It's the Plants, Darling, Shut Up and Dig

Stop with the ugly evergreens

I'm not even sure what this was.

I’m not even sure what this was.

Why do so many landscapers think evergreens are an absolute must in cold climates? Aside from healthy mature trees and tree farms that I see on drives, most of the evergreen plantings I see around me in Western New York fail for a variety of reasons.

On the same property, some of these lovely trees--hard to see the bark against the building, but it's a great color.

On the same property, these work much better–the bark is a great color.

Brown/mostly brown/somewhat brown evergreen shrubs (mainly arborvitae) are a common sight on my city walks and it would really be a stretch to find anything attractive about these. Actually, the ones that still have a bit of healthy green left are the saddest. Other common sights are rows of evergreen shrubs (mostly arborvitae) wrapped in burlap. Now, that’s cheerful. Assuming that these were planted in large part to provide a burst of green in winter, encasing them in brown kinda defeats the purpose.

Also on the same property--this grass is holding up well after a couple months of intermittent snow and freezing rain.

Also on the same property–this grass is holding up well after a couple months of intermittent snow and freezing rain.

I do see plenty of mature pines and other conifers, though these are often a hazard more than anything else when planted near intersections—you can’t see through them. And they don’t look quite right in the city. Healthy junipers and yews are also not uncommon, if (mostly) boring. And then you have dubious choices (at least in WNY) like most rhododrendron. My favorite quote about rhodie leaves in winter is “thin cigars of misery.”

Here’s what I do love to run into on urban winter walks: ilex verticillata (winterberry) is common, but always lovely; healthy hollies are very pretty; red-twigged dogwood is essential; and, most of all, perennial grasses always work. They can take beatings of snow and ice all winter long and still maintain their stature (more or less depending on the cultivar).

Finally, what could be more beautiful in winter than a bare tree, occasionally glistening with ice? Bonus points if it has nice bark. That’s all the winter interest I need.

Posted by on February 14, 2017 at 9:13 am, in the category It's the Plants, Darling, Shut Up and Dig.

6 responses to “Stop with the ugly evergreens”

  1. Marcia says:

    I think most people don’t know that evergreens continue to transpire slowly in winter and when you have a January – 50 degree day, transpiration can really kick in. They need water. We were down 7 inches last year and are already down 1 and 1/2 this year. When it hits 50 degrees Saturday, I’ll water here in Maryland. Also, studies show insect damage occurs far more readily during drought.

    I like the large sturdy evergreens with horizontal branches for perching, like pine, cedar, and holly.

  2. Laura says:

    I can see your point, especially with so many bizarro dwarf varieties trimmed within an inch of their life. The burlap mummies look incredibly silly. Also, there are those sad weeping evergreen varieties that do indeed look like they are collapsing in pain. A vibrant red sumac, american sycamore with its peeling bark, or red rose hips are definitely preferable!

    I must say though, that to me a mature and healthy thuja occidentalis with its natural form can be quite majestic. I also love the narrow spires of balsam fir and the windswept look of white pine. In a northern climate, in the right location, evergreens can add depth and beauty, especially as a backdrop to deciduous shrubs and trees.

    One final thought: if you have any hopes of providing winter shelter for some feathered friends, evergreens are a must! An eastern red cedar provides beautiful berries for the eye and the birds, shelter from the weather, and also hosts 37 native butterflies and moth caterpillar species.

  3. Jeane says:

    That first pic looks like a cedar to me. If an evergreen can’t stand the winter it seems to me like it wasn’t healthy to begin with. Or, as you say, it’s planted in the wrong climate zone. I agree, I’d much rather look at an interesting clump of dry grass or deciduous branches than a dying evergreen.

  4. Great essay! I so agree. I understand about gardeners venturing outside their zone but troublesome plants in any season are no fun. I love the browns and greens and red berries in my winter garden.

  5. GK says:

    Somewhat agreed, but with a solid six months from first freeze to last frost (SE Michigan), i’ve planted over 100 little evergreens in a small backyard. Personally, i need the evergreens, the color green, the structure, and height. I also prune everything as i like, for better or worse. I’ve only flipped through one Niwaki book, and i fancy myself an expert (not!). Right or wrong, i’m “sculpting” my evergreens to play nice with each other, and manage for size. Without evergreens, my garden would be nothing.

  6. Susan says:

    Similar story here in Michigan with the added irony that many of the non-native conifers planted here (lots of Colorado spruce, Scotch pine and others) are succumbing to a combination of bacterial and fungal diseases probably brought on by being stressed with climate change. I have never been able to understand the winter “burlap” look either.

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