When most of us hear the word “evergreen”, we think of conifers: cone-bearing plants that usually have needle-like foliage (think Christmas trees, Italian cypresses, junipers, redwoods, pines, and cedars). These may be evergreens of our mind’s eye, but they are far from the only evergreen plants out there.
Around the U.S. (and the world), there is a broad range of excellent landscape plants that hang on to their foliage year-round. Evergreens can have broad leaves or skinny leaves; abundant flowers or no flowers at all; yellow, blue, variegated, bright or dark green foliage; smooth, rough, plain, or fabulously showy bark.
In short, evergreen options are abundant, designers and homeowners need only to take advantage of that variety. Below, we’ll clue you in to some of our favorite evergreens for residential landscapes—some tried and true, others a bit less common. We’ll also walk through some tips and design ideas for selecting and designing with evergreens.
Before we get to all that, though, let’s clarify why evergreens are so valuable to landscape designs.
Why Use Evergreens in Your Landscape?
Non-flowering evergreens may not be the main attraction when facing off with summer blooms or fall foliage, but they provide a critical backdrop that helps those showier species to shine by contrast.
Flowering evergreens, on the other hand, can go toe-to-toe with the boldest perennial blooms. Azaleas, rhododendrons, creeping phlox, camellia, gardenia, Pieris, and periwinkle are just a smattering of the colorfully floral evergreens available to designers.
Other evergreens, like holly, also have bold-colored fruit that lends welcome visual interest through the winter months.
Flowering, fruiting, or otherwise, come winter, evergreens command the scene, offering a stately, verdant presence among the woody skeletons of deciduous species. In the midst of cold and snow, evergreens can carry the visual weight until the early spring blooms kick in.
In colder climates, a dense arrangement of evergreen shrubs and trees can be relied on to block incoming snow and wind blowing down from the north. This helps to reduce home energy consumption on heating, and keeps sheltered outdoor spaces more hospitable through the cold season.
Evergreen species are perfect for privacy hedges, offering year-round protection from the prying eyes of nosy neighbors.
They’re also great for lower, decorative hedges and topiaries (there’s a reason you see so many buxus/boxwood hedges).
Evergreen trees also help to improve air quality, using physical filtration and photosynthesis to remove airborne pollution all year long, including through the winter months when cold air leads to higher concentrations of airborne pollutants.
Year-round foliage means no fall leaf drop to deal with. Plant evergreens in suitable conditions, and they’re often a breeze to care for.
There are some exceptions. Some conifers drop massive amounts of litter, like the scaly leaves of redwoods or the rosette cones of deodar cedars. This litter has ecological value, but can be a headache if a tidy yard is your goal. (Our suggestion: if you have a mature, high-litter evergreen tree, design the area beneath it to welcome the litter – it will look natural, support your local ecosystem, and save you a lot maintenance.)
Landscape Ideas and Tips for Evergreen Landscaping
With all the variety available among evergreens, tips for designing with them tend to mirror tips for designing with plants writ large. Utilizing layering, massing, focal points, and a cohesive, focused palette of species is as important when designing with evergreens as it is with herbaceous and deciduous species.
Be that as it may, here are a few tips that can help you get the most design-bang for of your evergreen-buck:
Go easy on color
If you are using a big, bright species like rhododendron, restrain yourself. The fewer moments of color you use in a design, the more each of those moments will really sing. (Colorful groundcovers are fine to use more liberally, owing to them being low-growing and much less massive than flowering shrubs.)
For fans of cottage gardens, this principle doesn’t apply too strongly, but those with more modern tastes will want to limit color in terms of both quantity and variety—use a limited range of colors rather than the whole rainbow.
Vertical + Sculptural accents
Taller evergreens, particularly conifers, are like year-round exclamation points.
Place them at key moments to frame or emphasize thresholds or views, or add them as focal points unto themselves when your site is light on existing visual interest.
Again, our mind’s may go immediately to pyramidal or columnar species like arborvitae or Skyrocket juniper—such species are great for calling attention to a precise location. If you are looking to make a focal point out of your plant, however, consider something with more rangy, sculptural branching.
Consider curb appeal when planning for evergreen accents. Evergreens at front corners of the property frame the home when viewed from the street. Evergreen trees make for great specimens in open front yards.
Use evergreens—particularly those without any showy flowers, fruit, or foliage—to create a backdrop. Use these plants like the curtain at the back of a stage—it won’t catch your attention, but it’s vital to the show. (This is why evergreens are so often used as the back layer in foundation planting designs.)
Integrate + Plan for Seasonality
The best planting designs are dynamic, passing emphasis from one area to the next as blooms come and go across the garden over the course of the year.
Blend evergreens among winter-dormant species in a manner that will allow all plants to properly enjoy the spotlight in their season of greatest charm. Practically speaking, this often (but not always) means placing evergreens further to the back of planting areas. One way or another, avoid big empty patches in your planting areas by strategically siting evergreens throughout your designs.
