By Elinor Bennett Markle
Winter is serious business in some parts of our country. We have already had some rude treatment with dangerous ice and heavy snow this season, and when the weather is severe, having evergreen plants in the landscape may not be on our shopping list of immediate needs. Yet we have also just celebrated several religious and cultural holidays in which decorations made of evergreens play an important role. Mistletoe, holly, fir, pine, cedar and laurel are customary trimmings for mantles, doorways, stair railings, tabletops and centerpieces. The presence of these evergreens cheers us with rich color and scent, and the dramatic leaf textures make for mesmerizing shadow play with candle and fire light.
Why think of evergreens now? It is January, and all those decorations are put away. The plants we call evergreen are of special value for several reasons. Typically, their leaves or needles are densely spaced in relation to the size of the plants. This foliage density causes them to be useful as great backdrops for their own and other colorful berries, and well suited for low-cost privacy screening. Plants that retain their leaves throughout the winter give mass and structure to gardens, yards and streetscapes. We often use them as foundation plantings and groundcovers, placing annuals and deciduous plants of relatively lighter mass among them.
Evergreens serve more than practical functions. They give us an emotional and spiritual boost, because they show evidence of life in the midst of the dreaded dead of winter. Their message is that spring will come, and where there is life there will be more life. These hardworking plants are chosen for emphasizing key areas of cemeteries because of their life-affirming presence, as well as the stately and serious mood they create when massed together in groups of a single species. The weeping forms of some varieties, and topiary silhouettes of others, will strike picturesque poses as specimen plants, substituting for contemplative or comical manmade art in the landscape. Often, evergreen plants provide cover and food for wildlife, which in turn brighten our lives with outdoor activity when we ourselves aren’t setting foot out of doors.
I particularly like a grouping of carefully selected evergreen plants for the corporate, institutional or residential front yard. Americans don’t usually spend much leisure time in the front of the house because we are enjoying our outdoor rooms in the back of the house. In the same way, the grounds of churches, schools and corporate landscapes are generally designed for curb appeal at all seasons, not recreational use. In these spaces, we are hoping for landscapes requiring low maintenance, pruning once or twice a year, edging and re-mulching only once a year. We frequently use installations of evergreen plants to call out walkways and doors and entrances to buildings. With the static continuity of evergreen plants, we frame and emphasize access to buildings and give invitation to enter.
The ultimate size of evergreen plants has to be the first consideration when designing urban lots, and there are so many varieties available that a suitable scale of mature plant can be selected to call attention to a view or emphasize a pathway without obstructing it. Avoid the gloomy look; keep species in scale with the spaces and buildings they are defining. The cute little evergreens in their #3 containers can be misleading, as some of these species grow to be quite large. Think carefully about spacing, mature size, growth rates and growth patterns so that you avoid creating a shaggy and morose landscape that hides the very building it was meant to enhance. Choosing an appropriate shape is important too, because of the strong visual impact of evergreens. A well-shaped plant that enhances the overall plant composition is crucial. For example, spreading junipers extend the view horizontally, while an upright arborvitae sends emphasis skyward. Don’t forget that mosses too are evergreen, and some ferns and ivies. Nothing looks as depressing to me as the sight of evergreen ivy overtaking a live deciduous tree.
In residential and commercial landscapes, well-chosen combinations of evergreens can offer a quilt of color and texture that delivers a solid punch of interest. The leaves and needles of evergreens do not always look exactly green; therefore, we have what we could name the ever-blues, the ever-yellows, the ever-bronzes and burgundies, and the ever-silvers. There are multiple tones of green in those that actually are green. Design with that color palette and the large number of choices in leaf and needle shape, length, size and texture, and you have seemingly endless combinations of evergreen compositions that bring color and contrast to a site. Use evergreens to give you color and life in the landscape when winter winds blow.
Elinor Bennett Markle, RLA, ASLA, is a landscape architect practicing in Kentucky and Tennessee. She can be reached via e-mail at firstname.lastname@example.org