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Forever Evergreen

Posted on 02 August 2013

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As I watch the hydrangeas shriveling in the heat of the last couple of weeks, it took all my willpower to not want to just turn the irrigation system up and letting it rip all through the day and night, but it doesn’t work. Sure, the hydrangeas would have been happy, as the word hydra is in their name for a reason, but I’ve killed more evergreens by overwatering them than most people would ever admit to.

When it’s the middle of summer, most people are talking about color and flowers and blooms and few want to discuss the intricacies of tone on tone green, but evergreens are awesome, and although I, too, was once a “gotta have it if it flowers” kind of a gal, I’m learning the value of foliage that persists.

I am a huge fan of the Mahonia plant family, so naturally I have tortured and killed a great many. This member of the Barberry family has the bang-up potential to do it all. All species have great looking pinnately compound leaves — like hollies on steroids that purple with age in the winter, fragrant, almost lemony scented yellow flowers that perfume the early garden, cool looking berries that persist through the summer and fall and they’re shade tolerant. Woo hoo. They even resprout from old wood, which means you can prune them as hard as you want to without having to stare at old stubs for the rest of your life. They’re meant to be no fuss, but mine, well, mine all died hard. I think the reason is that the shade I was tucking them into was underneath fairly mature trees so maybe it was too much shade and then of course they got too much water and the drainage wasn’t right, and maybe there wasn’t enough humus, or something else I’ll never understand. But I’m not giving up.

The one I’ve killed the most is the Oregon grape (M. aquifolium), which is meant to become a six-foot tall slowly suckering shrub. It is supposedly hardy in zone 4 so I’m bummed that it keeps quitting on me. I also tried the hybrid, Mahonia x media. These are the earliest flowering, and for the time it lasted, my ‘Arthur Menzies’ was a rock star. Two foot long leaves arching out under enormous electric lemon yellow flower racemes each standing a foot tall. It was crazy beautiful, but it too perished although it’s hardy to zone 6. Maybe it needed more acidic fertilization, or less, or it needed singing to, I just don’t know.

The Mahonia is actually a perfect example for me of the indefinable nature of gardening. Four of my neighbors have Mahonias — I actually sold and installed one of them — and they are all as happy as can be, which is how it sometimes works in gardening. In my Mahonia killing soil, I have agastache that grow to be five to six feet tall. At my neighbors’ houses they’re all in the three-foot range. We all live within ten square acres. My rhodos? Dead plants walking! My neighbors’? Happy as clams. It’s just crazy, but that’s how gardening works. In my back yard I can dig down in one spot and hit sandy soil that is so bereft of organic matter it’s criminal, and then move three feet over and hit a hunk of clay. Just to add insult to injury, I have no problem growing the Mahonia’s nearest relative, the evergreen barberry (Berberis x gladwynensis ‘William Penn’) so I really think I should be able to grow at least one of the Mahonias, and I have my eye on a beauty at Marders.

Now that I have my deer fence almost perfected I’m thinking of sneaking in a few of my favorite evergreens, the variegated Euonymus japonicus ‘Silver King.’ I love evergreen euonymus, and used to sell them by the truckload as they are fast growing, really tough, glossy evergreens that shear beautifully and are super, super easy. Unfortunately, they are also deer crack cocaine, so much so that we maybe bring in 5 or 6 of the large shrubby plants for the entire season. It’s terrible because they were such an enormously useful family of plants. Happy in the sun or part shade, tolerant of poor soil, from ground cover to climber to mid-sized shrub, they worked in every yard. And although “Silver King” really prefers a little more sun, I would work it in to every garden I did, just because the white variegation worked with every single garden I designed. I miss this plant, as well as its upright cousin Euonymus japonicus ‘Green Rocket’ which although not variegated, had a very interesting columnar form that I also used to great effect in mixed gardens for affordable winter interest and for narrow hedging. I also loved the pure green Euonymus japonica ‘Manhattan’ and it was my go-to plant for framing steps and covering foundations. Alas, to plant too many of these glossy beauties is tempting fate, so I’m going to just sneak in a couple, but if you don’t have deer, you really need to look into this family of plants.

While I’m tempting fate, let’s talk hardy gardenias. Although fairly new to the trade in our area everyone is excited to try these plants (regardless of the fact that they, too, are supposedly hardy only to zone 7 according to the plant god Michael Dirr) as the scent just about knocks you off your feet. I’ve seen at least two different varieties and I know that it’s my duty to bring both home and plant them in my gardens so I can report back to you on how well they’re doing, but the last few winters have been ever so easy, so no one really knows yet if we’re all just wasting our time. That said, if they do survive, they are a great glossy green before they flower, so would be a nice addition to our winter interest evergreen collection.

Of course part of the joy of being a plant geek is the need to try new plants and to push planting boundaries. I don’t know a single plant geek in my area who hasn’t tried at least once to grow a spring blooming camellias. I myself planted three ‘April Remembered’ last fall so that I could see them when I looked out my writing window. I’ve had other camellias follow me home but it was hard to judge their hardiness when the deer kept browsing them to the ground. After the ice storm at the end of the winter, one of my plants, disappointingly, dropped nearly all its buds, but they all made it through fine. Now granted, it might have been smart of me to wrap these camellias up for the winter, both for protection from the snow, and to prevent the snow from weighing down and breaking the branches, and if you are up for that, more power to you. I, unfortunately, am a lazy gardener, so nothing at my house gets coddled. Like I say, do as I say, not as I do.

Besides, we might be heading for zone 7 out here, as when I was a kid, no one had crape myrtles and now they are everywhere, and thriving.

I could fill this paper with other evergreens that you could incorporate into your garden, but I think I’m going to stop here, although I must mention the Umbrella Pine (Sciadopitys verticillata) since I’ve wanted one for years. Umbrella pines, as the Latin points out, are not actually in the pine family and have been in existence for over 200 million years. I figure once I have this and a dwarf Gingko tree I will have a good representation of living fossil species; although if I want to corner the market, I’d need to add a Monkey Puzzle tree (Araucaria araucana) and a Sweet Gum (Liquidamber) and perhaps get an Orycteropus afer to walk on a leash next to my seething mass of dachshunds. I’m not sure who would be unhappier about the situation, but my money is on the aardvark.

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