Utilize a variety of plant heights among your evergreen selections. A layered display of a few evergreen species will make for a richer, more compelling winter scene than an uninspired row of a single species. (It will look better in the spring, summer and fall, too.)
Tips for Selecting Evergreen Species
Before we dive into species recommendations, let’s take a peek at a few key considerations to help you zero in on the ideal evergreen plants for your yard.
Right plant, right place
Plants are easiest to take care of (i.e. the lowest maintenance) when they are happy with their light, soil, and climate conditions.
Rather than shoehorn exotic evergreens into imperfect settings by spiking them with fertilizer and extra irrigation, find species that will be happy in your yard as it is. This may pare down your options a bit, but it will save you heaps of hassle.
Drought is a factor across the U.S., and is particularly severe throughout the West. Opting for low water plants will help the greater good by conserving water, but it will also help your garden to survive through dry periods, and cut down your irrigation expenses.
Landscape designs rightfully have the freedom to explore any planting style they wish (though we’d argue that any planting style must be executed in a way that supports local ecology and is responsible about regional risks like fire and drought).
And yet, while we can—and should—embrace a variety of landscape styles, it’s almost always an excellent idea to incorporate some of the character of the regional landscape. Plants, decorative stones and boulders, even paving—it can all echo the forms, colors, textures, and scents that characterize regional wild landscapes. In so doing, design elements that express regional character lend a sense of belonging to a design, and establish a link between your yard and wild nature.
Having evolved to thrive in local conditions, native plants tend to require less water, fertilizer, and overall fuss than species introduced from other parts of the world (see “Right plant, right place”). They’re also ready-made to help you capture elements of the regional landscape character in your yard.
Because local fauna co-evolved with native plants, natives also offer exponentially more habitat value than introduced species. Many plants from around the world are reliably drought-tolerant throughout the US, but those low water imports don’t hold a candle to the habitat value of natives, particularly keystone species like oaks, goldenrod, sunflowers, and asters.
Evergreen Plant Species Recommendations
And now, on to the plants! Let’s take a look at some of our favorite evergreen species, some conifers, others broad-leafed. We’ll start with U.S. natives.
US Native Evergreens
- Kalmia latifolia / Mountain Laurel
Native to eastern U.S. Beautiful spring flowers, attractive year-round foliage. Good native sub for azaleas.
- Magnolia grandiflora / Southern Magnolia
Native to moist wooded areas in the southeastern United States from NC to FL and TX. A classic Southern landscape tree.
- Magnolia ‘Little Gem’ / Little Gem Magnolia
Smaller cultivar of the Southern Magnolia.
- Magnolia virginiana ‘ Henry Hicks’ / Henry Hicks Sweet Bay Magnolia
Native to southeastern U.S. north along the Atlantic coast to NY. Smaller cultivar of the Sweet Bay Magnolia.
- Pieris floribunda / Mountain Fetterbush
Native to Southern Appalachian Mountains.
- Abies balsamea ‘Nana’ / Dwarf Balsam Fir
Native to the Northeast, Upper Midwest. Compact shape, and very cold tolerant.
- Picea glauca ‘Conica’ / Dwarf Alberta Spruce
Native to the Northeast, Upper Midwest. Dense Christmas tree shape. Can be pruned.
- Thuja occidentalis ‘Smaragd’ / Emerald Green Arborvitae
Native to the Northeast, Upper Midwest. Very popular hedge plant, fast growing, and useful as a sub for Italian Cypress, but deer devour it, and it’s fairly overused.
- Picea pungens ‘Glauca’ / Colorado Blue Spruce
Native to high altitude areas of the Rockies. Silvery-blue foliage is gorgeous, plugs in well to modern designs, but can adapt to any aesthetic.
- Picea pungens ‘Globosa’ / Dwarf Globe Blue Spruce
Native to high altitude areas of the Rockies. Smaller, but same silvery-blue color. Good for foundation planting.
- Chamaecyparis nootkatensis ‘Glauca’ / Alaska Cedar
Native to Cascade Range in OR/WA along the coast to AK.
- Chamaecyparis nootkatensis ‘Pendula’ / Weeping Alaska Cedar
Native to Cascade Range in OR/WA along the coast to AK.
- Gaultheria procumbens / Wintergreen
Native to Appalachia, New England, Northeast, Upper Midwest. Groundcover. Showy winter berries, pollinator-friendly.
- Ilex glabra / Inkberry
Native to Eastern U.S. Good native sub for boxwood.
- Ilex opaca / American Holly
Native to the Southeast.
- Ilex vomitoria / Yaupon Holly
Native to coastal/low-lying areas of the Southeast.
- Illicium parviflorum ‘Florida Sunshine’ / Florida Sunshine Yellow Anise
Native to central FL and Gulf Coast to LA. Chartreuse leaves.
