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Beyond Conifers (Some Other Evergreens!)

By Shannon Moreau she/her/hers

Year round interest is a key element in landscapes and perennial gardens, but it’s easy to fall into a rut when exploring evergreen options beyond conifers. Fortunately there are many alternative ways to add and year round color. My favorite aspect of these alternatives is that they offer blooms throughout the growing season, ensuring a food source for pollinators. On top of that, quite a few change color in the fall and retain that color throughout the winter. It can be daunting finding options that compliment conifers or perennial landscapes, so I took the time to list a few of our favorites and how they shine in the landscape! 

Crystal River Veronica
(Veronica ‘Reavis’)

Let’s start with herbaceous perennials. The majority of herbaceous perennials die back during the winter, however there are several that do not, making them fitting candidates for year round interest. A few options for sunny gardens are veronica, thyme and many varieties of penstemon. The foliage of groundcover Veronicas – such as ‘Crystal River’ from the Plant Select program – turn purple in the fall and often retain their color until they bloom in the spring. From the needle-like foliage of the Pineleaf Penstemon to the straps of the Red Riding Hood Penstemon, penstemons are ideal for adding small, dense evergreen mounds that persist through winter. For shadier spots, ajuga is a great ground cover and bergenia sports lovely fall color on thick leaves. 

Next in line are broadleaf evergreen shrubs. Allegheny Viburnum is my favorite for a large shrub that will provide dense, screening foliage year round. Daphne, Oregon Grape Holly, broadleaf euonymus varieties, and the PJM rhododendron are also good candidates for broadleaf evergreen shrubs. Due to the intensity of Rocky Mountain sun, many of these broadleaf evergreens perform their best in partial sun or shady locations. Both the ‘Carol Mackie’ Daphne and the PJM rhododendron make a statement with their showy spring blooms. For those planting Colorado natives, Mountain Mahogany, Bearberry, manzanitas, yuccas, Creeping Mahonia, and opuntia cactus are fun options. Each of these can be planted as statement plantings or en masse. It’s hard to beat the sight of cactus pads in full bloom, but the tinge of purple on masses of pads during the winter is quite beautiful as well. 

Pineleaf Penstemon
(Penstemon pinifolius)

To round out my list I bring you the tried and true classics for adding interest to year round landscapes: ornamental grasses and dogwood shrubs. While they aren’t true evergreens they inject color and texture into the landscape during the drab winter months. Native grasses like the Little Bluestem and Big Bluestem take on marvelous shades of purple and red, and other selections offer food and shelter to birds. Both the Red Twig and Yellow Twig dogwoods speak for themselves with each and every vibrant stem exposed to view when these versatile shrubs drop their leaves in autumn.

This is just a starting point, as there are many other plants (and other varieties of the plants we listed) and wonderful ways to pair them with one another to create beautiful four season interest in your landscape. I encourage you to walk around your neighborhood, visit your local botanical garden, or stop by to see these unique plants in action along with others that may inspire you.

Originally published on March 31st, 2022.