.  They can be worth the trouble-what they do for the entrance to this pool house is considerable.  They soften and compliment the architecture.  They bring a sense of the garden all of the way up the stairs.  They are of a size and shape which is proportional to the hard structure.  They make the entrance visually welcoming. topiary boxwood

Some evergreens are amenable to formal pruning.  Boxwoods tolerate precisely geometric pruning quite well.  Heavy snow can burden formally pruned boxwoods such that branches crack, leaving the plant vulnerable to fungal infections.  I make an effort to keep the snow load on mine at a minimum. This formally structured garden is beautiful no matter the season, or the weather.  The enclosure provided by the arborvitae, and the yews makes this living world complete unto itself. 

annual borders

 Annual borders can be subtle, wispy, rowdy or structured.  Annuals cannot provide much structure to a garden, but they certainly benefit from it.  The formally pruned yew hedge behind this garden provides a strikingly simple and effective backdrop for a collection of delicately colored and structured flowers.  This hedge of evergreens is darkly beautiful in shape, size and mass, but it is the contrast of the annual border that so strongly makes that point.boxwood parterres

Boxwood has been planted in shapes both rectilinear and curved for centuries.  One boxwood on its own can be quite lovely, but many planted to form shapes gives the collection a sculptural quality.  The grass in the foreground, the yews in the mid ground, and the arborvitae in the background create a landscape with four distinct layers.  The flowers provide considerable seasonal interest, but the landscape composition is still as strong visually in the winter months.

evergreen structure

Large evergreens do a great job of screening out untoward views.  They can provide a landscape with a sense of privacy.  The yews at the lower level provide additional privacy to anyone seated in the garden.  The pool and terrace are not completely enclosed; the wide opening is an invitation to a lake view not pictured here.  The transition from bluestone terrace to lawn helps a highly structured landscape breathe.

topiary carpinus

I planted this carpinus as an 8 foot tall tree when I was young.  Its mature size and formal shape is stunning.  Carpinus is not evergreen, but its leaves hang on quite late and on into the winter.  Sometimes they do not drop until they are pushed off the branches by the new season’s emerging leaves.  The boxwood hedge in front provides a little structure which helps the ground the tree.  The trunk is virtually invisible, given the dense shade under the bottom leaves.  Without the boxwood, the tree would appear to be floating.

evergreen hedge

This yew hedge repeats the structure of the wall and its limestone cap.  The repetition of the shape of the wall with a hedge somewhat taller than the wall organizes the pool terrace garden.  The pots are filled with many kinds of annuals in a loose and flowing way.  The structure provided by the evergreens highlights those plantings.  From outside the pool terrace, the wall seems all the more important visually for its yew lining.

structure in the landscape

A sculpture is given special visual prominence in a landscape by the evergreens that surround it.  The tops of the yews are being pruned with the horizon, and not the grade of the driveway.  It will take a few more years before the hedge is completely level.  Standing at the entrance to this garden, there is much less of a sense of a sloped space.     

walled garden


This small private garden is completely walled by evergreens.  The boxwood provides interest on the lower level, and makes much of an antique sundial.  The peonies bloom but for a short time in the spring, but their big glossy leaves are a compliment and contrast to the evergreens all summer long.  I would doubt there are many visitors here in the winter, but it is an enchanting secret garden in the summer. 


yew hedge

In this instance, the yew hedge provides a graceful transition from the mature deciduous trees in the background.  Though the panic grass obscures 3/4’s of the height of those yews, it lends its weight to the panic grass hedge. That hedge has a very prominent role in the winter landscape, as the grasses are cut to the ground, and the blue grey plectranthus succumbs to the first frost.

grass sculpture

Grass does not immediately come to mind when one thinks of evergreens, but in my zone it is green most of the year. Though it grows beneath your feet, it can be a very important element to the structure of a landscape.

Gorgeous Greens

So many of the materials used at the holidays are harvested from the landscape.  Not my landscape, mind you.  My evergreens grow much too slowly to be trimmed for holiday greens;  the one spruce on my property was limbed up at least 12 feet before I moved in.  But there are places where the boxwood flushes several times a season, and the magnolia grows lushly.  Thank heavens for all the fir-Noble, Frazier, Douglas, Balsam, Silver, Concolor-fir boughs are so beautiful, long lasting, and fragrant at the holidays.  And of course, the iconic boxwood. Cut magnolia-this a a subject worthy of a post soon to come.   We have true variegated English boxwood branches for the first time this season.  Would that I could grow this gorgeous evergreen in my garden!  That aside, I plan to enjoy all of the cut greens available during the holiday and winter season.

Noble fir-so aptly named.  The short needles grow densely along each branch. They shrug off the worst of the winter weather; the cut branches stay green for months.  Evergreen needles have evolved to survive long periods when the roots cannot obtain water, when the soil is frozen.  The needles have very little in the way of surface area.  This means water evaporates at a lower and slower rate than say a maple leaf.  A big surface area means rapid evaporation.  Their formal shape and gorgeous blue green color makes them a green of choice for winter arrangements.  Noble fir-the mainstay of my winter container arrangements.      

Berried juniper is not my most favorite green, but the blue berries are very persistent.  I like mixing this green with other blue hued greens.

Long needle pine-just exactly what species is this?  This is not a common name that I know.  Should you recognize this evergreen, will you write me?  The long needled pines-as in white pine, have gracefully curving stems.  This makes them great for informal arrangements.  Curvy is a good look, for the winter.