- Juniperus horizontalis / Creeping Juniper
Native to northern states, Rockies, and Canada. Creeping groundcover.
- Juniperus scopulorum ‘Skyrocket’ / Rocky Mountain Juniper
Native to the Rockies. Slender, vertical form, good native sub for Italian cypress.
- Juniperus virginiana ‘Taylor’ / Narrow Eastern Red Cedar
Native to east of the Mississippi. Also a good Italian cypress sub.
- Ilex aquifolium ‘Variegatum’ / Variegated English Holly
Decorative foliage + berries that can be used for wreaths, winter decorations. May need protection from drying winter winds.
- Sarcococca hookeriana var. humilis / Himalayan Sweet Box
Fragrant spring blooms, shade tolerant, sprawling shrub/ground cover.
- Sarcococca ruscifolia / Fragrant Sweet Box
Fragrant spring blooms, shade tolerant, bushy habit
- Distylium ‘Blue Cascade’ / Blue Cascade Distylium
Good foundation plant or as trimmed hedge. Many Distylium cultivars available.
- Distylium ‘Cinnamon Girl’ / Cinnamon Girl Distylium
- Distylium ‘Linebacker’ / Linebacker Distylium
- Distylium ‘Vintage Jade’ / Vintage Jade Distylium
- Microbiota decussata / Siberian Cypress / Russian Arborvitae
Interesting sub for prostrate conifers.
- Cedrus atlantica ‘Glauca Pendula’Weeping Blue Atlas Cedar
Unique weeping form.
Distinct blue foliage.
- Proteaceae (Leucadendron, Leucospermum, Grevillea, and Protea)
This family of plants would thrive in Coastal SoCal. Leucadendron ‘Safari Sunset’ is a popular cultivar. Across the board some interesting flowers, forms, and colors. Worth exploring!
- Loropetalum / Chinese Fringe Flower
Green and purple-leaved cultivars. Useful in CA, the Southeast, and the Gulf Coast. Many cultivars. A very popular hedge or garden shrub. Unique flowers.
- Osmanthus fragrans / Sweet Olive
Foundation/hedge planting, highly fragrant flowers.
Great accent or hedge with leaves that go through a series of colors.
- Cryptomeria cvs. / Japanese Cedar
Many cultivars with a range of habits. Fragrant wood.
- Chamaecyparis cvs. / False Cypress
Tons of cultivars spanning a broad range of sizes, colors, textures, and habits.
Dwarf, spreading cultivar. Taxus x media is hybrid of English and Japanese Yew, with many cultivars. Yews are popular in general, but toxic if eaten – take caution w/ kids and pets.
Non-Evergreens for Winter Interest
- Ilex decidua / Possumhaw
Native to Southeast (TX to FL) and Mid-Atlantic.
- Betula papyrifera / Paper Birch
Native to Northeast and Upper Midwest. Gorgeous bark and fall color. Wants a cold climate. Needs consistent soil moisture to thrive. Roots can be a utility risk.
- Symphoricarpos albus / Snowberry
Native to northern states across US.
- Hamamelis virginiana / Witchhazel
Native east of the Mississippi River. Early blooms on bare branches for late-winter interest.
- Ilex verticillata ‘Winter Red’ (female) / ‘Southern Gentleman’ (male) / Winterberry
Native east of the Mississippi River. Showy red berries, attracts wildlife, good for native pollinators.
- Acer palmatum ‘Sango Kaku’ / Coral Bark Japanese Maple
Beautiful fall color and showy, red bark. Low maintenance.
- Limonium perezii / Sea Lavender
A tough perennial that blooms nearly year-round in frost-free coastal climates. Unique + attractive flowers and foliage.
- Cornus sericea / C. alba / C. sanguinea / Red Twig Dogwood, Red Osier Dogwood, Tatarian Dogwood
There are several dogwood species with red-twigged cultivars. The bright red bark is spectacular in the winter.
- Carex buchananii / Leatherleaf Sedge
Grass with copper-colored foliage that stays evergreen in mild climates.
Get Started With Your Landscape Design by Yardzen
Yardzen’s award-winning online landscape design is tailored to clients in all fifty states in the US. Through the American Rewilding Project, we are committed to creating designs with climate-adapted and habitat-providing plants as well as water saving landscaping principles in drought-prone regions unless homeowners specifically opt out.
Our design process begins with understanding your space, your aesthetic preferences, and a discussion of your budget and vision to minimize surprises when it comes time to build.
Our top-notch designers then develop a personalized vision for your yard, shared through 3D renderings, 2D plan drawings, and plant and material lists. Your design will capture the look, feel, and function you are hoping for, all while keeping costs within range.
Once your design is complete, we’ll help you connect with a local contractor from our Pro Network of vetted professional landscapers to install your new design.