Evergreens Needed

I took a photo of our snowy backyard this morning, and I’ve been using it to plan for some new additions. The garden has come a long way since we moved in three years ago (it was essentially a blank slate), but it is still lacking the year-round color and structure that evergreens would provide.

Evergreens Needed

I don’t know which evergreens to use, but at least I have an idea of where I want them to go. I love mountain laurel, but it’s not available here. Rhododendrons don’t grow well in my soil. Arborvitae, pine, yew, and juniper seem so common and boring, but I suppose that’s because they thrive in Chicago. I do like boxwood, but as someone warned me when I planted them, they are “going to bite it”. I didn’t heed the warning and indeed they aren’t doing so well (yet I want to add another?). I still have about two months before it will be warm enough to actually plant something, so I have a little time to figure something out.

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  • Psymonetta
    February 25, 2010 at 3:20 pm

    Actually, late winter is one of the best times to plant trees and shrubs – the challenge is getting a hole dug though.

    You might consider hollys or false cypress too.

  • Kari S.
    February 25, 2010 at 3:25 pm

    I think your layout is just fine. It gives you room to plant flowers or a garden if you wish. Or maybe a flowering bush or two. Dont forget to have the utilities people come out and flag your yard just in case there is any underground cable, gas or electric lines before you dig.

  • Amanda
    February 25, 2010 at 3:26 pm

    I have been photoshopping different plants into photos of our yard for the past few days. We have zero landscaping so I’m also trying to figure out a plan before spring! Our yard has tons of trees and is super shady. I love the tall skinny Arborvitae, but I’m not sure if they would work in the shade! I guess there’s a lot of trial and error involved in gardening…I can’t wait to see what you end up doing!

  • Kari
    February 25, 2010 at 4:01 pm

    I would recommend staying away from yews. The people who owned my house before me were obsessed with them so we have 8 or 10 of them and they’re a pain. The rabbits in my yard like to chew on them and if any part if the bark is damaged the branch dies and turns bright orange.

    Have you thought about using any native prairie grasses (like big blue stem or switch grass), they can grow to be 4 to 6 feet tall, contrast nicely with other bushier plants and require little maintenance.

  • Kathryn
    February 25, 2010 at 4:03 pm

    We have a small narrow yard similar to this, standard OP lot. We curved our path a little more to create a more circular yard with two beds on either side. It really makes the yard seem bigger and gives me lots more room to plant, I even fit veggies in. As far as year round interest, do you get enough sun for grasses? We have maiden hair that are beautiful in the winter, as well as the fosters reed, both provide structure year round (ok, I cut them in May and it looks off them, but at least by then there are other things coming up). Red twig dogwood is nice in winter, as are leftover hydrangea if you like a sparser look.

  • Jenny
    February 25, 2010 at 4:03 pm

    I think boxwood is always great. What about an olive tree or two? I think they’re evergreen, as I think some magnolias are, too. I don’t know if native grasses are, but they grow pretty big and are very pretty. There’s different kinds of hebe, also very nice to look at and evergreen.
    Whatever you choose to plant, I’m sure you’re going to make your yard look great!

  • Suzanne
    February 25, 2010 at 4:15 pm

    The plants you’re using to anchor the corners of your outdoor dining area should be substantial, otherwise your intended effect will go unnoticed. Boxwood is great, if it’s thriving, but generally it’s a very slow growing shrub that doesn’t work well as an anchor. (It works great as a hedge connecting anchors, though.)

    I would go to a bookstore and just peruse some regional garden guides for plants that serve more as specimens/anchors. I live down South, and in those places where you’ve got boxwood, I would go with a camellia or gardenia. Maybe a Spartan Juniper, Italian Cypress, or Sky Pencil Holly if I’m going for a more architectural look.

  • Alyssa
    February 25, 2010 at 4:43 pm

    I would recommend Gethsemane on the north side of Chicago for advice on what to plant. They are the most knowledgable nursery I’ve ever come across and their store is greenery heaven.

