“Evergreens do not mix well with hardwoods, although they are handsome in avenues or in solitary splendor. Nor should they be seen in danger on the lawn. They group best with their own kind, and not too close.”
– Eleanor Perenyi, “Green Thoughts: A Writer in the Garden”, 1981
Between chapters on earthworms, endive, and failures, Eleanor Perenyi offered her thoughts on perennials, which she succinctly categorized as conifers or “fleshy-leaved types like mountain laurel.” (Botanists organize evergreen trees into conifers, tropical hardwoods, broad-leaved temperate trees, and palms.)
Perenyi apparently had some ambivalence about the use of perennials in landscaping, a trend he blamed on the Victorians as “an error of taste that has been perpetuated” ever since.
It wasn’t that Perenyi didn’t find evergreens beautiful. He did, though he objected to front yards haphazardly dotted with conifers shaped like Christmas trees. He complained: “This conical image imprinted incessantly on the retina makes me sigh for an oak tree, and sometimes I think the country is choked with spruce and fir, arborvitae and hemlock.”
The practice of buying live Christmas trees and then planting them in the yard was deplorable by Perenyi’s standards because they only added to “the excess of evergreens already on the scene.”
I will confess that I participated in that “deplorable” custom several years ago, lazily opting to buy a potted Christmas tree already adorned with red bows and a star attached to the top branch. On New Year’s Day, I planted the tree in the backyard, where it grew to 12 feet tall in a few years. I ended up having to cut the tree down because it was giving too much shade to other plants.
This is another problem that Perenyi pointed out with planting evergreens, particularly conifers: people can’t seem to imagine the size of trees in a few years, and invariably plant them too close together. Crowded conifers not only cast a dark shadow over the landscape, but also grow crooked with bare branches deprived of sunlight.
Here again, I have to admit that I made this exact mistake. Ten years ago, we planted a Colorado Blue Spruce ‘Fat Albert’, which plant nurseries say is the ideal conifer for small gardens because it’s only 15 feet tall. I have found this to be true, but I must have overlooked the fact that my “Fat Albert” also grows about 15 feet wide. Its branches have now dug into the photinia hedge, and I dare not remove the photinia for fear of revealing the sparse conifer foliage on this side.
For all the excesses of evergreens and possible planting mistakes, Perenyi recognized that a “garden without evergreens is a wasteland in winter.”
After last Sunday’s column in which I discussed Perenyi’s views on weather forecasts and forecasters, I was delighted to receive an email from a friend of Perenyi’s in Stonington, Conn., where Perenyi lived and gardened for many years. Charlie wrote that Eleanor “hated the heat and loved the winter,” which is probably why she commented in the Evergreen chapter that American gardeners should pay more attention to winter aesthetics.
However, Perenyi isn’t shy about sharing his own evergreen planting mistakes. He described how he interspersed a weeping white pine (Pinus strobus ‘Pendula’), a hinoki cypress (Chamaecyparis obtusa), two Japanese yews (Taxus cuspidata) and three Tanyosho pines (Pinus densiflora) with deciduous plantings in his garden. The combination should have worked, he said, but it didn’t because once the snow blanketed the landscape, the evergreens were too scattered to have an impact.
Perenyi admitted that he was prejudiced against blue needle firs. I, on the other hand, choose to believe that my lone blue spruce, nestled at the junction of the aforementioned photinia hedge on one side and a laurel hedge on the other, effectively breaks up all the vegetation with its blue foliage- contrasting gray
In summer, the spruce’s blue-gray palette is picked up by perennial herbs with complementary flowers or foliage interspersed throughout the garden. These include sea holly (Eryngium planum), globe thistle (Echinops spp.), lamb’s ear (Stachys byzantine), mugwort ‘Powis Castle’ and blue fescue (Festuca glauca).
Of course, beauty is in the eye of the beholder. Perenyi defended his own vegetable prejudices by writing: “A garden is a private world, or nothing, and the gardener must be allowed his whims.” So true!
Perenyi didn’t care for the look of evergreen trees combined with hardwood trees. I wonder if he had a chance to visit the mixed evergreen forests along the Oregon and California coasts. The tall Douglas firs, Sitka spruces, western hemlocks and false cedars on our land in Bandon have formed a community with evergreen Oregon myrtles and Pacific rhododendrons, as well as deciduous red alder, Pacific willow and brown bark oaks.
In my opinion, the combination of contrasting textures and shades of green between conifers and other evergreen and deciduous trees and shrubs has a nice effect. The leaves of the alder trees turn golden in autumn, which I find especially beautiful intermingled with the evergreens.
I am concerned about the health of my Port Orford cedars (Chamaecyparis lawsoniana), a conifer native to Oregon that is not a true cedar but a member of the cypress family. In recent years, we have lost several POCs to a rampant fungal disease called Phytophthora lateralis. The fungus is believed to have been brought to the United States on nursery stock shipped from East Asia; in return, we sent POC nursery stock infected with the fungal disease to Europe.
Phytophthora lateralis is spread from tree to tree by airborne spores and through surface water, the latter of which is of particular concern to me because our property is on a slope. The fungus is so widespread that we could lose 90% of our POCs.
I was not familiar with the Port Orford cedars before we bought our land in Bandon, but now faced with the prospect of losing them all, I have never appreciated evergreens as much as our disappearing POCs.
Jackson County Master Gardeners Recognized
I was thrilled to learn recently that my Master Gardening mentor, Jane Moyer, was recognized by the Oregon State University Extension Service as the 2021-22 Statewide Gardener of the Year.
During her 17 years as a Master Gardener in Jackson County, Jane has volunteered 10,000 hours of her time and expertise in growing plants and growing gardeners. I can’t think of anyone more deserving of the award. For more information on Jane’s work with the MG program, see my article “Dirt Master” (March 27, 2022).
Lynn Kunstman was recognized as the Jackson County Master Gardener of the Year. Lynn shares her extensive gardening knowledge on the “Jefferson Exchange” radio show and the Master Gardener’s community education programs. He founded the Native Plant Nursery at the Southern Oregon Research & Extension Center in Central Point and was instrumental in raising funds for a rain catchment system on the SOREC campus.
Rhonda Nowak is a Rogue Valley gardener, teacher and writer. For more information on gardening topics, check out literarygardener.com or email Rhonda at Rnowak39@gmail.com.