Northern Shade Gardening

Conifers Keep Winter Green

Saturday, December 27, 2008 Category: Garden Design,Trees and Shrubs
frontyard conifers

front yard conifers

When winter snow lasts for half of the year, conifers are a remembrance that the white doesn’t last forever, and that buried underneath there are dormant green plants that will emerge eventually. Without the conifers, winter would be a vista of twigs and houses. I enjoy walking down the street and admiring the pretty sight of snowy evergreen branches on front lawns. They create a verdant background all year, provide privacy, and are an excellent habitat for birds.

Here are my large spruce trees, filling most of the front yard with green boughs. My spruce wear their branches right down to the ground, which makes a natural and full silhouette. The grass doesn’t grow underneath them, but the snowy boughs look much better in the winter than snow-covered grass. Natural spruce trees, with all of their branches, make a very tall groundcover.

These trees tower over the house. From a landscaping point of view, they are out of scale, and obscure the view of the house. However, from a forest lover’s point of view, I enjoy the woodsy atmosphere in the middle of the suburbs. I am thankful the previous owner had the foresight to plant trees for the future.

Picea closeup

Picea closeup

When I look out my front windows I can imagine that I live in an evergreen forest. I can watch the birds on the branches, blue jays scolding, or chickadees chattering and flitting from branch to branch. In the fall, the squirrels are very busy storing away the spruce cones. One squirrel made a precariously balanced pile of cones under the willow in the backyard. I’m not sure why he bothered running back and forth to the backyard, instead of just storing them conveniently under the curtained safety of the spruce  tree.

The spruce produce numerous cones at their top, which scatter around the tree on  windy days. I gather the cones and use them to mulch a hidden area to the east side of the house, about 6 m (20 ft) long and 1 m (3 ft) wide. Perhaps the squirrel has admired my large stash of cones. Maybe he’s even raided it for his own supply. The spruce and pine needles fall onto a narrow sidewalk that leads to my backyard. I often sweep the needles off the walk into the adjacent north facing garden area, making a natural and easy woodland mulch for the front bed.

Pinus mugo (mugho pine)

Pinus mugo (mugho pine)

There is the base of an overgrown Pinus mugo (mugho pine) in my front yard. It is taller than the house, and forms a green curtain between the street and my front window, blocking noise, attracting birds, and presenting another forest view. The mugho pine has a tangle of lower branches, and long, soft needles. The dwarf mugho pines, that have been kept small by breaking the outer third of their new candles, look neat and cute in a garden bed, like small green statues. This older, taller Pinus mugo has not had its candles cut back,  and the inside lower trunks make a forest of their own. The curved multiple trunks arising from the base form a living woodland sculpture.

While the front of the pine has a wall of green needles, the lower needles at the back are mostly gone in this shady spot, making for easier viewing from the house of the birds, which like to flit about on the protected branches. There are small middens of cone scales under the tree. The branches make a comfortable place for an animal to break open cones to get at the seeds, and the scales fall in small piles beneath.

Pine branch

Pine branch

A tall straight pine grows in the corner of my backyard. Its branches are lacy, casting a partial shadow on the plants below. The long needles are attractive. This evergreen gives me something green and beautiful to view, when I look out on the bleakest winter days. The pine also gives some privacy, when all of the deciduous trees have dropped their leaves to survive the winter. Sometimes in summer, a robin likes to perch on the topmost branch, proclaiming its territory from the tallest point around.

Taxus media hicksii (yew)

Taxus media hicksii (yew)

This upright evergreen is Taxus media ‘Hiksii’, one of the many small yews in the garden. In summer, they practically disappear in the garden, serving more as a green backdrop. However in winter, they are the little green jewels, rising above the snow. While the yews are tolerant of shade, the ones in deeper shade are about half the size of the ones in medium shade.

Taxus media 'Nigra' (nigra spreading yew)

Taxus media ‘Nigra’

I also have some Taxus media ‘Nigra’, which are a darker green yew, and a bit more spreading than upright. The soft needles are particularly attractive. There is less browning and die back on the yews over the winter than on junipers. The yews also fill in their bare patches, maintaining a more attractive shape. Taxus media are a good yew for zone 3, since some other yews are borderline or not hardy here.

I love my conifers. They bring wildlife, privacy and beauty to the garden year round. I most appreciate conifers in the winter garden, when the colour green is rare, and especially treasured.

34 Responses to “Conifers Keep Winter Green” »

  1. Racquel :
    December 27, 2008 at 11:15 am

    Unfortunately I don’t have any conifers left in my yard but I did have a Dwarf Alberta Spruce a few years back. It looked great decorated for the holidays too. They do provide a nice backdrop & sense of maturity to a garden.

