Jolly green giants: How to pick enviable evergreens

Some say every garden needs an evergreen. But which one to choose – the prettiest or the hardiest? Anna guides you through the picking process.

"All gardens must contain 10 per cent of evergreens," I read this week. The piece was written by a garden designer, wonderfully sure that his edicts had been handed down by Moses himself. Any edict has me reaching for my anarchist T-shirt, but in this particular one, there was an element of truth. My objection would centre on the actual percentage.

In gardens there's no such thing as a universal solution. In towns, for instance, you might use more evergreen plants, to ameliorate the overwhelming presence of bricks, Tarmac and mortar. But there again, if the garden was very small, you'd be careful of putting anything in it that would loom disproportionately out of its space. A hedge of Leyland cypress can become a prison rather than a pleasure.

Much depends on how you define evergreen. If, as a new gardener, you read the decree above, you'd probably think first of trees. Then shrubs. And you'd be right, because in terms of scale, no garden can do without those comfortable large pieces of furniture. Holly is out of fashion. Too slow. Too unfriendly with its angled prickles. But it remains my favourite evergreen tree, because of the amazing, light-reflecting gloss of its leaves.

And it's a British native, which in the xenophobic mindset that seems to prevail among environmentalists just now, puts you on the side of the angels. And makes up for the fact that you are still buying bottled water. You'd get the same plus points if you went for box or yew, both of them native evergreens. But box is still plagued by blight, and clipped box (so vogueish, so instantly structural) seems more prone to attack than unclipped. Yew, although usually confined within the straitjacket of a hedge, makes a magnificent piece of evergreen topiary, especially if you use Taxus baccata 'Fastigiata', the upright-growing form discovered on a hillside in County Fermanagh more than 200 years ago. When we came here, we planted six of them, zig-zagging through the flower garden. That was only six years ago and already, at 7ft, they are as tall as I want them to be.

As a precaution, two summers ago, we tied them round with fishing line. It's invisible, but stops the side branches splaying out under the weight of snow. I wasn't planning anything complicated, just simple evergreen pillars rising between the more evanescent displays of tulips, columbines, thalictrum and iris. This summer, we topped off the yews and it had an extraordinary effect. Suddenly they were finished pieces of sculpture. In winter, they pull the eye where it needs to be, above the rotting mounds of herbaceous plants (the big arums are at their squelchiest worst).

Winter, of course, is the season when evergreen plants really earn their keep – even spotty laurel (Aucuba japonica), the stalwart of Victorian shrubberies. I couldn't ever be passionate about spotty laurel. It's not the kind of thing you swoop on in the garden centre saying "I've always wanted one of these". Poor aucuba. There is nothing more dreary than being described as useful. Its tragedy, of course, is that we take it too much for granted. It never looks as though it is going to keel over from ill-health. It withstands frost, tempest and drought. It puts up with less-than-brilliant growing conditions. It does not mind shade. The thing is a paragon, but still we do not love it.

But the bulk of it in winter, when so many things have shrivelled back to skeletons, is comforting. The colour, bright green-flecked and streaked with gold, is warm in fog and frost. It is generally as wide as it is high, and will shield you permanently from views you would rather not see. It rarely gets above 3m (10ft). The branches are lax and arch outwards when they get heavy with leaves.

It needs no regular pruning. Because it has such large leaves, it is better left unclipped. If you want to reduce its size, work on a branch at a time, tracing back the piece you want to get rid of to its junction with another branch and making the cut there.

Cutting back some of the growth on a regular basis stimulates a supply of fresh growth and this will have bigger and shinier leaves than those on old branches. April is the best time to do this, but aucuba is a forgiving plant and will excuse some snipping at any time of the year. Nesting birds love its dark, dry undergrowth. They must like the red berries, too, as there are few left on bushes round us.

Smaller and neater is the shrub osmanthus, either in its plain, dark evergreen form, or the showier Osmanthus heterophyllus 'Variegatus'. I like its leaf, dark, evergreen, jagged, rather like a holly leaf, but not as prickly and, in the variegated form, edged in an absent-minded way with cream. It grows well in a pot and will fill a corner boldly, giving bulk to more frippery displays of winter pansies. It doesn't seem to mind shade, and grows slowly to make a rounded bush, as wide as it is high. The variegated one is more compact than other forms, but shyer to flower. It doesn't need regular pruning, but if it began to look lopsided then I would snip at it in April.

Wandering round our place, I'd say that the best things in the garden at the moment are the columnar yews, along with big mounds of rosemary, myrtle and shrubby spurges, such as Euphorbia stygiana and E. x pasteurii. Snowdrops have been flowering since Christmas. So have primroses. The hellebores are in bud. But, in this dreary month, the evergreens are what catch the eye. Foliage is more important than flowers. Oh Lord! I think I might have caught edict-fever too.

