Evergreens are the shrubs and trees that stay green all winter. Some people call them "pine trees," but only a few of them are actually pines. Some call them "Christmas trees," but that can mean many kinds of evergreens. And some call them "green bushes for around the foundation." So let's start with the real terminology:
Woody plants (trees and shrubs) are either "deciduous" (drop their leaves) or "evergreen" (keep their leaves). Some evergreens are broad-leaved (rhododendrons, hollies), and some have needles, which are narrow leaves (pines, firs, hemlocks, spruces). The ones with needles are all "conifers"; they produce cones that contain their seeds.
Some conifers, such as larches and redwoods, drop their needles in winter. So we have both deciduous and evergreen conifers.
Evergreens for your landscape: Let's go back to those "bushes" for around the house. "Bushes," as you may have figured by now, doesn't really mean anything. Your landscaper or garden center consultant will want to know whether you're considering evergreens (needled or broad-leaved) or deciduous, perhaps flowering, shrubs.
The key question is whether you want green plants in winter, to give your snow-covered landscape some structure, to give the birds some shelter, or perhaps to decorate for the holidays. Landscapes are pleasing when they include both evergreen and flowering plants. Remember that all you see in winter are the evergreens and the silhouette or branch structure of the others.
"Foundation planting" is where most home landscaping starts. Most homeowners expect a collar of planting beds close to the house. Ideally, these beds should be 6 feet wide - or even much wider (preferably one-third as wide as the height of the house), to permit a well-proportioned planting. If beds are dug just 3 feet wide, it severely limits plant choices. A severe - and common - mistake is cramming those narrow beds with shrubs or trees that will soon outgrow the location - crowding each other, blocking the windows, often leading to bad pruning with ugly results.
Choose plants that will grow only as large as the spot you want them to fill. Spiraeas, hollies, spruces, junipers - whatever. You want it to still fit the spot in 10 years.
The premise of good horticulture is to choose plants that suit their site: the amount of light, available water, wind exposure, soil type, drainage, and potential for damage by salt, humans and animals.
The following evergreens can be great foundation or mixed border plants, if they match the home you're offering them:
. Yews (Taxus): Old foundations have them because there weren't many alternatives years ago, and they can be carved into hedges and balls. They are naturally big plants. Deer eat them. Good if you need plants you can shape; otherwise, move on.
. Junipers: Require full sun, deer eat them, and they're overused. But they are tough, versatile plants for many landscape purposes, with great wildlife value. Choose carefully for size, among the cultivars.
. Spruces: Includes 40 species, but most people know the Colorado (blue) spruce. For sunny spots, choose true dwarf cultivars. Sadly, many 25-foot spruces are planted 2 feet from a house, with awful consequences.
. Firs: Prefer acidic soil and full sun but tolerate some shade. Only a few compact cultivars are in the landscape market.
. Pines: More than 90 species include cultivars of all shapes and sizes that tolerate a range of landscape conditions. Truly dwarf, compact or weeping pines are underused in home landscapes. Provide full or dappled sunshine.
. Chamaecyparis (False cypress): Perhaps the most versatile of the small, evergreen choices, these tolerate more shade and resist deer better than most conifers; there is a wide range of textures and colors in many compact cultivars.
. Arborvitae: Require full sun and moisture-retentive but well-drained soil; deer eat them. Vast numbers of cultivars come in all sizes, shapes and colors from gold to blue-green.
. Hollies: The genus Ilex includes many kinds of hollies, both evergreen and deciduous, as well as winterberry and inkberry. Many species have compact cultivars - read the tags. You need males and females together to produce berries.
. Rhododendrons and azaleas: These plants are "ericaceous," requiring acidic soil. If you can provide that, many cultivars in many sizes can be great shade-preferring foundation plants. Some need winter protection.
. Pieris japonica: In part shade to shade, Pieris is beautiful for four seasons.
. Boxwoods and privets: Chosen because they can be pruned into hedges or specific shapes, both genera can be beautiful as evergreen, full-sized large shrubs or as small foundation-plant sized cultivars.
Specimen shrubs and yard trees: Almost every genus above has full-sized species or cultivars that would also be attractive as single specimen plants or - better - as part of a layered island planting in the front or backyard. If you like everything about a plant, except the mature size shown on the tag, consider placing it away from the house. A privet, unpruned and allowed to flower, is a beautiful, fragrant pollinator plant. Some Chamaecyparis are exquisite, stand-along soloists or centerpieces. Junipers, firs, spruces and pines - all include gorgeous, full-sized species or cultivars that deserve prime placement.
Beyond "Christmas trees," "pine trees" and "evergreen bushes" lies a whole world of outstanding plants for you to discover.
Sally Cunningham is a garden writer, lecturer and consultant.