  2. Joy :
    December 27, 2008 at 11:45 am

    Hi There Northern Shade !
    If I had more room I would definitely have more ever greens .. I love the smell of spruce .. the look of pines .. I have to yews (Pyramidal ? .. Xmas tree shaped ?)and we love them .. so easy care and yet so pretty .. those tiny red berries are such surprises on them !
    I have a few Mugo pine too .. and they are well behaved : )
    I trapped an Austrian pine in a pot .. poor thing .. I have had it for a few years and I think I would have to break the pot to free it now .. darn ! LOL

  3. Northern Shade :
    December 27, 2008 at 12:23 pm

    Racquel, conical evergreens outside do look great with lights for Christmas. I like the dwarf Alberta spruce.
    I love it when a neighbourhood has large trees that rise above the houses. It gives them a mature and more natural look.

    Joy, thanks for reminding me, I forgot to mention their smell in the post. I love the evergreen scent too. The spruce smell great when you brush against them, but they are also poky and sticky if you bump them unaware.
    My mugho pine has aspirations of being a forest tree, instead of a tidy little border shrub.
    I should have hunted for some yew berries to photograph. I know there were some earlier, but didn’t notice any this time.

  4. Amy :
    December 27, 2008 at 5:52 pm

    Whenever we visit my husband’s family in southern ON I get terribly homesick for BC’s evergreen forests (though the deciduous trees are beautiful too!)

    We have a lot of old douglas firs in and around our property, but I would like to add some small to medium sized evergreens someday. I’ve always admired the beautiful shape of spruce trees. I had no idea mugho pine could get so large if it’s growth was unchecked, but it sure does grow into a neat looking tree!

  5. Gail :
    December 27, 2008 at 6:25 pm

    I dearly love conifers, we have juniperus in our yard…a forest of them! Also one small Arizona Cypress that I love. Because we are in Zone 7 with extreme temps in the summer…most of the beautiful conifers you might grow would be miserable here! and I need to stop and recognize that you wrote~~ ‘when winter snow lasts half the year’…. Wow! Now that is winter!

    Gail

  6. Northern Shade :
    December 27, 2008 at 9:05 pm

    Amy, old douglas firs give a lot of character to your land, and I bet you appreciate them in the winter too.

    There are some more dwarf growing mugho pine varieties, but breaking off part of the soft candles early in the season is the main way to keep them in check. Then they form the neat little green mounds. Mine is more of a free range pine, and they can actually get quite tall after a while.

    Gail, ah yes, your junipers, how is your gin making project going? I hope you have your jars of gin preserves all neatly put away on your preserve shelves. : )

    Winter is long here, and fields of flat white get monotonous, so the conifers have a big impact. I have some shrubs with good winter habit, but I would like to add even more with bright winter twig colour.

  7. Jen :
    December 28, 2008 at 2:15 pm

    Oh I love the look of those conifers. They are so graceful with the snow icing the tips of the branches.

    Maybe, just maybe I can find some room in the spring for more pots.

    Jen

  8. Northern Shade :
    December 28, 2008 at 6:12 pm

    Jen, you must have a lot of snow icing around your area still. You won’t have to worry about the trees drying out.
    I have seen some very good looking dwarf conifers in pots. They look especially nice next to an entrance or on a balcony.

  9. Barbara :
    December 29, 2008 at 10:42 am

    My two favourites are Tsuga canadensis – Eastern Hemlock – so soft and pretty looking in the snow – a bit more of a yellow green & the other Pinus stobus – Eastern White Pine. I love the way they blow and sway during snow storms and their endless supply of sticky pine cones that pop in the fireplace.

  10. Northern Shade :
    December 29, 2008 at 11:55 am

    Barbara, the closely packed branches and needles of Tsuga canadensis are pretty. My neighbour has a hemlock, and I share the back of it.

  11. Britt-Arnhild :
    December 29, 2008 at 1:05 pm

    And from a fellow gardenblogger’s view, your evergreens look great.
    It is dark, cold and icy here in Norway right now. I long for spring, but a gardener’s life is never quiet :-)

  12. The Ms. S :
    December 29, 2008 at 1:23 pm

    Wow, this post is a beautiful reminder of the impact of conifers on our winter landscape.

    We were fortunate last year to move into a neighbourshood full of large spruce and I have fallen in love with them. Lately, it’s like walking in a Christmas card around here :)

    We have a row of large blue spruce along the back of our lot. Along both sides, however, there is nothing. We are thinking of planting some Thuja occidentalis (cedar) ‘Skybound’ to pull the whole thing together. They are supposed to be hardy in our zone 3 and more wind resistant than ‘brandon’. I don’t know anyone who has tried them yet, though.