Discover more property articles at Homes and Property
News
people
News
people
News
peopleStella McCartney apologises over controversial Instagram picture
Life and Style
Laid bare: the Good2Go app ensures people have a chance to make their intentions clear about having sex
techCould Good2Go end disputes about sexual consent - without being a passion-killer?
PROMOTED VIDEO
Arts and Entertainment
Richard Burr remains the baker to beat on the Great British Bake Off
tvRichard remains the baker to beat as Chetna begins to flake
News
i100
Sport
footballArsenal 4 Galatasaray 1: Wenger celebrates 18th anniversary in style
Arts and Entertainment
Amazon has added a cautionary warning to Tom and Jerry cartoons on its streaming service
tv
News
people
News
The village was originally named Llansanffraid-ym-Mechain after the Celtic female Saint Brigit, but the name was changed 150 years ago to Llansantffraid – a decision which suggests the incorrect gender of the saint
newsA Welsh town has changed its name - and a prize if you can notice how
Arts and Entertainment
Kristen Scott Thomas in Electra at the Old Vic
theatreReview: Kristin Scott Thomas is magnificent in a five-star performance of ‘Electra’
News
Destructive discourse: Jewish boys look at anti-Semitic graffiti sprayed on to the walls of the synagogue in March 2006, near Tel Aviv
peopleAt the start of Yom Kippur and with anti-Semitism flourishing, one Jew can no longer ignore his identity
Life and Style
Couples who boast about their relationship have been condemned as the most annoying Facebook users
tech
Arts and Entertainment
Hayley Williams performs with Paramore in New York
musicParamore singer says 'Steal Your Girl' is itself stolen from a New Found Glory hit
News
i100
Property search
Latest stories from i100
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
Independent Dating
and  

By clicking 'Search' you
are agreeing to our
Terms of Use.

iJobs Job Widget
iJobs General

Science Teacher

£100 - £110 per day: Randstad Education Group: Key stage 3 and 4 Teacher requi...

RE Teacher

£120 - £162 per day: Randstad Education Hull: Teacher of Religious Education ...

A Level Chemistry Teacher

£120 - £162 per day: Randstad Education Hull: A Level Chemistry Teacher - Humb...

NQT Secondary Teachers

£100 - £130 per day: Randstad Education Hull: Randstad Education is actively r...

Day In a Page

Italian couples fake UK divorce scam on an ‘industrial scale’

Welcome to Maidenhead, the divorce capital of... Italy

A look at the the legal tourists who exploited our liberal dissolution rules
Time to stop running: At the start of Yom Kippur and with anti-Semitism flourishing, one Jew can no longer ignore his identity

Time to stop running

At the start of Yom Kippur and with anti-Semitism flourishing, one Jew can no longer ignore his identity
Tom and Jerry cartoons now carry a 'racial prejudice' warning on Amazon

Tom and Jerry cartoons now carry a 'racial prejudice' warning on Amazon

The vintage series has often been criticised for racial stereotyping
An app for the amorous: Could Good2Go end disputes about sexual consent - without being a passion-killer?

An app for the amorous

Could Good2Go end disputes about sexual consent - without being a passion-killer?
Llansanffraid is now Llansantffraid. Welsh town changes its name, but can you spot the difference?

Llansanffraid is now Llansantffraid

Welsh town changes its name, but can you spot the difference?
Charlotte Riley: At the peak of her powers

Charlotte Riley: At the peak of her powers

After a few early missteps with Chekhov, her acting career has taken her to Hollywood. Next up is a role in the BBC’s gangster drama ‘Peaky Blinders’
She's having a laugh: Britain's female comedians have never had it so good

She's having a laugh

Britain's female comedians have never had it so good, says stand-up Natalie Haynes
Sistine Chapel to ‘sing’ with new LED lights designed to bring Michelangelo’s masterpiece out of the shadows

Let there be light

Sistine Chapel to ‘sing’ with new LEDs designed to bring Michelangelo’s masterpiece out of the shadows
Great British Bake Off, semi-final, review: Richard remains the baker to beat

Tensions rise in Bake Off's pastry week

Richard remains the baker to beat as Chetna begins to flake
Paris Fashion Week, spring/summer 2015: Time travel fashion at Louis Vuitton in Paris

A look to the future

It's time travel fashion at Louis Vuitton in Paris
The 10 best bedspreads

The 10 best bedspreads

Before you up the tog count on your duvet, add an extra layer and a room-changing piece to your bed this autumn
Arsenal vs Galatasaray: Five things we learnt from the Emirates

Arsenal vs Galatasaray

Five things we learnt from the Gunners' Champions League victory at the Emirates
Stuart Lancaster’s long-term deal makes sense – a rarity for a decision taken by the RFU

Lancaster’s long-term deal makes sense – a rarity for a decision taken by the RFU

This deal gives England a head-start to prepare for 2019 World Cup, says Chris Hewett
Ebola outbreak: The children orphaned by the virus – then rejected by surviving relatives over fear of infection

The children orphaned by Ebola...

... then rejected by surviving relatives over fear of infection
Pride: Are censors pandering to homophobia?

Are censors pandering to homophobia?

US film censors have ruled 'Pride' unfit for under-16s, though it contains no sex or violence