  • Kara
    February 25, 2010 at 5:09 pm

    How would Camillias do in your area? I’m in the Pacific NW and they do GREAT here! the waxy, dark green leaves are evergreen, and the flowers come out around now – giving you a splash of color before anything else blooms. You can have the plants full and bushy, keep them round-topped and more tree-like, or just let them get huge. My stepmom said there were tons of them where she grew up in Ohio, so they may fare well in Illinois.
    ps: camilia flowers come in in all sorts of color! Red, hot pink, light pink, white, etc. And they do well in vases – for a few days at least. And no scent.

  • Carol
    February 25, 2010 at 5:59 pm

    Azaleas. Evergreen with beautiful spring flowers. Ours have done well in Oak Park.

  • meredith
    February 25, 2010 at 6:19 pm

    Inkberry-similar to boxwood and a lot less finicky.

  • Cheryl
    February 25, 2010 at 6:23 pm

    One go-to book for me is Henry Mitchell’s The Essential Earthman — sound advice, straight-forward. Landscaping and interior design share a lot in common — it’s all about having a plan, repetitive elements and thinking in terms of “rooms.” I’ve learned so much from reading Mitchell’s book. We also located a landscaper who is so affordable and knows what thrives in our area plus he has a great eye for design. We do most of the work but he’s been invaluable in helping us lay out plans. There is also a good group of savy folks on gardenweb.com I came into this process not knowing much at all but now I have a design for the whole property (“6 rooms”) and I devised my own “moodboard” for our yard, a collage of plants, paths, trees, arbors, etc from pictures from magazines that has really helped me “see” what speaks to me.

    All the attention I’ve given to my interior space has helped me in designing the outside. You will be great at this!

    • Chris
      February 26, 2010 at 2:28 pm

      Hey Cheryl – Just wondering if you would mind posting the contact info for that affordable landscaper with an eye for design.


  • urban flea
    February 25, 2010 at 6:53 pm

    i think this will look awesome! thanks for sharing! also, i wanted to let you know that i recently added you as a banner link over at urban flea. i’d love for you to swing by sometime and let me know what you think! hope you’re having a wonderful week my dear!

    xo urban flea :)

  • Sarah
    February 25, 2010 at 7:12 pm

    I love your the layout you’ve put together. So cute! I can almost imagine the grass and flowers poking up through all the snow. Spring is coming…stay strong! :)

  • mo
    February 25, 2010 at 7:14 pm

    What about a red barked maple? I am not sure what zone you are in but they are so stunning in the winter with their bare red brances. I also love evergreen clematis which is a lovely (and vigorous) vine that has nioce slender leaves year round. It blooms early spring and has wonderful fragrant flowers.

  • Cheryl
    February 25, 2010 at 7:32 pm

    You live in Oak Park, right? In the fall we were visiting our son in Chicago and toured Frank Lloyd Wright’s residence — I really liked some of the landscaping there. You might check that out.

  • Sue
    February 25, 2010 at 8:15 pm

    i would like to say I want to be a master gardener when i grow up. I have about 4000 prennials, shrubs, trees, and annuals:) I luv to garden as it is therapy to my mind. I live in North Idaho, cold dry winters, and boxwood are fine with a variety of sizes. Arborvitae are a mainstay and a cheap landscape shrub which most people end of digging out. How about a japanese maple? or a willow tree and or shrub. I can send you pics if you like, just send me an email. Go for something you luv, just not something that fills the space…

  • B
    February 25, 2010 at 8:28 pm

    Whatever you do…avoid what I did! My husband and I were told that our soil would grow NOTHING but ivy when we moved in (zero direct sun), so we just started buying shade plants and stuck them in the ground to see how they did. After a year, they didn’t die, so we bought some more. Those didn’t die either. Sounds good, right? Except whenever we bought a new crop of plants for the year, we decided to dig up our perennials and move things around.

    Anyhow…I recommend you go talk to a good plant shop for recommendations. I LOOOOVE Gethsemane in Andersonville. Worth the trip even though I live in Wicker Park.

    Good luck!

  • amy
    February 25, 2010 at 8:58 pm

    we used leyland cypresses for shading/privacy in our backyard here in PA-they grow very quickly, are super hardy, and a bit prettier than arborvitae. check them out!

