Use evergreens shrubs as stand-alone specimens or as part of a mixed border to add structure and year-long interest
Houzz UK contributor and award-winning landscape and garden designer. Claudia de… More
It is important when planning your garden to consider structure and year-round interest. Evergreen shrubs will provide other plants in the garden with a solid anchor. Some evergreen shrubs can get out of control, become too big and overbearing if they are not cut back, so choose ones that can tolerate a good prune. You can choose variegated varieties of evergreen shrub, which can help to light up a dark corner, or ones that have colourful foliage. There are also a great deal of evergreen shrubs that have scented blooms in the winter months when little else is growing or flowering. Here is a small selection to consider for your garden.
Although many Daphne can be slow to start, they are well worth having in the garden and there are some lovely plain-leaved or variegated forms to choose from. Most Daphne are evergreen but you will find a few exceptions.
Daphne are best grown in a sunny or semi-shaded spot and, due to the fact that they are highly fragrant, they are best suited near an entrance or a path so you can enjoy their heady fragrance. These lovely shrubs do best in well-drained but humus-rich moisture-retentive soil and will not tolerate drought or water logging.
As mentioned, Daphnes are slow growing and many have been grafted, which means they can be quite expensive to buy. They also dislike being pruned, so choose your position carefully according to the eventual height and spread of the particular variety of Daphne.
Daphne odora ‘Aureomarginata’ (pictured here) has a rounded compact habit. The glossy leaves have yellow margins with dense clusters of heavenly scented pink flowers in late winter to early spring.
For areas of dense shade try looking for Daphne pontica or Daphne laureola. For gardens in colder areas try Daphne mezereum and Daphne odora.
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City-friendly sweet box
Sarcococca confusa or sweet box is a bushy evergreen sometimes called Christmas box and can be grown in partial to deep shade. The sweetly scented flowers appear from December to March and these are followed by black berries. These plants make great evergreen staples for any garden, as they cope well with dry shade and urban pollution and are often used in green schemes.
Sarcococca hookeriana var. digyna ‘Purple Stem’ is a purple-leafed, stemmed variety with alternate narrow lanceolate leaves. The small red and white flowers that are produced in winter have a slight musky scent to them. If you prune these plants, add a good two to three inches of well rotted compost around the base.
For the summer months choose another nice sweetly scented evergreen shrub, the common myrtle. This Mediterranean sun loving evergreen bushy shrub is covered in fragrant white fluffy flowers during mid to late summer, followed by purple black berries.
Adaptable Euonymus fortunei
Low-maintenance Euonymus fortunei cultivars can tolerate poor soils, shade and even coastal sites. Due to their prostrate habit, they can also do well up a north facing wall. ‘Emerald gaiety’ is a tough, fast-growing ground-cover that likes sun or partial shade. It does flower between May to June, but these are rather insignificant blooms. The green leaves are edged with a white margin and these turn a lovely pink colour in the winter. You can prune these plants back in mid spring, which will encourage the plant to be more compact and bushier.
If you have a steep bank you could plant Euonymus fortunei ‘Minimus’ as it will thrive in most well-drained situations and give you an evergreen carpet growing only to 10cm in height but with a generous spreading habit.
For a yellow and green leaf, opt for Euonymus fortunei ‘Emerald ’n’ Gold, which has lustrous green leaves with yellow margins that turn reddish bronze in winter.
Buxus alternative Pittosporum Pittosporum are great evergreen shrubs as there are so many different varieties to choose from. Their delicate undulate or wavy edged leaves sit loosely on lovely slender stems. Pittosporum tenuifolium ‘Tom Thumb’ is a wonderful compact dark purple leaved variety that needs full sun to get the best out of the colour. Make sure you protect this Pittosporum from dry cold winds and you may be lucky to get it to flower in late spring when it produces small purple blooms.
A great variety which I use a lot instead of Buxus (box) – the latter being so prone to blight – is Pittosporum tenuifolium ‘Golf Ball’. This Pittosporum has lovely fresh mint-green leaves, adds architectural interest and forms a neat rounded shrub, keeping a mounded shape when lightly pruned.
Pittosporum tenuifolium ‘Elizabeth’ has leaves that are edged in cream and flushed with pink all year round. It has scented dark purple star shaped flowers in early summer. Pittosporum tenuifolium ‘Irene Paterson’ is a slow-growing rounded shrub with leaves that are speckled with white and sometimes become pink in the winter.
Another good alternative to Buxus is the Japanese Holly, Ilex crenata. There are various forms and the dark green variety can be tightly clipped into any shape. These plants are good in shade and can tolerate pollution. All Ilex are slow-growing but Ilex crenata ‘Fastigiata’ grows into a lovely columnar shape perfect to add height as a specimen or to form an avenue.
Ilex crenata ‘Golden Gem’ (pictured) is a dwarf compact shrub with a spreading habit and small golden yellow leaves. All Ilex produce small white flowers in the late summer followed by tiny black fruits in the autumn months.
