Plant picks | Easy evergreen shrubs for Iowa gardens

Oh, winter.  For five months, if we’re not intentional, our landscapes will be mostly brown and grey with a little bit of white now and then.  And we long for color!  Especially when it’s cold out.  Once the perennials die back and the deciduous plants drop their leaves, what’s left in your yard?

While anything that blooms will always grab my attention, conifers actually offer plenty for the landscape: reliable structure, subtle texture, interesting details, and year-round color.  But for the gardener that usually buys daylilies and coneflowers, selecting and investing in a conifer can be a little overwhelming.  They cost more than other shrubs because they grow slowly and spend a long time in the nursery.  So what do you choose when you’re willing to lay down a little more cash for a nice backbone plant?

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But hey- first, what's a conifer?  Or an evergreen exactly?  Let's have a little #horticultureschool.  An evergreen plant doesn't drop its leaves in the fall the way that deciduous plants do.  Evergreens can be lots of different types of plants, depending on where you live.  For example, some plants that are evergreen in the balmy Motherland (that's North Carolina to you) lose their leaves here in the frigid Heartland (that's Iowa!)  So evergreen just means the leaves don't drop all at once in the fall.  Many conifers -what we're talking about today- are evergreen, but not all.  (The few exceptions maybe we'll cover in another hort class.)  Conifers are plants that have cones instead of flowers- think pine trees.  Growing as low creeping evergreens, mid-sized shrubs, and giant towering trees, they can be dramatic specimens or quiet backdrops in your yard. Good?  Okay, school's out. 

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This time around, we'll talk about mid-sized, evergreen conifer shrubs that you can trust to look good in your home landscape.   I’d recommend these three evergreen shrubs that won’t break the bank to any gardener looking for winter color and a reliable backdrop in their yard.

A QUICK DISCLAIMER ABOUT SIZE:
Many conifers grow really, really big.  Like 40-60’ tall.  Think of the forest where Yeti lives. Or, they grow super low, around 12” tall, and creep along the ground.  Think rocky outcroppings along a frigid lake.  But this Goldilocks, middle-sized, perfect-for-your-landscape shrub?  The truth is, it doesn’t really exist.  Almost all the medium-sized conifer shrubs available are just versions of the big guys that grow really slowly.  So in the first ten years or so, the plant’s around four feet tall.  But in 30 or 40 years, it might stand eight or ten feet high.  This is just the reality of growing conifers: they (like all plants) change over time.  What does that mean for a landscape designer?  It means good planning and solutions.  This could mean planning to expertly prune to reduce size over time, or planning to pull out the overgrown plants, or planning to change the landscape beds to suit them in a few decades.  As long as you know this and anticipate it, carry on. 

And now, the plant choices:

THE SPECS:
All of these plants are hardy to at least zone 4, meaning they’ll handle the Iowa winter.  They should require very little maintenance and no pruning if they’re planted in a space suited to their size.  They’re some of the last plants deer choose to munch on (but remember a hungry deer might eat anything).  Plant them in full sun and well-drained soil, and you shouldn’t need to do much to them. 

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Image: thetreefarm.com

SEA GREEN JUNIPER
If I had to pick a tough, reliable, plain green evergreen shrub to use in my yard, I'd first consider Sea Green juniper (Juniperus x pfitzeriana 'Sea Green').  This plant can take parking lot conditions- hot, dry, and exposed- and still look great.  It slowly reaches about 6' tall and 8' wide, making it a perfect plant for the back of a border or along a foundation wall (as long as it doesn’t block windows!)  As a backdrop plant, it’s not just a green meatball: the arching stems and plumes of evergreen foliage give really cool dimension to the plant.


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HINOKI CYPRESS
For a deep green, almost sculptured effect, I love Chamaecyparis obtusa ‘Nana Gracilis’ (hinoki cypress).  This conifer grows more upright, with dense green foliage growing in curved sprays like scalloped edges.  In the first 10 years, expect a height of around 3’, with a long-term mature height of around 6-9’.  The new growth is a lighter green and that fan shape is so pretty, both up close and from a distance.


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GLOBE BLUE COLORADO SPRUCE
I'm usually a fan of soft plants.  I touch everything, so prickly plants are no friend of mine.  But you can win me over if you have a blueish tint, like Picea pungens ‘Glauca Globosa’ (globe blue Colorado spruce) with its gorgeous blue-green or silver-blue bristly needles. Growing with a rounded, flat-topped shape and slowly reaching 3-5’ tall and 5-6’ wide, this shrub will certainly give some color to your landscape in the winter.

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Even without blooms, any of these three conifers will be a great addition to your landscape.  There are so many evergreen “shrubs” that either stay low to the ground or end up gigantic, but these should fit nicely into a residential yard.  Conifers give a feeling of establishment and age to a yard that you don’t get from perennials or deciduous plants, they provide color and interest during the long winter, and they’re worth the investment.  Now when you’re walking into the nursery or garden center looking for one that’s not too big or too small, you can be much more confident about what you’re buying.  Which one would you choose?