Evergreens: what you need to know

Very soon we will be in awe of the leaf colours in our part of the world. 

Then, they fall to the ground. 

After deciduous trees drop their leaves, Canadians are left looking through bare tree branches at each other.  Your neighbours can now see into your kitchen (or worse) and your privacy is only protected by the cold space between your window and your neighbours. 

Unless you planted evergreens.

Evergreens do not drop their leaves as they have needles, which serve much the same function that leaves do during the growing months but come winter, they stay on the plant in a dormant state, waiting for spring.

We are not in favour of landscapes that are entirely evergreen (coniferous) or deciduous, but a thoughtful mix of the two.  Here are our top picks for Canadian gardens:

  1. White Pine (Pinus strobus).  The tree that made Ontario famous, and the official tree of the province.  When the British arrived here, they saw the white pine evergreens that dominated the mixed hardwood forests and they wanted them to build the British navy, after they had cut down all the big trees in the U.K. for the same purpose.  While the original giant (virgin) pine is virtually gone, white pine is still a mighty fine choice for the landscape, especially where it is protected from prevailing northwest winds.  Soft, flexible needles, grows to 8 metres high and grows best in light sandy soil. 
  2. Norway spruce (Picea abies) fast growing, classic Christmas tree shape.  Give lots of space as it matures to 5 metres wide at the bottom and 20 metres high.  Branches have a slightly drooping appearance.  If anyone asks if it is not well, tell them this is a special feature of the tree. 
  3. Balsam Fir (Abies balsamea).   King of the Maritime Forest.  Prefers a moist, open soil, much as cedars do.  Soft needles with classic evergreen fragrance.  Grows to 20 metres high, 4 metres wide.  
  4. Eastern Hemlock (Tsuga canadensis).  A large evergreen that performs well in the shade.  Another native to Central Canada.  Hemlock thrives in the dappled shade of the understory of deciduous forests.  Our experience has taught us that hemlock are best planted small.  A tree more than a metre high does not transplant well and takes longer to grow than a shorter version, purchased for less money by someone with a little more patience.  Matures to 20 metres high and 8 metres wide, when given enough room.  Hemlock lends itself to pruning if you wish to contain it.
  5. Junipers.  There are hundreds of junipers to choose from and the Sheridan Nurseries Garden Guide states that, “there is a juniper for every garden”.  Mark was raised on junipers but now he is grown up he believes that there is no juniper for his garden.  We cannot let his personal taste (or lack of it) get in the way of good garden design.  There are very low, prostrate varieties like Dwarf Japanese Garden (Juniperus procumbens ‘Nana’) and tall, upright specimens like Mountbatten, a fast-growing Canadian introduction that matures to 6 metres tall and 2 metres wide.  All junipers need sun and are prickly to handle.  Mark reminds us to wear gloves.
  6. Yews (Taxus).  A versatile, slow growing evergreen that creates great hedges or specimens that can be pruned into lollipops or owls or whatever your heart desires.   Pyramid Japanese yew is the classic foundation plant.  Featuring deep green colour and generally good shade tolerance, yews enjoy dry, well drained soil. 

When you go shopping for evergreens be sure to pay close attention to the ultimate height on the label.  A dwarf Alberta spruce is not what we call dwarf as it matures to about 2.5 metres.  Avoid Scots Pine (Pinus sylvestris) as it is thin, straggly and has a rangy, discombobulated growth habit.  But it looks great in its native Scottish highland.

If you have a Scottish background you might want to plant one for posterity. Too bad about your plunging property value though.

Mark Cullen is an expert gardener, author, broadcaster, tree advocate and Member of the Order of Canada. His son Ben is a fourth-generation urban gardener and graduate of University of Guelph and Dalhousie University in Halifax. Follow them at markcullen.com, @markcullengardening, and on Facebook