Evergreens rise, sometimes fall
“Evergreens don’t mix well with hardwoods, handsome though they are in avenues or in solitary splendor. Neither should they be spotted at hazard on a lawn. They are best grouped with their own kind, and not too closely.”
— Eleanor Perenyi, “Green Thoughts: A Writer in the Garden,” 1981
Tucked in between chapters on Earthworms, Endive and Failures, Eleanor Perenyi delivered her thoughts about Evergreens, which she succinctly categorized as either conifers or “fleshy leaved types like mountain laurel.” (Botanists organize evergreens into conifers, tropical hardwoods, temperate broad-leaved trees and palms.)
Perenyi apparently harbored some ambivalence about the use of evergreens in landscaping, a trend for which she held the Victorians accountable as “an error of taste that has been perpetuated” ever since.
It wasn’t that Perenyi didn’t find evergreens beautiful. She did, although she objected to front yards dotted haphazardly with conifers shaped like Christmas trees. She complained, “This conical image endlessly imprinted on the retina makes me sigh for an oak, and I sometimes think the country will smother in spruce and fir, arborvitae and hemlock.”
The custom of buying living Christmas trees and subsequently planting them in the yard was deplorable by Perenyi’s standards because they merely add to the “excess of evergreens already on the scene.”
I will confess that I participated in that “deplorable” custom several years ago, lazily opting to buy a potted Christmas tree already festooned with red ribbons and a star attached to the top branch. On New Year’s Day, I ceremoniously planted the tree in the backyard, where it grew to 12 feet tall in a few years. I ended up having to cut the tree down because it was casting too much shade on other plants.
That’s another problem Perenyi noted with planting evergreens, conifers in particular: People can’t seem to envision how large the trees will become in several years and, invariably, they plant them too closely together. Not only do crowded conifers cast a gloomy shadow over the landscape, but they also grow lopsided with bare branches that have been deprived of sunlight.
Here again, I must admit I’ve made this exact mistake. Ten years ago, we planted a Colorado blue spruce ‘Fat Albert,’ which plant nurseries assure is the ideal conifer for small gardens because it grows only 15 feet tall. I have found that’s true, but I must have overlooked the fact that my ‘Fat Albert’ also grows about 15 feet wide. Its branches have now groped their way into the photinia hedge, and I dare not remove the photinia for fear of revealing the conifer’s sparse foliage on that side.
Despite all the evergreen excesses and potential planting blunders, Perenyi acknowledged that a “garden without evergreens is a wasteland in winter.”
After last Sunday’s column in which I discussed Perenyi’s opinions about weather forecasts and forecasters, I was delighted to receive an email from a friend of Perenyi’s in Stonington, Connecticut, where Perenyi lived and gardened for many years. Charlie wrote that Eleanor “hated the heat and adored winter,” which is probably why she remarked in the Evergreen chapter that American gardeners should pay more attention to winter aesthetics.
However, Perenyi was not shy about sharing her own evergreen planting blunders. She described how she interspersed a weeping white pine (Pinus strobus ‘Pendula’), a hinoki cypress (Chamaecyparis obtusa), two Japanese yews (Taxus cuspidata) and three Tanyosho pines (Pinus densiflora) with deciduous plantings in her garden. The combination should have worked, she said, but failed to do so because once the snow covered the landscape, the evergreens were too widely dispersed to make an impact.
Perenyi admitted she held a bias against blue-needled spruces. I, on the other hand, choose to believe my solitary blue spruce, nestled at the juncture of the aforementioned photinia hedge on one side and a laurel hedge on the other, effectively breaks up all the greenery with its contrasting blue-gray foliage.
In summer, the spruce’s blue-gray palette is picked up by herbaceous perennials with complementary flowers or foliage interspersed throughout the garden. These include sea holly (Eryngium planum), globe thistle (Echinops spp.), lambs-ear (Stachys byzantine), artemisia ‘Powis Castle’ and blue fescue (Festuca glauca).
Of course, beauty is in the eye of the beholder. Perenyi defended her own plant prejudices by writing, “A garden is a private world, or it is nothing, and the gardener must be allowed his vagaries.” So true!
Perenyi did not care for the look of evergreens combined with hardwood trees. I wonder if she had a chance to visit the mixed evergreen forests along the Oregon and California coasts. The towering Douglas firs, Sitka spruces, western hemlocks and false cedars on our land in Bandon have formed a community with evergreen Oregon myrtles and Pacific rhododendrons, as well as deciduous red alders, Pacific willows and tan-bark oaks.
In my opinion, the combination of contrasting textures and shades of green among the conifers and other evergreen and deciduous trees and shrubs has a pleasing effect. The leaves on the alders turn gold in the fall, which I find particularly beautiful intermingled with the evergreens.
I am anxious about the health of my Port Orford cedars (Chamaecyparis lawsoniana), an Oregon native conifer that is not a true cedar but a member of the cypress family. In the past few years, we’ve lost several POCs to a rampant fungal disease called Phytophthora lateralis. It’s believed the fungus was brought into the United States on nursery stock shipped from eastern Asia; in return, we’ve shipped POC nursery stock infected with the fungal disease to Europe.
Phytophthora lateralis is transmitted from tree to tree by spores dispersed in the air and through surface water, the latter of which is particularly troubling to me because our property is sloped. The fungus is so pervasive that we might lose 90% of our POCs.
I was unfamiliar with Port Orford cedars before we bought our land in Bandon, but now faced with the prospect of losing them all, I’ve never appreciated evergreens as much as I appreciate our vanishing POCs.
I was thrilled to learn recently that my Master Gardener mentor, Jane Moyer, was recognized by the Oregon State University Extension Service as the 2021-22 Statewide Master Gardener of the Year.
During her 17 years as a Master Gardener in Jackson County, Jane has volunteered 10,000 hours of her time and expertise in growing plants and growing gardeners. I can’t think of anyone so richly deserving of the award. For more about Jane’s work with the MG program, see my article “Dirt Master” (March 27, 2022).
Lynn Kunstman was recognized as Jackson County Master Gardener of the Year. Lynn shares her extensive knowledge of gardening on the “Jefferson Exchange” radio show and through the Master Gardener’s community education programs. She founded the Native Plant Nursery at Southern Oregon Research & Extension Center in Central Point and was instrumental in raising funds for a rain catchment system on the SOREC campus.
Rhonda Nowak is a Rogue Valley gardener, teacher and writer. For more on gardening topics, see literarygardener.com or email Rhonda at Rnowak39@gmail.com.