Classic Evergreen Design Ideas for Year-Round Interest


By P. Allen Smith

As cooler weather approaches, a lot of us are spending more time indoors — crafting, cooking or maybe just hanging out in front of the TV. I find that at this time of year, I’m ready to take a break from so many of the gardening and outdoor chores that come with living on the farm.

At the same time, I can honestly say that the winter months often reveal life at the Garden Home Retreat at its most beautiful. A heavy frost sparkling in the morning sun off the boxwood around my home is magical, not to mention the beauty of snowfall on the shrubs and trees up and down Moss Mountain.

Evergreen shrubs and trees, and even some evergreen perennials, are the backbone of my garden, providing me with interest and artistry on even the coldest and grayest of days. And they can be for you, too.

I regularly use boxwood in my garden designs because of its reliability and flexibility, in part because it can be used in sun or shade. With hundreds of cultivars on the market, there’s a size and shape for almost every garden. I especially like ‘Green Velvet,’ which grows to about 3 feet tall and wide, and as its name implies, has deep, velvety green leaves. It’s one of the few boxwood varieties that can remain unpruned and still retain a soft, roundish shape.

Buxus are ideal for hedges and foundation plantings, but I also think of them as the perfect natural backdrop to showcase flowers and plantings around them.


“Classic holly is one of my favorite design elements at Moss Mountain Farm.” Photo by Jane Colclasure

Another favorite evergreen is the classic holly, whose red berries are loved by gardeners and birds everywhere. Ilex range in size from low-growing shrubs to soaring trees, so depending on your landscaping needs, they can be used in a variety of ways. Given enough room, I think they make excellent anchor plants, especially at the front corner of a house. If you’d like to try one as a specimen in the garden, consider Ilex ‘Castle Spire,’ which has a natural “Christmas tree” shape and reaches about 10 feet tall and 3 feet wide. It’s hardy in zones 5-7 and needs a male pollinator to berry.

RELATED: How to Make a Pumpkin Planter

Looking for something evergreen on a smaller scale? Let’s talk about coral bells.


“Coral bells are a favorite of mine for the edges of paths and in containers.”

Heuchera come in a multitude of colors, from deep, mahogany purples like ‘Purple Palace,’ to limey chartreuse greens like ‘Citronelle,’ and many colors in between. Most heuchera are hardy in zones 4 to 9 and have a mounding shape about 12 inches tall and wide. In warmer climates they benefit from some protection from the hot afternoon sun. I recommend placing them near a front door or garage entrance so you can appreciate their winter color as you’re stepping out to get the mail or hopping in the car.

A really delightful winter overachiever is Helleborus, or Lenten Rose. A staple in every classic shade garden, Lenten Rose blooms in the dreariest winter months, February into March. You can often see them in full bloom with snow on the ground — an amazing sight. The palmate-shaped leaves stand stiffly at about 12 to 16 inches tall with buttercup-shaped flowers in whites, pinks, purples, apricots, yellows and more. I suggest planting at least one of these outside a kitchen window or near a favorite reading spot where you can glance up and see them outside.


Who doesn’t have something they don’t want to see in their landscape and could use a perennial screen?

My last recommendation is not technically an evergreen, but it has such astonishing year-round interest that I’ve got to include it. Giant Miscanthus grass is a massive perennial grass, hardy in zones 4 to 9, that can reach 12 feet tall and several feet wide. This bold, deep green grass is not for the faint of heart! In fact, I almost guarantee that you’ll have passersbys asking about it.

It’s a perfect plant for screening unsightly views or noisy neighbors, but even without annoyances to block, Miscanthus grass can have a place in the garden. It can be placed at the back of your yard and still be admired from the street. In autumn, foliage turns a deep orange and fades in time for falling snow to settle on top of the tan leaves.

I hope I’ve encouraged you to look at your garden with an eye toward the beauty that can be enhanced by adding or expanding evergreen interest. Although I greatly enjoy my garden during the warm spring and summer months, I appreciate it just as much on a cold winter day, indoors, with a hot cup of tea.

RELATED: Winter is for Planning

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