Ilex Aquifolium, more commonly known as holly, can make a lovely hedge or evergreen shrub and, as it can be clipped tightly, they make good topiary specimens. Holly lends itself to being planted as a hedge so you could create a ‘tapestry’ hedge: this is when you mix different variegated and green leaved cultivars for something a bit different. For a good compact variety of holly, choose Ilex Aquifolium ‘Myrtifolia Aurea Maculata’, with its lovely purple stems and small ovate leaves with a deep yellow central blotch. To be sure of getting berries on your ivy plants (great for the birds and your Christmas wreath), you must plant a female variety or one which is self-fertile.
Do not eat the berries or leaves as they can cause stomach upset in humans and animals.
Jasmine-scented Osmanthus x burkwoodii
You can see this versatile plant at the back of the spring border in the photo; it’s such a valuable plant for the garden and provides a great screen or backbone for other plants.
Osmanthus can tolerate sun or light shade and do well in most soils as long as it isn’t waterlogged. The highly scented flowers are borne in April to May and smell of heavenly jasmine. It requires minimal pruning; just remove any dead or diseased branches in late spring. It will flower on old wood but a very light prune just after flowering will increase the flowers the following year. This is also a good plant to use as a hedge especially as the scent is so lovely notably in the evening, where the sweet smells can travel some distance.
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The English Yew, or Taxus baccata is a dense evergreen tree or shrub and part of the conifer family. Some plants have been known to be more than 600 years old and they are often found planted at stately homes or historic palaces.
Taxus are often used as specimen shrubs and as hedges, as they add good architectural interest and are very dense, acting as a good windbreak or partition for ‘garden rooms’. Because Taxus are slow-growing they are not cheap plants to buy but they are very useful as they can tolerate dry shade, chalky and acid soils, as well as urban pollution.
A word of caution: the thin needle-like leaves and seeds are toxic if eaten.
Sun-loving Mexican orange blossom
Choisya ternata, also known as Mexican orange blossom is an aromatic white star-shaped flowering scented shrub with soft, palmately divided glossy green leaves.
These plants are really easy to grow, but need sunshine to flower properly. You can prune these shrubs back quite hard after flowering which will encourage a second flush of flowers in the late summer to early autumn. Choisya dewitteana ‘Aztec Pearl’ has more slender leaves and is slightly more compact than ternata having a more of a rounder habit. The fragrant white flowers of Aztec Pearl are tinged pink when they are in bud. Choisya plants can smell rather rancid when you prune them and some people – like me – are allergic to the sap and smell that is produced, so take care when cutting back and use gloves and a face mask if needed.
Container-friendly Nandina domestica
This compact shrub, often called heavenly bamboo – since it is meant to dispel bad dreams – produces fiery pinky red lanceolate leaves in the spring. The new emergent red leaves turn to green as the plant matures, and then purple, nearer to autumn. In the summer, Nandina will produce panicles of creamy white flowers, followed by berries, which turn a sealing-wax-red colour. This is a good plant for a pot to provide year-round interest, have in an exotic style garden or simply as a lovely specimen.
Photinia x fraseri ‘Red Robin’ is a very popular large-leaved shrub; grow it as a specimen, or stand-alone shrub against a south-facing wall or as a fast-growing evergreen hedge, which requires minimal pruning. Many people like it for its bright young red foliage. For the smaller garden a good variety is Photinia x fraseri ‘Little Red Robin’. Planted in full sun, the red leaves almost becomes luminous.
Brightening Japanese Pieris Japonica
This shrub is best suited to acidic soil. The ‘Forest Flame’ has lovely new growth in the spring, which turns a bright red colour fading to pink and eventually green. Long panicles of ivory white flowers resembling lily-of-the-valley appear in late spring. As Pieris can become quite large, choose your variety carefully. For a variegated Pieris opt for the compact ‘Flaming Silver’, whose young leaves develop a silver white edge. This silver leaf contrasts well with the young red leaves and green of the older leaves on the plant.
Pieris are good shrubs for lightening up a shady corner, and will suit being planted among other acid-loving plants including Japanese Acers and Enkianthus campanulatus – a lovely early summer and autumn deciduous shrub.
These plants can be evergreen or deciduous but Viburnum tinus is a dense, moderately vigorous shrub with clusters of scented creamy white flowers. The tiny flowers are tinged pink in bud and are produced over a long period from winter through to spring, followed by red, blue or black berries.
This is such a valuable plant to have in the garden as the glossy leaves are attractive all year round and you can buy or train your Viburnum tinus into a standard tree shape, grow it as informal hedging or plant it as a specimen shrub in the border. Viburnums are also great plants for bees.
For a free-flowering variety choose Viburnum tinus ‘Gwenllian’, which has large clusters of pink-tinged white flowers from October to May, followed by purple blue berries.
Viburnums cope well planted in most soils as long as it isn’t too dry. They also do well in pots, especially as standards (ie: trained into a tree form) either side of an entrance as an alternative to bay trees.
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Do you have a favourite evergreen shrub? Share your tips in the Comments.