    So far, the only other conifer we have planted is a little swirled dwarf Alberta spruce. It looks like a playful little sister to the grander blue spruce along the back.

  13. Marnie :
    December 29, 2008 at 1:34 pm

    The one thing I wish I would have done is plant more evergreens when I moved here. I did plant 9 but on this big property I should have done many more. I love them year round but they especially shine this time of year.
    Marnie

  14. Northern Shade :
    December 29, 2008 at 2:26 pm

    Britt-Arnhild, thank you. The sun doesn’t rise very high here at 53 N latitude in December either. I was taking garden pictures of my shrubs and perennials, but the long shadows made things look gloomy in the photos, even at noon. It was hard to capture the overall brightness being reflected off the snow.

    The Ms. S, I think mature spruce really make a neighbourhood look settled into the landscape, and less like an intrusion on the natural world.

    The large spruce must add good privacy to your backyard. When I moved in there were the trees, and a few perennials (mainly one type of iris), but not much for the middle layer. Now that the shrubs are starting to grow, they connect the overhead canopy to the lower floor plants.

    I love the variety in evergreens that can be cute little green mounds, elegant sculptures, or majestic giants. Your spiral dwarf Alberta spruce sound both elegant and cute.

    Marnie, I’m grateful that there were mature trees on my land. It’s one of the things that attracted me to it. It takes such patience to wait for new trees to grow and take their place in the landscape. The evergreens do justify their space in the garden when they fill the view with green boughs, and capture the snow in fanciful layers.

  15. kerri :
    December 29, 2008 at 3:13 pm

    Your snowy conifers certainly add beauty to your yard and garden, and provide a great habitat for the birds and critters, and they make great subjects for winter photos. Yours are lovely.
    We have 4 lovely spruce trees along the north side of our yard, plus a scruffy red pine.
    I enjoyed seeing the pretty ornaments on your Christmas tree. They bring back happy memories each year as you hang them, I’m sure, as ours do for me.
    Thanks for the Christmas greetings. I hope you had a wonderful Christmas and that the New Year will bring happiness and many blessings to you and yours.

  16. Northern Shade :
    December 29, 2008 at 5:52 pm

    Kerri, thanks. Sometimes the branches are piled with more snow, but we didn’t get the massive snowfalls that much of the rest of Canada got this month. The 4 spruce on the north side of your property must help to cut down on the colder winds.

    Many of my Christmas ornaments are sentimental. I have some that were the first ornaments my parents ever had. I do think of the many happy Christmas times of the past as I put up the tree.

    Have a happy New Year.

  17. Philip Bewley :
    December 29, 2008 at 6:45 pm

    Your trees are so beautiful with the snow.
    We do not have any, but there is a huge pine not too far. I like watching the bird and red tail hawks there. I enjoyed your description of the squirrel and birds. The yews look wonderful in the snow, too.
    Best regards,
    Philip

  18. Northern Shade :
    December 29, 2008 at 8:47 pm

    Philip, the snow is definitely the icing on the cake for the evergreens. It emphasizes their individual silhouettes.

    I love the way that plantings bring animal life to the garden. There’s always something interesting to watch with even the most common bird and animal visitors.

  19. Karen :
    December 30, 2008 at 1:30 am

    Love your spruce trees, who cares if they are not approved by landscaper standards! If you love them and they give you joy, they’re keepers! Also love mugo pines. We moved from a totally tree-shaded place to one with almost none. Our only conifer is a massive Port Orford cedar tree that was probably planted 80 years ago and was damaged recently when the neighbors put in a patio and then sawed off part of the tree that died. I’m so worried it will get a virus they are susceptible to! If we lose the tree, I will probably have to move. It’s that much a part of our lives. So I can really relate to this post! Happy New Year.

  20. Northern Shade :
    December 30, 2008 at 9:48 am

    Karen, I live in the Parkland ecoregion, which is midway between the Praires and the Boreal Forest. While some gardeners in the suburbs have all grass in the front yard, which is reminiscent of the Prairies, my front yard resembles the Boreal forest, which I love.

    The large cedar would give beautiful shade, fill the landscape with green, and attract many living creatures. It’ too bad that it got damaged by careless actions. Sometimes people are oblivious to the fact that trees are living things, and that you can’t cover all of their roots, and you have to be careful with where and when you prune them.

    Have a great 2009, and a happy gardening year.

