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Evergreens are backbone of good winter gardens

| Friday, Nov. 9, 2012, 8:55 p.m.
Dwarf hinoki cypress
Credit: Jessica Walliser
Dwarf hinoki cypress Credit: Jessica Walliser

It is after a hard frost, when the perennials have died back and all the leaves have fallen from the trees, that a gardener begins to appreciate the value of evergreens. During the winter months, when little else is standing in the garden, plants in this group become the stars, adding texture, color and structure to the landscape.

Don't get me wrong — I do think that ornamental grasses and deciduous trees with berries and/or interesting bark add a lot of winter interest to the garden, and I don't want to belittle their presence. It's just that, for me, evergreens form the backbone of the winter garden. Whether in the form of a tall, narrow pillar or a ground-hugging tuft, evergreens pack a visual punch.

All too often, this group of shrubs and trees is relegated to foundation plantings. Or plunked as a single specimen into the middle of the yard. But evergreens really should be included in perennial borders, patio gardens, kitchen gardens, and walled gardens, too, because when all the other plants in those spaces have died to the ground, the evergreens can really shine.

I am not suggesting, however, that you plant a 60-foot-tall Colorado blue spruce or a hemlock, in the middle of your perennial border. Instead, I'm suggesting that you turn to one of the many varieties of dwarf conifers and short-statured evergreens with a much more manageable growth habit. They'll be in proportion with the rest of the garden and require far less maintenance than a larger evergreen.

Because there are hundreds of choices out there, here are a few of my favorites to get your started.

Dwarf Hinoki Cypress (Chamaecyparis obtusa ‘Nana Gracilis'): This lovely evergreen is a slow-grower, taking 20 or more years to reach its mature height of 6 feet. With soft, fan-like foliage and a casual conical shape, Dwarf Hinokis have always been among my favorites of all the evergreens. They require full sun and average garden soil, and never need to be pruned. There are several other cultivars available, including one called ‘Nana Lutea.” It is even shorter — reaching a mere 3 feet in height — and it bears golden-yellow foliage.

Golden Globe Arborvitae (Arborvitae occidentalis ‘Golden Globe'): When most of us think of an arborvitae, we think of a 20-foot-tall, upright evergreen. This plant, however, is a charming little evergreen that almost seems entirely unrelated to larger arborvitae specimens. ‘Golden Globe' is a perfectly round little shrub that reaches a mere 3 feet in height and spread. It, too, does not require pruning. The foliage is a creamy yellow. I love grouping three of them together in the garden.

Siberian Cypress (Microbiota decussata): A Russian selection, Siberian Cypress is unique in that it is tolerant of partial shade, a trait not often found in conifers. It is low-growing, reaching only 12 inches in height, but it can spread up to 8 feet across. The foliage is soft and feathery and, while it is green during the summer, it turns a beautiful rusty red in the autumn. Site it in a well-drained location, as Siberian Cypress do not like to sit in water-logged areas.

Blue Mound Swiss Stone Pine (Pinus cembra ‘Blue Mound'): While full-sized Swiss Stone pines are on my love list, this little gem is perfect for smaller spaces. Reaching only 3 feet high and 1.5 feet wide after 10 years of growth, ‘Blue Mound' looks much like a miniature Christmas tree. It has soft blue needles and a dense, hardy growth habit.

Sparkling Arrow Alaskan Cedar (Chamaecyparis nootkatensis ‘Sparkling Arrow'): Taking the prize for the most intriguing evergreen, this narrow, yet weeping, tree is a real eye-catcher. The blue-green foliage is randomly splashed with creamy yellow markings and, while the entire plant grows straight and narrow, each of the individual branches is weeping. Although ‘Sparkling Arrow' will eventually reach 30 feet tall, it remains only 3 feet wide.

Come spring, when planting time arrives, consider adding a few dwarf evergreens to your landscape. Your local nursery is sure to have a good selection of them to suit your needs.

Horticulturist Jessica Walliser co-hosts ‘The Organic Gardeners” at 7 a.m. Sundays on KDKA Radio. She is the author of several gardening books, including ‘Grow Organic” and ‘Good Bug, Bad Bug.” Her website is

Send your gardening or landscaping questions to or The Good Earth, 503 Martindale St., 3rd Floor, D.L. Clark Building, Pittsburgh, PA 15212.

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