Summer in the Pacific Northwest is a glorious time of year filled with cascading colorful hanging baskets, blooming perennials, and abundant bouquets of hydrangea, roses, and dahlias—to name just a few! It’s easy in the abundance of the season to forget that it’s not always this way, but as much as I hate to remind you, summer’s glory will soon begin to fade. With fall planting season just around the corner, now is the time to begin assessing your garden for spots that could use more structure for the fall and winter months.
For all the beauty annuals add to the garden, evergreen shrubs—namely conifers—provide a steady, anchoring presence in the yard year-round, something annuals simply cannot do. No matter the season, conifers look good, and placed properly throughout the garden, they can define a space and provide a suitable backdrop for the seasonal additions of more colorful annuals and perennials.
Historically, many conifers available in nurseries would quickly grow to be unmanageable in size, regardless of whatever pruning they could take. Thus, many gardeners gave up on conifers, opting for deciduous shrubs that could at least be hacked down when they got too big. But, much like so many varieties of plants that have seen a renaissance in recent years, the conifers of today aren’t your parents’ overgrown evergreens.
One such plant that I’m particularly excited about this year is ‘Primo’ arborvitae. This newly-introduced dwarf arborvitae is in the same family as the ubiquitous Emerald Greens used in hedging but looks more like a bonsaied hinoki cypress with its coarse texture and sculpted appearance. Slow growing, it eventually reaches to just four feet tall and only a foot wide, and since it’s hardy to -20 degrees Fahrenheit, it’s also a great hardy option for growing in a pot outdoors year-round.
Similar in texture to ‘Primo’ arborvitae, several varieties of dwarf hinoki cypress are also great focal points for the garden and are about as low-maintenance as one could expect of a plant. ‘Thoweil’ is one of my favorites with chunky, asymmetrical branching. Topping out at six feet tall and two feet wide, it can fit in just about any size flowerbed and will provide year-round interest with its rich green foliage.
Another unique conifer perfect for adding a splash of bright color to the garden is golden fernspray cypress. Also in the hinoki cypress family, this variety has a very different look than its cousins with finer textured foliage evocative of fern fronds. Also different from most hinoki cypress varieties, golden fernspray boasts bright gold and chartreuse hues year-round, great for brightening up the garden during the drab late fall and winter months. This shrub grows larger than the previous two, reaching ten to twelve feet tall and four to eight feet wide, but is still compact enough to enjoy as a large shrub or small tree even in small yards.
Finally, if you struggle to plants that will look good year-round in a shady spot in your yard, dwarf hemlocks are the answer. ‘Jeddeloh’ grows to just two feet tall and four feet wide with spreading branches cascading with bright green needles, while ‘Gentsch White,’ with bright white needles at the tips of each branch, fills out to six to ten feet tall and wide but can be kept trimmed smaller if desired.
For all the fun that annuals bring to the garden, conifers are the anchors that a well-rounded yard needs to look its best. As you begin to look ahead to fall, consider where your garden could use some evergreen color!