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Evergreen shrubs

Winter skeleton that supports a garden

Every garden needs evergreen bones that hold it together and become its winter stars.

Evergreens can look downright dull in summer, or at least that’s what I used to think, comparing them to showy annuals or herbaceous perennials.

Plain dark foliage plays its part in offsetting more colourful things. When autumn strikes and everything dies down, then it’s their time to shine.

Here’s the plants that create the winter structure in my garden:

Hollies: (see below).

Rosemary: This 4ft high bush is trimmed into a roughly rounded shape and survived the freezing winter of 2011/12, with just a touch of frost damage.

Fatsia japonica: The two green-leaved Fatsias, although the same variety, have different growth habits. The oldest is a towering 10-footer, popular as a nesting spot for birds. There’s a slightly younger one in the front garden, only 5ft tall, but much bushier and free flowering. The white globule-like flowers appear in November, followed by small black fruits. It’s the leaves you grow this for – tropical, glossy palmate specimens up to 16″ long. Surprisingly hardy, too.

Fatsia japonica
Fatsia japonica

Fatsia japonica variegata: Planted February 2013, it’s slower growing than the other two, with leaves edged and blotched in cream. Less hardy than the plain form. I’ve got my eye on the newer Spider’s Web, with cream variegation just like its name suggests.

Lavender: Contrasting lilac and pink forms are trimmed like the rosemary, and planted with plenty of gravel, which probably helps them to survive.

Phormium (New Zealand flax): A double-edged sword, a bit like its leaves. What was a striking architectural plant has taken over a corner of the front garden, swamping the weeping cherry and proves impossible to move.

Coprosma Pacific Sunset: Looks like a small holly on acid, with purple and red shiny leaves. It’s not that hardy but has survived two winters. Not really pulling its weight – it may have to go.

Euphorbia: E. martinii Ascot Rainbow and E. characias subsp. wulfenii provide great structure, despite the latter only being hardy down to -5C.

Pyracantha: Now three different kinds, red, orange and yellow berries – birds very swiftly strip the oldest orange one of its orange berries virtually overnight.

Berberis darwinii: This venerable old giant is a 12ft lookout post for the sparrows. Its tiny, dark green holly-like leaves are secondary to the gnarled stems. There are orange flowers in spring and purple/black berries. Seeds itself around a bit, too. The cat likes it as a scratching post.

Ivy: (see panel).

The only way is up for conifers

The much-maligned conifer has for years been seen as an easy solution to an older person’s front garden, or the Leylandii hedge.

Korean yew

We need to look at them in a new light. They have architectural shapes; all-year-round colour; a great smell and are easy to grow.

Try to work them into planting schemes alongside herbaceous perennials, deciduous shrubs, bulbs, annuals, etc.

Here are my two favourites (both slow growing):

Cephalotaxus harringtonia Korean Gold (gold-needled plum yew): new growth is yellow/gold. It grows to 120cm in 10 years; double that in 20. Young columnar growth matures into an inverted pyramid and will take some shade.

Picea glauca Sander’s Blue: Very slow growing, conical tree, but not a dwarf. It will grow to 120cm in 10 years but eventually, matures to 6m. However, I’ll be dead then. Its soft blue-green aromatic needles become greener with age. Sander’s Blue is a sport of Picea glauca, the white spruce, an extremely hardy conifer native to upland areas and lake/stream margins stretching from Alaska across the boreal forest of Canada to Newfoundland.

Ivy: vital for pollinators

Wasp on flowering ivy in October
Wasp on flowering ivy in October

Most people, if told to choose one climber, would ignore the common green ivy.

It’s easy to be seduced by flowers and variegated foliage – Goldheart, Paddy’s Pride and Glacier are certainly prettier.

My garden came with its own supply – growing out of a crack between the outer staircase and the garage wall.

It’s covered the whole wall and looks very handsome. Its yellowish-green flowers are borne in small clusters and have a honey scent.

This where a ‘slight’ difference of opinion occurs between the family and me. It attracts lots of insects – bees, wasps, hoverflies, flies, butterflies – you name it. As it covers the wall leading to our back door, people don’t appreciate the benefit to wildlife. They see the wasps and think they’ll get stung.

Ivy’s late flowering season makes it a valuable source of nectar prior to hibernation.

The black berries, ripe from November to January, provide many birds, particularly wood pigeon, thrushes, and blackbirds, with abundant food supplies.

All parts of the ivy are toxic to human, but not other animals.

Wearing a wreath of ivy leaves around the brow is supposed to prevent you getting drunk, as it was dedicated to Bacchus, the Roman God of Intoxication!

Sexually confused hollies

Hollies, like people, are mostly either male and female. If your plant doesn’t have berries, it’s either male (which don’t get any) or a female whose flowers haven’t been pollinated.

You need to plant one of each sex, which is more confusing than it seems since many are named as the wrong gender.

There is a fairly common variety of English holly, Ilex aquifolium JC van Tol, that is female but self-fertile. Its glossy, dark green leaves are almost spineless and the bright red berries appear on dark purple stems in autumn and persist through the winter. There are others – check specialist suppliers.

My first holly was Golden King (obviously female). It has golden-edged, almost spine-free leaves and red berries.

Next came Ilex aquifolium Silver Queen (male), with dark green spiny leaves, purple stems and branches and new growth tinged with pink. It’s a lovely foliage plant, so don’t think you’re missing out by not having berries.

The other is Ilex x altaclerensis Lawsoniana (female), with broad, spineless leaves, marked with yellow and yellow/green, and red berries.