February 25, 2010

Evergreen in Zone 5? The Good, The Bad and The Ugly

In hopes of creating some winter interest, I have planted a number of shrubs and perennials that are touted as being evergreen in zone 5. I'm not a big fan of prickly spruces or highly allergenic junipers, but I have kept my eye out for some broad-leaved evergreens, which are few and far between for my climate. Here's a rundown one how some of my choices have fared this winter, starting with the good and moving on to the bad and ugly.

The only coniferous evergreens in my yard are baby 'Blue Star' junipers, which do not produce pollen (unlike the rest of their family). With a hardiness rating all the way down to zone 3, of course they're doing perfectly well. I am completely in love with this steely blue color. Winter has brought out some interesting pinkish highlights, which you won't see in this photo because it was taken last fall. All of these photos are from last summer or fall. I couldn't make myself venture out into the cold today to get fresh ones, sorry.

My favorite 'Otto Luyken' laurels are looking better than last winter, with very little windburn on the leaves. I think this is because their roots have had another year to grow, so they can find moisture more easily even when the top layer of ground is frozen. I know gardeners in warmer climates think laurels are boring, but I am SO HAPPY to have one good-looking, glossy, broad-leaved evergreen in the garden.

'Blue Emerald' creeping phlox still has some green in its leaves, but they're mostly an unattractive purplish-brown. There definitely aren't any flowers right now (this photo is from last fall, remember?). These plants aren't adding any beauty to the garden right now, but maybe they're better than bare earth?

My hellebores are causing a dilemma. The ones that are shaded by the house in winter have lovely green leaves, but they don't have any flowers buds yet. The ones that are getting some winter sun have flower buds but also have large brown areas on the leaves. The whole point of hellebores is to get early flowers, right? But I'd also like pretty green leaves in winter. Apparently the bad news is that you can't have both here in zone 5.

Some of my heucheras are more evergreen than others, but none of them look fabulous. 'Green Spice', shown above in summer, is now showing all shades of grey. 'Prince of Silver' is probably the best looking of the family, but it has a bunch of dead dogwood leaves caught between its mauvey-silver leaves, which kind of ruins its appearance. 'Palace Purple' melted after the first frost. 'Lime Rickey' and 'June Bride' are somewhere between bad and ugly.

Although evergreen 'Big Blue' liriope is hardy in zone 5, it is definitely not evergreen. Its leaves are currently grey and rotting, though I can see a bit of green at the base. I expect it will be lovely again in the summer, but right now it's definitly ugly.

My 'Elfin Pink' penstemon (leaves shown above in summer) are almost exactly the same color as the liriope right now - ugly rotten grey. Although they were touted as evergreen, I guess that only applies to warmer climates.
Other evergreens in my garden include candytuft/Iberis sempervirens (currently purple-brown and sagging), 'Emerald Gaeity' euonymus (only looking so-so, but with interesting pink tones in the leaves) and Vinca minor (looking pretty good). I plan to add a couple of 'Green Tower' boxwoods this spring, which supposedly keep their green color all winter - wait for an update in a year and I'll tell you how they do. And the very best, secret weapon, iron-tough 'evergreens' that I'm planning to add? Some big boulders! They'll add some structure and winter interest and look just as good in winter as in summer. I picked out some pretty ones a few weeks ago and will post pictures of them soon.


  1. That juniper really is pretty. I don't know if it would interest you, but I have a groundcover type geranium, G. x cantabrigiense 'Biokovo' that is semi-evergreen. The leaves do get a lot of red on them in the fall, but right now what's peaking out from under the melting snow is bright green. -Jean

  2. Steely blue in that juniper. I don't envy you a zone 5 winter. Zone 8 here, a bad year might give a 7b winter, but that's enough.

    I look forward to seeing the boulder(s)

  3. My blue star junipers keep croaking on me. I put them in containers (which affects the hardiness, I know) and they look fine as the snow melts. I get all excited "yes, one of them finally made it through" and then they turn a brownish yellow and off to the compost pile they go. I must be very stubborn or stupid because I keep buying one or two every year.

