Shade-loving evergreen varieties are in the minority. But these will do OK in partial shade.
Trees and shrubs are the backbones of the landscape. Of all the trees and shrubs, the needled evergreens may provide the most impact throughout the year.
Evergreens, like people, come in all shapes, sizes and colors.
Most are green, though some have blue or yellow tinges. Some may be variegated with yellow, blue or white in their needles. Occasionally you see purple, but that usually indicates insect or fertility problems.
Some evergreens tower 200 feet tall, though you’re more likely to find those in the wild than in someone’s yard. Most are 50 to 60 feet tall. Dwarf specimens may top out at only a few inches, though you might find dwarf specimens 10 feet tall.
Most evergreen trees are one-half to two-thirds as wide as they are tall.
Some arborvitaes look like a green matchstick. Others look like a potbelly stove or a piece of discarded shag carpet. The same applies with junipers and yews.
The biggest advantage with evergreens is written into their name: Ever. Green.
They’re green through the spring, providing a background to daffodils, tulips, forsythias, lilacs and daffodils. They’re green through the summer, providing a consistent background to other plants. In the fall, they contrast with the reds, oranges, purples and golds of deciduous trees.
And throughout the dreary brown and gray winter, evergreens provide a touch of color that can send our minds forward several months when everything has color.
Their variety makes them adaptable to just about any landscape.
Contrary to popular belief, some evergreens do well in shade. The vast majority, however, prefer full sun — a little shade means they stop producing needles on those branches, which leads to branch dieback.
Hemlocks (Tsuga species) do well in full sun and probably prefer it. However, they can tolerate shade better than any other tall evergreen, such as pine, spruce or fir. They won’t tolerate full shade, but if they get filtered light all day, or either morning or afternoon sun, they’ll do well.
Some people make a tall hedge of hemlocks planted on 5- to 10-foot centers. Normal planting should be 15 to 20 feet apart. Plants shoot skyward quickly, and their supple branches provide give when laden with snow or ice. Hemlock hedges are great for overwintering birds.
Dwarf types may be more adapted to the urban landscape, where space may be a premium. You can also find weeping and variegated forms, though variegated forms may lose much of their coloring in shade.
Hemlocks soften the surroundings. They aren’t as soft as deciduous larches, but you still could rub a branch across your face and not be stabbed.
Needles are soft and hung on layered branches that arch gracefully down. Most needles are dark green on top with twin white lines on the underside, which gives the plant a shimmering effect when branches move in the breeze. The little hemlock cones don’t make as much of a mess as spruce or pine cones.
The ubiquitous yew (Taxus species), which seems to be in the front yard of nine out of 10 homes, also tolerates shade — even deeper shade than hemlocks.
Yews are typically green on green. Unlike the tree-like hemlock, yews are shrubs, though some may grow to more than 40 feet. You can shape them into just about any form you want. There probably isn’t an evergreen that tolerates pruning more than yews.
The yew is one of the few evergreens that you can cut back to a few inches above ground and it will resprout. Look on the stem — you can always find a few shoots down low on the trunk.
Yews are green with a lighter yellow-green on the underside. Occasionally, you’ll find a plant producing red berries that are poisonous to many species, though several birds enjoy them.
In the shade, yews tend to be more open and spreading instead of shooting for the stars. You won’t find the dense plant you will in full sun. Still, when you’re pressed for green color in the shade, yew shrubs may be the best bet.
Mugo pines (Pinus mugo) are the final evergreen that will tolerate shade, though it prefers full sun.
Like yews, Mugo pines tend to be shrubby without a central leader reaching up. The dwarf forms will probably top out at 5 to 6 feet, though dwarves can revert back and decide 15 feet is good enough.
With these three shade-loving evergreens, make sure the soil is loamier than clay and more acidic than neutral or alkaline.
Their consistent color is also their downfall — they tend to look the same year after year. After awhile, you either grow tired of them or ignore them except during the holidays, when we hang strands of blinking lights.
Next week, we’ll look at sun-loving evergreens.
David Robson is a specialist with University of Illinois Extension. For more gardening information, go to www.extension.uiuc.edu/mg.