  • HollyP
    February 25, 2010 at 9:05 pm

    Two suggestions:

    1) Look at the garden plans on the Better Homes & Gardens website. There are a lot of great plans with suggested plants for various regions. I used one for my front walk and it looks divine.

    2) Take your photo to a good nursery in your area. Go now, while they aren’t busy. Staff will often work with you to identify plants and plans, in hopes that you will buy your plants there.

    Good luck! It looks like your yard has great “bones.”

  • Kim
    February 25, 2010 at 10:41 pm

    I think what you have looks great. I don’t really know anything about shrubs though.

    Is that your handwriting though? Because it’s gorgeous!!! I have handwriting envy :)

  • Neane
    February 25, 2010 at 11:36 pm

    Blue Spruce! Blue Spruce! Or, I second the Leyland Cypress. They are divine. Evergreens (especially the larger variety) are my most favorite part of landscaping. :)

  • Catherine
    February 26, 2010 at 12:44 am

    I’m with Neane: blue spruce! Such a pretty color to break up green evergreens. Just be sure to give it the space it says it needs. In CO there are blue spruces shoved into corners and smooshing houses because the owner didn’t believe it would get *that* big.

  • Renee
    February 26, 2010 at 5:29 am

    Sometimes I feel like we are living the same life – the renovation of an old house, design business, family and now the landscaping project. I have been in my 1929 bungalow for ten years and have painted and repainted it so many times that I swear the house is a bit smaller. But the landscaping has been the biggest hurdle to overcome with the previous owners letting it go. We have been plugging away planting and weeding and finally it is starting to show signs of improvement.

    Can’t wait to see how your yard develops, if its anything like the inside, it will be nothing less than fabulous!


  • Danielle
    February 26, 2010 at 6:35 am

    You know what would be nice also to add is tall grasses. We used them in areas instead of bushes and it just added a different look to part of the backyard!

  • Jenn R.
    February 26, 2010 at 7:29 am

    Take a look at different types of holly. We found one for our home in PA that looks similar to the boxwoods we also planted, and it doesn’t have any of the prickliness that we expected with holly.

  • Noni
    February 26, 2010 at 8:04 am

    Check out http://www.fast-growing-trees.com/LargeTrees.htm

    You can search by growing zone! :o)

  • Laura
    February 26, 2010 at 8:28 am

    I understand the temptation toward the arborvitae/leyland cypress–they grow really quickly, so you get privacy in the minimum possible time. But do pay really close attention to the sticker telling you how wide and tall they will grow! You need to space them appropriately, and either do some really serious pruning, or dig them out and replace them within ten years. My grandfather was really upset when his neighbors planted some on the property line, and effectively took over a large portion of his yard.

  • Kristina
    February 26, 2010 at 8:35 am

    I’m doing a lot of planning for my back garden, too, and I’ve found that recognizing what you’ve got to deal with is the most important step. How much sun do the various part of your yard get through the day? Is it different in the summer when neighboring trees are leafed out? What Zone are you in (I’m guessing Zone 5ish, but assume you can go one warmer since your yard is sheltered)? I assume your soil is alkaline if rhododendrons don’t thrive.

    Then, with those things in mind, have a flip through a couple of gardening books. The biggest thing I’ve learned in the past few weeks is that there are cultivars (sub species) of virtually every plant for every spot. So, just for example, if your backyard is shady (as mine is), or only gets afternoon sun, yew might be a very good choice of evergreen shrub since it’s shade-loving. There are enough different types that you can choose one very different from everyone else’s (another consideration I share).

    My understanding is that boxwoods are both fussy and slow-growing. This means they don’t have to be clipped very often, but for my part, I’d like something that will look lush relatively quickly. Slow growth is fairly common among evergreens, but you can always add compost and coffee (and fertilizer spikes) to move things along.

    And that brings me to grasses. If you do get a decent amount of sun back there, there are hundreds of grasses to choose from, and many offer winter interest as they sway in the breeze. They’re a good, fast-growing space filler while you wait for wee evergreens to grow (make sure you get clump-habits, though, so they don’t run rampant).

