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Evergreen - the word conjures up a picture of a Christmas tree. In a garden context, we picture that same Christmas tree, or one of its coniferous cousins, beaming green in a snow-covered landscape. But in the winter garden, evergreen is more than just coniferous trees: broadleaf shrubs, perennials, even hardy annuals and vegetables also count. I'm putting together this page to explore just how different kinds of evergreens figure in the garden scene.

Let's define what I mean by evergreen here. I'm not a botanist, so my definition may not be the official one - but it will suffice here. To me, an evergreen is any plant that maintains live leaves through part or all of winter. Just winter color doesn't count. Nice bark doesn't count. Buds don't count. It's gotta be leaves.

As part of this project, I walked through my garden on January 1, 2005 and took pictures of lots of plants showing leaves that hadn't given up. Some barely hanging in there, others as vigorous as ever. By that date, we'd had two nights down to 2°F, but only a little bit of snow. I plan to do another walk-through in a few weeks to compare results.


Let's start with the most familiar cast of evergreen characters - coniferous trees and shrubs. Most of the clan are, in fact, evergreen, although there are a few deciduous conifers as well, for example the dawn redwood.

Our garden isn't particularly rich in conifers, but we do have several. The biggest lineup is on a raised berm along the back of our garden, planted by the builder to separate the yard from the street behind it. I recently identified these as douglas firs, one of the common Christmas tree types.

Other conifers are mainly in our front yard and garden. We have two types of yew planted along the foundation (no, not very original - but at least we don't clip them). Also a skyrocket juniper and its unidentified cousin, a few Alberta spruces (still small after years in our garden), a Bosnian pine, and some sort of false cypress. Separating our side garden from the neighbors' driveway is a hedge of arborvitae. Even though we never water or fertilize them, they seem to do better than most of our neighbors' arbs. Go figure.

Not all conifers make a statement from afar. One of our favorite front-yard evergreens is the blue rug juniper, creeping near the base of the aforementioned yews (which in this photo are suffering the additional disgrace of Christmas lights). In summer it has a bluish shade of green, but in winter it turns a dusky purple. Either way it's functional, if not structural.

Other conifers are the dwarf ones, small in all directions - mugho pines, dwarf hinoki cypress and false cypress. Photos of those will follow in the next series...

Broad-leaved evergreen shrubs

The second category of evergreens gardeners usually think of is broadleaf evergreen shrubs. For reasons unknown, all rhododendrons and most azaleas we've tried in our garden have failed, but we do have some hollies and others. A few portraits from January 2005 are shown below.

'Carol Mackie' daphne isn't quite as lustrous as earlier in the season, but still holds her own

Euonymus 'Moonshadow' holds its colors and luster much better than other wintergreens we grow.


Sky Pencil holly is nice year-round

After exposure to sub-zero temperatures, the leaf margins of variegated English holly have dulled somewhat, but they're hanging on


Many herbaceous perennials also keep some of their foliage through winter. Some just barely hang on, while others shine. Let's start with the latter first.


Hellebores really are the aristocrats of the winter perennial garden. Most of the ones we grow never skip a beat, looking as good or better in January as they did in the warmer seasons. Of course, they follow up this act with early-season flowers, some while snow still covers the ground, but that's not the focus of this article.

My personal foliage favorite is probably Helleborus argutifolius

The seven-fingered leaves of Helleborus foetidus aren't shabby either

Taking on new colors

While we use the term evergreen, that doesn't mean the foliage is necessarily verdant. In fact, some of the most striking perennials in the winter garden take on different tones. Some carry these other colors throughout the season, while others reserve them for freezy times.

Beautifully burgundy-and-green sea thrift.

bronze bugleweed gets even darker in winter

Rock garden plants

Many alpine and other low-growing plants keep their posture, small as it may be, better than their taller cousins.

Arabis alpina stays nice and fresh, too

Sempervivum darkens up, but is a model of hardiness


In the rock garden, cotula hispida is still cute and fuzzy



Myrtle spurge is better now than during summer, when its sprawling stems can get ratty



Grasses and such

Many grass-like plants stay perky through winter.

Dwarf variegated bamboo doesn't have as bright a variegation, but otherwise hangs on nicely

'Ice Dance' sedge was still nice as could be in early January, but got bedraggled-looking after a few more hard freezes and snowfall


About the last kind of plant you think about when you hear evergreen is the lowly annual. But in fact, hardy annuals (those able to tolerate freezing temperatures) sometimes grow from seed in fall, persist through winter, and quickly grow and bloom in spring. Our classic example is nigella, pictured at right.

love in a mist


I wouldn't call our vegetable garden a lush zone in wintertime, but some vegetables, if left to their own devices, will continue to show life into winter.

Most of Swiss chard's leaves are spent and sad, but some new ones take on almost irridescent, translucent colors. They wouldn't last much longer - another round of hard freezes did them in

Even though it's not the prettiest sight, red cabbage still colors things up


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