Evergreens for structure and balance
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 winter.
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 deciduous shrubs.
• 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 hottest sun.
• 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 family member.)
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 uniform row quickly looks terrible if one or two plants fail or blow over in a storm, and it’s nearly impossible to replace the exact size and shape. Balance is good; uniformity or rigid symmetry can be a problem.
• Be careful to identify deciduous conifers so they are not cut down by accident. (Many new homeowners have made the mistake of cutting down a beautiful larch or Dawn redwood because the needles were missing in winter.)
• Failure to recognize plant needs is the greatest cause of failure using evergreens, especially in foundation plantings.
In the exhilarating garden months, when we’re in love with our plants and surrounded by flowers and colors, we are not likely to see the structure and design—the bones of our own gardens. Now is the time to look for beautiful bones.
A TRICK TO SPOT THE BONES
Gardeners can be design-blind in their own gardens; they see the particular plants but don’t recognize the bigger picture.
Try this blindfold trick to identity the dominant structures in your yard:
Stand where you or others are likely to view the space.
Cover your eyes.
Uncover your eyes for two seconds.
Cover your eyes and ask yourself: What strong features do you remember? If you had to do a sketch to report the scene, what would you outline first?
(Suggestion: Do this from more than one position looking at the yard.)
Those big strong things you noticed are the design features we call bones.
The next question is are they good bones? Are they working to support the design?