    So, if I were you, I’d look into dwarf spruces for screening and 2-3 hollies for behind the shed (different cultivars have different leaf shapes and berry colors), and perhaps some type of yew for against the house.

    And you can take steps to amend the soil for rhododendrons, but it can be quite involved, especially to start.

  • Laurie
    February 26, 2010 at 8:37 am

    I’m envious of all the comments above, I wish I knew a single thing about landscaping, why can I put a room together but throw me outside and I freak? I will say I like the idea of tall grasses in a few places in your back yard, we have some in our yard and I love the height and the texture it gives the space. Your photo makes me wish for summer even more! I live in Indy and am tired of all this snow!

  • Karen
    February 26, 2010 at 9:49 am

    We planted an ‘Emerald Green’ arborvitae in a similar sort of location (actually a corner of tall fences) and it has thrived there. I’m more of a xeriscape gardener (well … maybe “lazy” is more honest) and I generally avoid plants that do nothing but be shrubs; I want to see something bloom. (But I am just one zone warmer than you are, so some of the things I was going to recommend aren’t going to suit your garden at all.)

    Have you seen http://www.bestplants.org ? That might be a good place to start looking at different varieties, how large they grow in your area, and so on.

  • jbhat
    February 26, 2010 at 12:30 pm

    My goodness, such varied and interesting advice. Whatever you choose, I can’t wait to see.

    I love the picture of your backyard in the snow. The egg chair looks quite different under a blanket of snow. I’ll bet you and it are hoping the spring thaw will come soon.


  • Sasha
    February 26, 2010 at 1:51 pm

    I’m in the process of researching evergreen trees to plant too. I’m new to gardening, so I can’t confidently offer much advice, other than this lesson we’ve learned thanks to poor decisions made by previous owners of our home. Be sure to research how large the full grown tree/plant will be and how quickly it grows. This will help you envision how the tree will look in your yard as it grows and allow you to space them accordingly.

  • Sasha
    February 26, 2010 at 2:02 pm

    Oh, just saw the fast-growing-trees link, be careful some of the trees on that site are considered invasive.

  • Anne
    February 26, 2010 at 2:22 pm

    I live in southern Maine and have a number of plants taht do very well here. Andromeda (Pieris japonica), Salix integra
    and various members of the cornus (dogwood) family do well here. Deciduous shrubs, but the branches are dense enough for winter privacy. Trusty helmocks (tsuga) are wonderful for screening purposes if you have the room. Arborvite comes in many shapes and sizes…Don’t overplant and place the shrubs in a ‘W’ formation…never a straight line!!!0

  • Christine
    February 26, 2010 at 6:22 pm

    I would avoid cedars if at all possible. If well taken care of they look alright- but there are just so many straggly cedar hedges out there! Boxwood is great if you can afford it- but pretty pricey in abundance.

  • Ami
    February 26, 2010 at 9:26 pm

    Not sure if this would survive in your climate, but we have different kinds of bamboo in a couple of different spots. They grow fast and are leafy and tall. We planted both of them in raised planter boxes to stop them from running all over the yard and into the neighbors’ yards. There are some kinds that run much mor slowly or not at all.

    I am in Seattle and we got tons of snow and ice last year and both kinds of bamboo survived. This says a lot, considering we lost a lot of other plants that had survived for 10 years.

  • Ami
    February 26, 2010 at 9:31 pm

    Here is a link to the place we bought our bamboo from:

    You obviously wouldn’t be buying from a place in Washington, but there are lots of pictures and good information about the different kinds. Not sure what zone you are in, but the site says they are suitable for zones 6-9 and some for zones 4 and 5.

  • Jesselyn
    February 26, 2010 at 9:37 pm

    I know Juniper is really common in the area, but I personally love it – the smell, and when you get up close to it, it really is gorgeous with its little berries

  • amy k
    February 26, 2010 at 10:11 pm

    I stopped reading comments after about 20- I could be repeating….

    AborVomit- I say, don’t plant those!

