Garden Q&A: Choose evergreens carefully

Jessica Walliser
| Saturday, Nov. 23, 2013, 9:00 p.m.

Question: We need help deciding what bushes to use in our driveway island. It is oval and 16 by 10 feet. We do not want to use azaleas, rhododendron or holly bushes because that is what we just removed. We want nothing that grows too tall, probably not more than 4 feet high, and would prefer bushes that stay green year round or are colorful year round. The area gets at least six hours of direct sun daily. Would you mind giving us a list of choices? We will be planting in spring.

Answer: Finding the right trees and shrubs for any particular location is always a challenge. And it's one not to be taken too lightly. You don't want to be replanting the site in a few years; nor do you want to be stuck with high-maintenance or disease- and insect-ridden specimens. You are smart to consider your options carefully.

To that note, I'll provide you with information about a few of my favorite plants that are well-suited to your area and meet your criteria, but talking with your local nursery and doing more research on your own will only serve to strengthen your choices and help you achieve the best results.

A favorite evergreen shrub that, with an annual light pruning, will fit your criteria is boxwood. There are hundreds of different varieties and cultivars of this plant, each with their own attributes, including mature size and cold tolerance. If you decide on boxwood, be sure to select a variety that will top out around 4 to 6 feet. There are conical, columnar and globular selections, so consider which one(s) are the most visually appealing for the site.

Cold tolerance is a factor with boxwoods, particularly regarding their new growth. The tips of some less-hardy selections will brown out in the winter. Ask your nursery which selections are best for our area, and avoid purchasing boxwoods from big box stores where shrubs are sometimes sourced from the South and may not be fully cold-hardy selections.

You also may want to consider adding junipers to your site. These evergreens come in a great variation of sizes, growth rates, forms and textures. Some are blue in color, some are green. Some are even variegated with added yellow or cream coloration. Junipers have come a long way in the past 15 years, with much effort going into breeding for a “softer” feel and the addition of several unique physical attributes, including berry size and funky growth forms. Go to several good local nurseries to compare varieties before deciding which one is best for you.

Another evergreen to consider is a dwarf hinoki cypress. Though standard varieties of hinoki cypress (Chamaecyparis obtusa) can grow up to 20 feet tall, dwarf forms are very slow growing and take many years to reach just a few feet in height. Their “needles” are fan-shaped and very soft to the touch. I have two dwarf hinokis at my house, and I love them. Their only downfall is the deer damage that sometimes befalls them. Junipers and boxwoods, however, are far more deer resistant.

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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