Evergreen planting brings year-round life to your garden

This time of the year is perfect for planning some of the exciting projects you can get started on in the spring. This week I have a suggestion for a project that is a lot of fun to plan and will be very satisfying to create. And if the land outside your window is looking a little bare right now, this project will have the added benefit of remaining pleasant to look at year-round.

We'll call this project an Evergreen Garden, but you could also refer to it as a Conifer Garden. This will work well in almost every plant hardiness zone as these evergreens do well in full or partial sun and have minimal water needs. Furthermore, you could justifiably describe an evergreen garden as "low maintenance" and that is a factor that might appeal if you have an already busy lifestyle!

We'll start with a list of some trees and shrubs for you to consider.

Let's start with the big guys. If your landscape has the scale that can handle tall trees, I suggest Colorado Blue Spruce or Frasier Fir. The spruce will reach about 100 ft tall when fully mature. The foliage can be blue, blue-green or all green. The Frasier fir (abies fraseri) could grow to 60 feet in height, and you are probably familiar with the soft, shiny, green foliage with the silvery underside. Both of these varieties should be about six feet tall in eight years or so, if you start with three- or four-year seedlings. Yes, these will be tall trees and will eventually shade a large area beneath them, so bear that in mind when planning your evergreen garden.

If the "big guys" seem likely to overpower your landscape, consider some smaller varieties that you can find at your garden center or from online sources. 

Moving down the size scale, I suggest you look at Big Sage (artemisia tridentata) which grows to a height of three or four feet and always makes me think of old western movies. Big Sage has silver-grey foliage and strongly aromatic foliage that I find really delightful! Another similar shrub is Sand Sage and this, too, produces a wonderful aroma. The wispy, upright branches move with the slightest breeze, and I find the sight of the gently waving foliage to be a very soothing vision. You might also want to investigate some of the juniper varieties such as Chinese Juniper and Pfitzer Juniper.

For a "dwarf" pine, you should consider Mugho Pine (pinus mugo pumilio), also known as Swiss Mountain Pine. Officially described as a "dwarf prostrate", Mugho is a low growing, spreading pine with dark green, stiff needles and will spread out to about three feet wide. Other small evergreens include varieties such as the dwarf conifer Balsam Fir, and the dwarf spruce known as "Gnom" (like a gnome without the "e").

Here's an unusual selection you might not have considered: Aaronsbeard St. Johnswort, otherwise known as hypericum calcinum. Technically, this is what I call a semi-evergreen as it will probably suffer tip dieback in colder winter climates, but will come back nicely in the spring and produces beautiful yellow blooms. It tolerates a wide spectrum of soil and water variables and spreads rapidly by underground stems, so a word of caution: it can be invasive in ideal growing conditions.

However, Aaronsbeard St. Johnswort is really attractive and provides an "out of the ordinary" aspect to your evergreen landscape. It also is a good choice to plant on slopes because the root structure stabilizes soil on embankments. As you might guess, it is starting to be used as groundcover by some enterprising landscapers. If you have difficulty locating Aaronsbeard, drop me an e-mail and I'll give you some pointers. Feeling a little less adventurous and still want some groundcover? Well, there is always the good old standby, pachysandra.

A pleasant finishing touch to any evergreen garden is the addition of colorful annuals between and around the shrubs and trees. You might choose French Marigolds or Pinkies. Find varieties that will be at their best at different times of the year. Again, your garden center should be able to help you select plants that are best suited to your zone.

In a future column, I'll discuss some ideas that will help you lay out and plant your evergreen garden, so if you have any particular issues in that area that you'd like me to address, now would be a good time to let me know!