    Heavy- Blue Spruce & other pines; can buy shaped or large topiary like
    middle layer- Love the Japanese Maple (as prev. mentioned), non fruit producing fruit trees (all kinds- Bradford Pear is one), other small trees (tall/narrow)
    lighter/front- annuals, Hosta, Lilies, groundcover AND flowering Kale which is great in the late fall when there is no color left, they are a punch

    And lastly, GRASSES. I think for the gardener, they are the new black, kinda like Hosta has been for the last few years. We have many grasses, but my favs are the red bloodgrass and the bigass, ahem, I mean big grass that stands almost 12 feet or more with plumes. In the fall when they are dry, they still stay up which would continue to offer privacy, you could wait to cut down, or not cut at all.

    And Blue Fescue grows so slow, but there are other bluish grasses that add color.

    Our last house had very little full sun areas and we had to be creative with plants. I started learning about grasses and groundcovers. Boring at first, but nice compared to a dead, brown garden.

    Good Luck.

    And great advice from the readers, nice to read such good feedback. Is it always like this here?

    I’m 2 hours south of you; we’ll be seeing our spring in a few weeks!


  • Mikki
    February 27, 2010 at 6:40 pm

    That looks amazingly similar to the backyard of our first house. We planted concord grapes (along the fence), our neighbor’s father was a grape farmer and he gave us the plants. They grew like crazy and covered the fence very thickly by the second year (and looked beautiful and smelled great).This was in Rochester NY- probably very similar climate to yours.

  • Ashley
    February 27, 2010 at 7:43 pm

    I’m excited to see what you come up with. This will be the first year I’ll be tackling the landscape, and I’m really looking forward about it.

  • Nnax
    March 1, 2010 at 6:17 am

    have you looked at where the sun is coming from? If you have them in the wrong place in a few years time they’ll block out the sun and you have to spend a fortune getting them cut down!

    Our neighbours have some massive evergreens along the fence – they completely block out the sun from our garden :(

  • Leslie
    March 1, 2010 at 6:58 am

    We live in Oak Park and have three winter gem boxwoods in the backyard. We do some fertilizing in the spring but other than that nothing special. These boxwoods are free flowing in their habit and get about 2 feet high, but they are sturdy! We got ours at Lowes but I think you should be able to find them almost anywhere. You may want to try the Morton Arboretum’s plant sale in the spring to look for other varieties that are more winter tolerant for the midwest.

  • Kristin
    March 1, 2010 at 8:33 am

    Hello! I live about 4 hours north of you in Wisconsin, and we planted Skyrocket Junipers to cover up a hideous fence that our neighbors planted. While they can get 15 feet tall, they only get 2-3 feet wide. They are junipers, but their blue-silver color is really lovely. I planted them with some Pinky Winky hydrangeas (can take some shade) and hot pink Knockout shrub roses. For smaller evergreens, have you thought about mugo pines? I second what other people have said about using native grasses too, they are great.

  • down pillow
    March 3, 2010 at 12:08 pm

    Oh, I’m sooo ready for the snow to be gone!!!

  • kate
    March 16, 2010 at 11:27 am

    I’m also chiming in for native grasses, or any native planting. You can find very many pretty native plants and they will require less maintenance then something non-native!!! Bonus that they provide habitat to honeybees, insects, birds, etc which have suffered from a lot of habitat destruction over the years.

    There is a nursery I know of – who I am in no way affiliated with, but our school is a customer of theirs!, which you should check out. All of their plants are native and they are probably not too far from you. You can see their stock online to get ideas and they are really helpful over the phone if you want to describe the area you are looking to fill.

    Possibility Place Nursery, Monee, IL.

  • Ellen
    June 13, 2011 at 9:03 pm

    My husband is a conifer geek and his favorite nursery is Rich’s Foxwillow Pines Nursery in Woodstock, IL. http://www.richsfoxwillowpines.com/ We make a point of going there at least every fall to walk around their property with our kids. They have beautiful conifers, maples, and their nursery is planted in a “natural” setting, not rows and rows of trees. Oak Park has several of their Rich’s trees featured in cul-de-sacs that have been replanted after major construction jobs. If you contact me, I can tell you where some of them are so you can take a look at some neat species.