I love the texture and the fragrance of cedar.  This is an evergreen with flat needles.  Those flat needles present more surface area to all of those elements that dry out cut greens.  I use Port Orford cedar, a lax and luscious variety distantly related to my thujas, outside only.  Cedar roping and branches dry out very quickly indoors.  Even outdoors, they dry, brown out, and drop needles too soon to make them a cut green of choice.  I use cedar as an accent in my holiday decor projects.  Long lasting gets lots of votes.  That aside,  I like any seasonalexpression.  Cut cedar for that one moment brings the holidays to mind. Cedar branches-so fragrant, and so fleeting.

Douglas fir is perhaps the least showy of all of the specialty holiday greens, but its longevity is legendary.  I have been known to cut up Douglas fir Christmas trees after Christmas for winter pots.  Douglas fir will stay green well into April.  I am impressed by this. 

Boxwood is an evergreen so close to my heart-I like them wild, I love them trimmed.  Broad leaved evergreens are a great foil to the needled evergreens.  This is the perfect cut material for clipped topiaries, and formal wreaths.  Any arrangement of needled evergreen boughs gets a visual boost from any boxwood companionship.  I like the reference in my holiday decor to the boxwood in my garden.

Princess pine-I have never planted one.  I do not know the species.  But these branches look great in winter containers and garlands.  The long needles are presented in short tufts.  Where would this work for you?

German boxwood is a very big leaved boxwood.  The very large leaved branches are striking in winter or holiday arrangements. 

Oregonia is a name of choice in the florist trade for boxwood-but this boxwood is much more subtle, and smaller leaved than our English variegated boxwood.  I will not debate the differences.  I can only say that there are so many choices in cut greens for the holidays. 

Every bale of greens that came in this week -beautiful.  Those fresh materials-they smell great.  I hold them in my hands, and imagine.   They keep me going.  They keep me going strong.

Evergreen Theatre

I deliberately chose to follow up yesterday’s post about the pitiful state of my garden with a discussion of evergreens in the landscape. This garden I planted many years ago; it has been maintained with distinction. I will post this picture every so often as long as I live-is this garden not the most beautiful?  Evergreens play a lead role in those transitions between the seasons.  They shine in the late fall, winter, and early spring in my zone.  Were I gardening in Florida or Spain, I would still give plenty of consideration to evergreens-the broadleaf ones in particular. Were I to find myself gardening at the equator, I would not be happy.  I have had my seasons too many years to give them up.  How to handle the transitions of the seasons-the evergreens do the work.   Yesterday’s post was all about dirt and desolation, but in fact my landscape has green structure.    

These buxus sempervirens topiary balls arrived from Oregon yesterday.  This species could be hardy in ground for four straight mild winters, and then burn and die over the fifth.  Why do I buy them?  They are incredibly beautiful in pots; I do not fault them for needing to be stored in an unheated garage or building over our winter.  This mouthwatering and luscious green sculpture in April-I cannot take my winter weary eyes off these plants.  I have a pair that have been in giant French terra cotta pots for some years.  They do fine in my unheated and unlit garage-outdoors right now, they focus my attention away from dirt, debris and the otherwise deadly and depressing.  Gardeners are a hopeful lot, are they not? 

Boxwood of this size on standard-I never see this form in boxwood hardy in Michigan.  It would take so many years to grow to this size, you would need to allocate your child’s college fund to buy one.  Buxus sempervirens grows like a weed in mild climates; these came from Oregon.  They will flush new growth twice in a growing season.  They are an investment-but given our 6 months of garden off season-worth the expense. 

Evergreen hedges are pedestrian in the summer garden; this arborvitae hedge is the last thing you notice in this picture.  They make a solid and quiet green wall onto which a gardener can sculpt their own idea of beautiful.  Evergreens do a great job of serenely enclosing spaces.  The center of interest in a landscape space can be encouraged, enlivened, made more special, via an evergreen backdrop.  

These trimmed topiary evergreens ask for a more starring role. Comfortable in the lights-yes, they are.  Can they organize a space, provide star power, hold their own-no doubt. 

Though I published pictures yesterday of my pitiful rose and perennial gardens, and what the corgis have rent asunder, my landscape is by and large defined by its evergreens.  Much behind the scenes workhorses in July, they are the star of my show in April. All of my landscape spaces are structured with plantings of those plants that stay green all year long. My public presentation looks presentable all year long.  Behind these yew hedges I have perennials and pots-none of which look like anything right now.  Better that I deal with what does not look great in April, than my neighbors.  I do feel it is my responsibility to present a dressy and neat appearance every month of the year to others in the neighborhood.  This is good manners.  Those people that plant vegetable gardens in their front yards-I am happy to not be living next door to them; that would be tough for me.  The beauty of a garden is year round, given committment and imagination.  The neighbors aside, evergreens provide structure, privacy and peace.  They break the fierce fall and spring winds-many of your other plants might prosper from the big brother or older sister an evergreen hedge might provide.  Those six months I cannot garden in Michigan-my evergreens tide me over.  

I took this picture today-the first week of April.  The needles of this dwarf scotch pine on standard are are not just green-they are juicy and saturated green.  Should you be planning a new landscape, or a landscape renovation, consider the evergreens.  Broadleaved, needled, the topiary forms, the towering trees, the hedging evergreens-look into them.  Their individual forms, their collective forms-they are a brass band that will warm your heart in the coldest months of the year.   

Though I took this picture on a July day last year, in my heart was a big thanks to those impassively dark green evergreens that scooped me up, and made my love of landscape a reality. Most of these plants were planted fifteen years ago.  Don’t delay: plan, go so far as to master plan.  Plant a few evergreens, or plant lots.  Plant little plants or plant a few big ones.  Think about where evergreens might provide a focus to a space, screen an untoward view, describe a space, break the wind, provide a beautiful backdrop.  Today is the best day of this gardening season to think about putting a plan in place. The evergreens-they can help you.