WINTER IS THE BEST TIME TO Look at a yard
and ask: what are the bones of this garden? There may
be some hardscape items providing structure—such as
pergolas, gazebos, and trellises—but mostly the bones
are trees. Deciduous trees can be dominant “bones”
even without their leaves, as they offer dramatic bark,
strong vertical elements, and prominent canopies. In
smaller scale gardens, the bones are most often green—
evergreen shrubs and trees against a backdrop of snow
or, less dramatically, against the gray-brown backdrop of
Designing with green bones
Evergreens are usually key elements in so-called
foundation plantings, as well as in islands, landscape
beds, hedges, or along fences. These plants keep
their needles all winter (spruces, firs, pines) or retain
leaves through the season (rhododendrons, hollies,
boxwoods). Evergreens are visually dense, compared
with deciduous plants that feel or look lighter. Most are
shades of green, with some strong gold or blue-green
tones. A landscape design looks off, especially in winter,
if these solid-looking plants are imbalanced. If a large
Colorado spruce is on the right front of the house,
the viewer feels comfortable seeing three mounding,
short Chamaecyparis (False cypress) or hollies on the
left front. But if all four evergreens are on one side, the
design will look off kilter.
Here are some guidelines for designing with
evergreens. These ideas may help when planning to
redesign or plant new beds next season, and they may
explain why a garden can look out of balance.
Tips for choosing and placing evergreens
• Place a conical or tall and narrow evergreen as a
focal point among mounding or spreading shrubs or
groups of perennials.
• Use upright evergreens as a backdrop for groups of
• Mass low-growing evergreens to cover banks or to
create dramatic groundcover.
• Place a shapely evergreen where its silhouette will
be seen against a sunset or open sky, or against a blank
wall of a building.
• Remember that some conifers are deciduous such
as larches and Metasequoia (Dawn Redwood); use them
where their stark silhouettes are enjoyable in winter and
their light shade is useful in summer.
• Consider evergreen needle colors: Mix gold-tones
with dark greens, or blue-gray tones with other greens
(but do not put gold-tones and blue-grays together).
• Place plants with their shadows in mind. In hot
locations, shadows should fall on sitting areas in late
afternoon or should shelter some plants from the
• Where appropriate, for a large windscreen or view-blocking function,
plant a grove or cluster of evergreens in uneven numbers. If you plant
them when they’re small, their roots will entangle and grow well together.
• Always choose and place plants with their mature sizes in mind.
Look for information about growth rate as well: a dwarf spruce might
grow half an inch per year, but another so-called “dwarf” may grow one
foot per year. (Dwarf refers to the relative size of a cultivar compared to
the species; dwarf may mean fifteen feet tall if compared to its fifty-foot
Common mistakes using evergreens
• A series or intermittent placement of columnar, pointy shrubs (like
Arborvitae) looks like lots of exclamation points—jarring and silly.
• A straight row of a single species, for hedge or fencing purposes, asks
for trouble. Any monoculture is vulnerable if a pest or disease attacks it. A
EVERGREENS FOR STRUCTURE AND
BY SALLY CUNNINGHAM
Clockwise from top: Rhododendron bud in winter, False Cypress, and a Dawn
Redwood; Opposite: holly