One day, I returned to our home from college on spring break to find my favorite blue spruce was gone. What! Not my tree! In my small world, this tree was so much more than just a tree. As children, we played under this tree, we climbed this tree, we dreamed about life and love under this tree. This tree protected us from wind and rain. This tree was my friend. Deep sigh. To make matters worse—or so it seemed in those initial moments of trauma—in its place was a vegetable garden. What? No!
Now that I’m a grownup and must face the world on the world’s terms, I understand that the tree had to come down. It was diseased, and my parents had been treating it for years. So what do you do when something like that happens?
My parents were smart (as it turns out) and didn’t try to replace that gargantuan evergreen with another blue spruce. If they had, their tiny replacement tree would never have satisfied the soul. Instead they put in a vegetable garden that gave them years of happiness. That’s the goal: soul satisfying happiness with your outdoor spaces, places that bring you pleasure and joy.
Evergreen trees provide tremendous benefit to our landscapes. They can act as a windbreak for your property while at the same time serving as screening for privacy. Evergreen trees also offer beauty as well as visual structure and mass all year long. They are a great backdrop for flowering trees and shrubs. Birds and other wildlife love to nest in them! Finally, they are considered low-maintenance because they do not drop their needles in the fall like a deciduous tree drops its millions of leaves—that means no heavy fall chores!
So, which ones do I really like?
Sadly, the blue spruce trees that once graced front yards all over Mt. Lebanon are susceptible to two diseases, and we are losing them. So they are off the list.
Eastern hemlocks are our state tree. They have soft green needles and produce lovely little cones. They are also among the few evergreens that do well in the shade. But—and this is a big one—they are being decimated by a pest called “woolly adelgid.” Woolly adelgids have recently become a problem and are directly related to our changing climate. The Bartlett tree expert told me if we just had two weeks of 0 degree weather, it would kill these nasty pests.
To identify these pests on your trees, look for little white rows of cottony puffs on the underside of the needles. This insect is carried from tree to tree by birds and can kill a tree in months. There’s good news, though, if you really want a hemlock, whether it be the large tree variety or any one of several great cultivars, including ground covers and dwarf tree forms. Hemlocks can be successfully treated for woolly adelgid, so if you are willing to treat them, you can have as many as you want!
Different trees serve different purposes. Assess your property, and do a thorough analysis of your needs before you decide which trees to plant. Below I have outlined several good options for evergreens.
Good as backdrop or windbreak
Eastern white pine (Pinus strobus): 75 feet tall and 20 to 40 inches wide, this evergreen holds the title of the tallest native conifer in the northeast. Trunk diameter can be 2 to 4 feet. This tree is long–lived, ranging 200 to 400 years. Eastern white pines are rapid growers, reaching 40 feet tall in 20 years. They prefer moist, well-drained soil and are not drought tolerant.
Fraser fir (Abies fraseri) 30 to 40 feet tall, 20 to 25 feet wide. The Fraser fir is well known to many as the iconic fresh cut tree at Christmas time. The needles are short and pliable. Not too big, not too small. As with most evergreens it does well in acidic soil and needs to be watered regularly as a new transplant. It is a great accent or specimen tree and seems to be fairly deer resistant in our area.
A striking specimen alone
Arborvitae (Thuja Green Giant): can grow to 60 feet tall and 20 feet wide, however is more likely to be a 30 to 40 foot tall and 12 to 15 foot wide specimen in your garden. Green Giant is a vigorously growing, pyramidal evergreen with rich green color that remains outstanding throughout its hardiness range. It has no serious pest or disease problems and has been widely grown and tested in commercial nursery production. Green Giant is an excellent substitute for Leyland cypress, which does not do well in our climate.
Weeping Alaska cedar (Chamaecyparis nootkatensis “Pendula”): 40 feet tall, 15 feet wide. This beautiful, slow growing, weeping evergreen tree is very showy and a dramatic addition to the landscape. It is prized for its form and foliage and can be used either singularly or in groupings. Protect this tree from the deer until it is quite large.
American holly (Ilex opaca): 20 to 25 feet tall, 6 to 10 feet wide. This slow-growing, striking upright holly is entirely underused in our landscapes. American holly needs acidic soil and, like all hollies, needs a protected location from drying winter winds. This evergreen tree also vastly prefers afternoon protection from the sun.
Nicely sized for landscape use
Arborvitae elegantissima (Thuja occsidentalis “Elegantissima”): 15 feet tall, 6 feet wide. This small evergreen tree could be considered the little cousin of Green Giant, all the same great attributes in a smaller package. Elegantissima is fast growing and has a compact, narrow, pyramidal form with dense, evergreen flattened sprays of feathery, dark green foliage tipped yellow. Produces abundant cones in late summer.
Korean fir (Abies Koreana “Horstmann’s Silberlocke”) 15 feet tall, 6 feet wide. This beautiful ornamental evergreen tree produces an abundance of large showy cones that actually grow upright along the branches. It grows slowly, developing into a striking specimen. This tree prefers full sun but can handle partial shade. I love it in a woodland setting. Its upwardly curved, deep green needles reveal a contrasting bright silver-white underside. It thrives in cool summer regions, though it’s somewhat more heat tolerant than many firs.
In the years I have cared for a garden I have been struck by the beauty of a well-placed evergreen; an evergreen is a solid addition to a landscape. Choose well, and, like my long-gone blue spruce, your evergreen will bring you joy for many years.
Claire Schuchman is a Phipps Conservatory master gardener as well as a local landscape designer. firstname.lastname@example.org.