Garden Design

Evergreens – the Cinderellas of the garden

Evergreens – the Cinderellas of the garden

‘Year-round interest’ is probably second only to ‘low maintenance’ as the most frequent request from client to designer and to achieve this part of their brief designers need to include some form of evergreen planting. Evergreen plants are often considered to be boring, but they come in a huge range of size, leaf colour and shape. Even the plain dark greens should not be overlooked as they provide both a backdrop for the colourful plants of summer and essential shape and form during the winter.

The following plants are among the best evergreens available, fulfilling different functions within the garden but always providing that essential year-long structure.


Euonymus Evergreen varieties of this plant have to be top of the list for sheer versatility of use. With hard pruning at the end of May (and a light trim in the autumn) they make excellent low hedges staying tight and in shape all year. Alternatively they can be allowed to make a small bush with one trim at the end of spring to maintain the size and shape as necessary. If an evergreen climber is required, few can beat it. Once established, plants will produce strong straight stems that can be trained on horizontal wires and the plant can be pruned to keep it close to the support.

Euonymus will grow in more or less any type of soil except water-logged and are happy in sun or shade. Best known of the evergreens are the cultivars of E. fortuneii. 'Emerald Gaiety' has bright green leaves with white margins, 'Emerald 'n' Gold' has bright yellow margins and 'Silver Queen' has dark green leaves broadly margined with white.


Eleagnus Happy in sun or part shade these plants make excellent shrubs for providing a splash of colour all year round and make a good large hedge. One of the most popular cultivars is E. x ebbingei 'Limelight' with its silvery young leaves maturing to be marked with yellow and pale green in the centres. Easily reaching 3x3m it can be kept smaller with annual pruning in spring. If a specimen has been allowed to grow too large it can be cut back hard to main branches and within a few weeks new shoots should appear all over. In autumn the inconspicuous flowers produce quite a heady scent which is a surprise bonus.

Unfortunately, along with many other cultivars, this is prone to reversion and whole branches will produce plain green leaves. These branches should be cut out as close to the main stem as possible or they will smother the less aggressive variegated stems.


Phormium This is one evergreen that is undeniably a focal point plant. Most Phormium form large plants with strap-like leaves that stiffly radiate out. During the summer they produce weird small tubular flowers on tall leafless stems. These are interesting in their own right but it is the foliage that provides the year round statement. They like full sun and most soil conditions except waterlogged and make excellent specimens for a seaside garden.

Cultivars of P. tenax are commonly found with foliage colour varying from plain green through creamy white stripes to dark bronze. One of the smallest forms is P. tenax 'Bronze Baby' which is useful in smaller gardens and containers.


Phyllostachys Many people are afraid of bamboo believing them to be invasive and too large for a normal garden and some are exactly that but there are others that grow in well-behaved clumps and will not dwarf the next door house.

Two of the most useful bamboos for British gardens are Phyllostachys aurea (green culms) and P. nigra (black culms when mature). Height can vary from 4-12m with soil conditions and location having an impact on the end result with their main requirement being full sun. Both are well-behaved clump-formers and make excellent screening when planted in bulk and yet are also wonderful specimens in their own right.

In general all bamboos are happy in any soil except very sandy or boggy. They love organic matter and only need watering for the first two growing seasons after which they should be watered only if stressed. Old culms should be removed to allow for new thicker growth and it’s best to do this during the dormant season so new growth is not damaged. Lower branches can be removed so show off the culm colour and this is especially important for P. nigra as the black culms are one of its main attractions. Never remove the spent leaves from the ground as eventually they will provide essential nutrients for the plant.


Buxus If you want an evergreen plant that can be grown in practically any shape desired then Buxus has to be top of the list. It is easy to grow and fits perfectly into contemporary urban spaces, formal parterres or cottage gardens. If left unchecked Buxus sempervirens can reach 4.5m but is just as happy pruned to only a few centimetres high. Buxus is slow-growing and therefore can be expensive but they provide much needed formal structure whether planted as a low hedge to contain more informal planting or in a myriad of forms such as cubes, cones and balls and when cut into more extreme shapes can even make the viewer chuckle!

Unfortunately there is a relatively new water-borne fungal disease, Cylindrocladium or box blight, that can devastate plants particularly in damp humid conditions. There is no fungicide available to the general public therefore treatment consists of cutting out all infected parts and clearing away any fallen leaves. However, none of this should put anyone off growing this wonderful plant.


Fatsia Fatsia japonica is an excellent candidate for the tropical garden. Its broad, glossy dark green leaves grow up to 40cm long and have the look of the jungle yet it can tolerate coastal exposure and atmospheric pollution. In autumn it produces small creamy white flowers followed by black fruit. However, if the fruit is removed and the plant kept moist this will help to encourage the largest leaf size. Fatsia also fit into a Japanese themed garden very well and even make good specimen plants within a gravel bed.

Despite its jungle look there is no need to fuss with this plant. It is happy in sun or shade and although many books show it to be hardy only to -5 it has certainly survived in many gardens at lower temperatures.

Other plants to consider

Pittosporum tenuifolium, Prunus laurocerasus, Viburnum tinus, Skimmia japonica and Escallonia rubra

© Sharon Brown 3rd September 2008

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