  21. Shady Gardener :
    December 30, 2008 at 8:31 pm

    Hi! What a nice descriptive post to go with your photos. :-) I can understand your love of the evergreens and conifers! We have only a few here in our hardwood forest, however I’d like to add a few in one area of our backyard as a screen (to cut out a neighbor’s large outbuilding). (!) Happy Winter! I’d sit in front of that wonderful fireplace as often as possible, if I had it!!

  22. Meems @Hoe & Shovel :
    December 30, 2008 at 10:29 pm

    Northern Shade, You do have a long, snowy winter. I love that you’ve shared your evergreens with us –especially all snow laden and magical looking to this Floridian. No, we don’t have any of those beautiful variety down here but I have fond memories of snow ski trips and appreciating the greenery they offered on the slopes. Happy New Year to you!
    meems

  23. Northern Shade :
    December 30, 2008 at 10:30 pm

    Shady Gardener, thank you. Conifers are great for creating year round privacy and screening. I’m on an average size suburban lot, but the trees allow me to imagine I live in a forest.

  24. Northern Shade :
    December 30, 2008 at 10:41 pm

    Meems, the snow really does bring out the best in the evergreens, piling up in pretty drifts on the needles.
    I have lots of chickadees in my trees right now, but when I looked out again there are no peacocks resting on the tree branches like your yard. They would need little mittens and toques here.

  25. Ken & Carina :
    December 31, 2008 at 12:34 am

    As a Scandinavian you cant live without ewergreen trees, the feeling to go in to a wood with tal, strong trees is so relaxing.
    For the garden they are outstanding. When all the outher trees drop there leavs the ewergreen is the only one who show any green color.
    We will wish you a wery Happy new year
    Ken&Carina

  26. Marie :
    December 31, 2008 at 6:11 am

    What a beautiful winter post!

    I wish you a happy new year :)

  27. Kathleen :
    December 31, 2008 at 9:27 am

    I have many of the same evergreens as you do Northern Shade but no yews. Those are gorgeous. I am having to snip the candles off the mugo pines now, they are getting so big. I worry about my lone pine tree too as a neighbor nearby had hers succumb to the bark beetle. I hope I don’t lose it because I agree they are invaluable in winter for color, bird habitat, etc. Happy New Year!!

  28. Northern Shade :
    December 31, 2008 at 11:31 am

    Ken and Karina, I live at the southern edge of the taiga, the same ecozone that stretches across Scandinavia. To the north is the Boreal Forest, and to the south are the grasslands of the pariries.
    Like you, I love the atmosphere given to the forest and the garden by the evergreens. I love the stillness of the forest on a snowy day.

    Marie, thanks. I hope you are staying snug and warm over the winter. Have a great 2009.

    Kathleen, the small yews have been very slow growing, especially in the more shaded spots. I have let them keep their natural shape.
    The large forest personality of my mugho pine has won out over the cute little border shrub side.
    I have been hoping that the pine beetles don’t spread to Edmonton too, I would hate to see the pines succumb. The upside of our cold weather is that it helps to kill them off.
    I wish you a happy New Year, and have a wonderful 2009.

  29. irena :
    December 31, 2008 at 11:21 pm

    how nice that you get so much enjoyment from your evergreens. I have a mature balsam fir in my backyard which I love. Sadly, it has suffered quite a bit because of a neighbour’s renovation project (damaged roots, branches) but the tree keeps hanging on. I’m confident it will make a good if not full recovery…some of its lower branches had to go.

    happy gardening in 2009
    irena

  30. Northern Shade :
    January 1, 2009 at 8:33 am

    Irena, it’s unfortunate that your fir got damaged from the neighbouring renovation. Trees decline when their root system is covered or excavated. When I garden around mine, I try to plant in pockets between the large roots, but sometimes it means I can’t place the plants exactly where I want them.

    Have a great 2009.

  31. Mary Ann :
    January 2, 2009 at 11:09 am

    Happy 2009! Evergreen trees are wonderful all year long but they’re especially delightful when they’re covered in snow.

  32. Northern Shade :
    January 2, 2009 at 2:34 pm

    Mary Ann, we keep getting fresh new powder to keep them looking their best. As I look out the window at the backyard, I see that I have more winter interest than when I moved in, but I would still like to add more small to medium conifers and more shrubs with good coloured stems for winter.

  33. Mary Ann :
    January 3, 2009 at 7:59 am

    Sounds like a great plan! Those bushes with the red branches look fabulous in the winter! Looking forward to seeing your garden evolve, it is truly a joy, isn’t it.

  34. Northern Shade :
    January 3, 2009 at 9:40 am

    Mary Ann, I have been looking at adding some Cornus stolonifera (red osier dogwood) to the garden. The dwarf ‘arctic fire’ variety looks like it would fit well.

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