    Sad in zone 3/4,
    Christine in Alaska

  4. Hi VW, I have a great love for the Otto Luykens, I think they have a place in the landscape. I have a Thuga occidentalis 'Hertzii Midget' that is really a nice compact evergreen. It is about 1 1/2 feet tall.
    For my landscape here in zone 7b I have a few Gardenias that are super with dark green glossy foliage.
    Oh, one of the hollies that would be a nice one for your area is Inkberry...Ilex glabra.
    I look forward to seeing the boulders - what fun.

  5. I love blue-gray foliage. I don't grow spruce, but many of our desert plants do have blue-gray foliage. It provides a visual cooling element to my garden :^)

  6. The boulders sound good--can you send me some seeds? I'd like a patch of them here. I'm not usually a juniper fan, but do like your 'Blue Star'.

  7. VW, We have the same issues here with trying to find broad leaf evergreens. Our soil can't support acid loving plants, no matter how well we try to amend the soil...And it's just too hot and humid all summer for them. Have you tried stokesia? It's evergreen here and we had some very cold weather...In the teens and lower for weeks on end. it's still green. Just to let you know...hellebores leaves get beaten in my garden, too. But they usually hang on until the last of winter...then I snip off the old leaves and they start to flower. gail

  8. I really like the 'Blue Star', that might be one for me to add to my newly dug up side yard. I have only one small conifer Juniper 'Gold Cone'.
    How cool that you are getting some nice boulders, that is something I'd love to add here. Only problem is how to convince the husband :)
    I noticed 'Green Spice' looking a little gray too, I'm glad to hear that seems to be normal since I was worried about it.

  9. I love the blue stars, too, VW. They are the best juniper of the bunch and we use them liberally here. All of the perennials you name look like crap here too in zone 7. The ratty hellebore leaves are usually cut away, but this year we are not doing it and hoping the new leaves will grow out and cover the old, before the flowers bloom or it will be a sad sight. I think your laurel is terrific. Anything that holds up to the harsh winter is a winner. Can you grow the gold Acorus grass? It is the best perennail winter ground cover we have and looks especially nice with the blue stars. :-)

  10. I can't imagine the cold zone 5. My carex (sedges) look splendid right now and this is the coldest winter we've had in a decade. I have no advice on the hellebores since I've not yet added them (but want them).


  11. VW girl !! I have Blue Star juniper and Elfin Pink penstemon .. and I bet we share similar hellebore too ! I have yew that are shaped as Christmas trees to hide the AC unit as much as possible and they hold a beautiful dark green with random red berries in the Fall/winter season .. I can't wait to see how things will turn out for you with all of the changes : )

  12. You've always got such interesting posts, VW. I need to take lessons from you.

    I [a Zone 8er none the less] love the look of laurels. The green, shiny foliage in winter is a godsend.

    As for the hellebore, [I didn't read all the comments so I might be repeating] the ailing foliage is supposed to be cut off when the blooms emerge. New, strong foliage will develop when the blooms are on the wane. So you can still have both, just not simultaneously.

    Although they're touted as a winter interest plant, it's been my experience that heucheras are NOT. Mine, for the most part, look pathetic in winter. The one exception is if they're planted in a container situated under a patio roof.

    My Lirope looks good but needs to be cut back hard before the new foliage emerges or it will look like crap in short order. The old and new don't mix well at all. Many of my penstemons bit the dust during December's wrath. The better ones probably look like yours.

    Have you considered dwarf varieties of Yew, Hemlock Or Mahonia? I'm not sure if they're hardy to Zone 5 but if they are I bet they'd look great.

    I can't wait to see your rocks. I love rocks!!!

  13. I'm in zone 5b. I should pay more attention to plants that are evergreen. For me, it varies from year to year. I have a few things that are green, but don't know if they remained green all winter, as they have had snow cover much of the winter. My hellebores are covered with leaves. Maybe I should uncover them. I have some new growth. I am so ready for spring to get here!

  14. adorable little juniper... love that ice blue color.

  15. I think you are your worst critic of these plants, lol. I believe they look beautiful for the cold winter months. They should perk up in no time to your eyes...

  16. Hi VW, all look ordinary at times. Sometimes I think there can be too many flowers and the picture stops being relaxing. I share with you the hellebore, liriope and penstemon although mine is a dark pink. Good advice from Grace as usual re cutting back the hellebore leaves. Similarly the liriope. My penstemons are about 20 years old. From time to time I divide them. I have wormwoods which give the same sort of look I think as the juniper. Cheers, catmint


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