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But, what you may not realize is what those floriferous shots aren’t showing you – the simple evergreen shrubs, ferns, grasses and groundcovers that are the anchoring foundations in these garden beds. In year-round interest gardens, simple evergreen plants create the framework or bones that support the entire design. They are also the plants most new gardeners don’t want to invest in – until they understand why, without simple shrubs, their seasonally overflowing garden’s gorgeous looks will melt into bare, weed-inviting ugliness come winter.
Perennials come and go with the seasons. Some are ephemeral, appearing only very briefly in early spring. Others strut their stuff for months on end from spring through autumn. Several appear as summer fades, lasting until freezing weather halts their beautiful show. And, even a few will color up the garden despite icy coats sheathing their determined stems. Although perennials can provide interest in the garden throughout the year, it would be very difficult to fill an entire garden with their ever-changing symphony – without also creating lots of holes during their seasonal pauses.
While deciduous plants can offer some amazing year-round interest including changing spring and fall leaf color, intermittent flowering, showy bark, twisting forms, colorful winter fruits and more, they are still mostly bare and twiggy during dormancy. These bare spots can disrupt seasonal privacy and create unwanted views at times. Plus, some of the showy aspects of deciduous plants are lost without a strong evergreen backdrop behind them. And, when the ground is bare – even though sturdy perennials are living just below the soil line – weeds will readily enter and take root.
Enter the evergreens. From Pine to Podocarpus, Lavender to Viburnum, Camellia to Hebe, Callistemon to Yucca, Rhododendron to Rosemary, Yucca to Blueberry, Grevellia to Yew, Clematis to Huckleberry, Juniper to Thyme, Carex to Sword Fern and so many more – there’s an evergreen for just about every zone, every garden style, and every season to add foundation, color, and mixed interest in the border.
In addition to filling in empty gaps and ensuring your winter garden offers something more than bare ground come winter, mixing in evergreens may also provide your garden with fragrance, flowers, food and so much more.
Need a vine?Consider an evergreen Clematis x armandii, which is covered in fragrant white blossoms in late winter/early spring. Or try out an Akebia quinata, which works well in areas without terribly harsh winters and provides nutmeg-scented purple blooms come spring.
Want a groundcover?
Thyme is a fantastic low-growing herb that comes in many forms. Sedum ‘Angelina’ is a fantastic ground-hugger that suppresses weeds but allows perennials to pop through with ease. Need something taller? Try Vinca minor in shade or a carpet Juniper well-drained locations in sun. Take care that your evergreen groundcover plays well with your perennials and won’t choke them out over time.
Want to lower your maintenance but still have blooms?
There are many fantastic evergreen shrubs and trees that require very little maintenance while still putting on showy blooms. Grevillea can provide airy form and winter flowers. Low maintenance Nandina provides a rainbow of foliar color year-round, plus it blooms in spring and has red berries in winter, and comes in sizes to fit just about any garden’s needs.
Need some privacy or just a backdrop?
Larger evergreen shrubs and trees can create privacy. Just be sure to select something that grows size appropriately. Place large, evergreen shrubs like Rhododendron, Camellia and Viburnum in the back of borders. Then install winter bloomers like Witch Hazel in front of them so their mid-winter blooms will be extra showy from afar. Even a deciduous barberry benefits from the background of a Threadbranch Cypress in summer!
Want some texture?
Flowing grasses and grass-like plants can add a unique softness to the mixed bed. Plus, they sparkle beautifully during frosty mornings. Consider Carex testacea – a grass-like sedge – to add hints of orange, green and bronze to beds. Need something for shade? Sturdy asparagus-cousin Liriopes provide a grass-like, strappy form, spread to hold slopes and bloom in color.
Do your perennials need some support?
Tall and heavy perennials may require something to help hold them up when they are laden with blooms. Rather than fill your garden with cages to lift up Dahlias and the like, try surrounding these weighty-blossomed droopers with sturdy evergreens to lean on. Perhaps plant a few Hebes to give your peonies a lift or weave your summer blooming lilies through the branches of a nearby Rhododendron.
Want to grow more food?
Mid-size evergreen blueberry, huckleberry and herb shrubs are perfect to pop into the middle tier of your deep beds where they will be accessible for harvest in summer, even if surrounded by annuals and perennials. In winter, their clothed branches will add color and fragrance to otherwise bare beds.
Need something to add architectural interest?
Even in simplified, gravel-filled beds, a few striking plants can add life and interest. Keep it simple with structural cactus or yucca to really make a statement. Or pop in a Pine of Podocarpus to gather mounds of fluffy snowfall. Even a simple fern, like Sword Fern, can provide that touch of unique, upright evergreen form that draws the eye even on a chilly winter day.
Rather than cultivate a garden that’s only gorgeous from spring through fall while woody and herbaceous perennials and annuals are showing off, take the time to integrate a few evergreens to keep your garden as beautiful as possible all year long.