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Evergreen plants have much to offer. Not only do they provide four seasons of visual interest to the garden, they also serve as windbreaks, increase privacy, and provide food and shelter for birds and other wildlife. Unfortunately, most home landscapes include the same five or six evergreens, most of which grow way too large for smaller gardens. The constant pruning these plants require makes them high maintenance and labor intensive. Why fuss with full-sized evergreens like yews, arborvitaes, spruces, and rhododendrons that reach all the way up to the eaves of your house when the following small evergreen shrubs provide all the benefits of the “big guys” but in a much more manageable package?
My brand new book, Gardener’s Guide to Compact Plants (Cool Springs Press, 2019), introduces hundreds of dwarf edibles and ornamentals for small gardens. Meet some of the very best compact evergreen shrubs in this excerpt from the book.
Small evergreen shrubs for year-round interest
Compact Maximum Rhodendron (Rhododendron ‘Maximum Compacta’):
A mini version of a traditional rhododendron, this broad-leaved dwarf evergreen produces large clusters of pinkish lavender flowers in late spring. A low-growing, bushy plant, it makes a great addition to foundation plantings and shrub borders that receive full to partial sun. Reaching just 3 feet tall and wide, bumblebees love the flowers and are often found buzzing around the blooms. With winter hardiness down to –40°F, there’s no pruning necessary to maintain this small shrub’s natural shape and size. Another compact rhododendron worth seeking out is the purple-flowered ‘Ramapo’.
Compact Inkberry Holly (Ilex glabra ‘Compacta’):
Another one of the best small evergreen shrubs, this variety is densely branched with elongated, oval leaves that are a dark, glossy green. This variety is female and will also produce small, dark berries that persist on the plant through winter if a pollinating male variety is nearby. It’s fairly deer resistant, too, making it a good choice for deer-plagued landscapes. Winter hardy down to –30°F, compact inkberry makes an excellent hedge or foundation plant. With a thick, twiggy habit that tops out at 4 to 6 feet in height and spread, it can also be regularly pruned to be kept even smaller.
Dwarf Japanese Black Pine (Pinus thunbergii ‘Kotobuki’):
Fully winter hardy down to –20°F, this needled evergreen reaches just 4 feet tall and 2 feet wide. The upright candles of new growth in the spring, coupled with its narrow growth habit, make this an excellent choice for containers and small gardens. Slow growing, with a dense structure, this deer-resistant evergreen has needles that are about half the length of regular Japanese black pines.
Dwarf Pencil Point Juniper (Juniperus communis ‘Compressa’):
Evergreen and columnar in form, dwarf pencil point juniper is both unique and slow growing. With an average height of 5 feet and a width of just 1 foot, this sun-loving evergreen has blue-green needles. Female plants may produce blue “berries” in the fall, as well. Its tapered form means it’s a great “exclamation point” accent plant for smaller landscapes. Winter hardy down to –40°F. Dwarf pencil point junipers are among the finest small evergreen shrubs for the landscape.
Dwarf Japanese Holly (Ilex crenata ‘Dwarf Pagoda’):
This is such a great little shrub! Reaching just 3 feet tall and 1 to 2 feet wide at maturity, miniature Japanese holly is super slow growing (it grows only about an inch a year!) and winter hardy down to –20°F. Preferring full sun to light shade, the tiny, round, evergreen leaves are glossy and dark green; and they’re stacked against each other in rows along the stems, giving the plant a really interesting appearance. Introduced through Rutgers University, this selection looks like a funky bonsai plant and is excellent for rock gardens and patio beds.
Upright Japanese Plum Yew (Cephalotaxus harringtonia ‘Fastigiata’):
This broad-needled evergreen is winter hardy down to –10°F. Its upright, slender growth habit maxes out at 8 feet tall and 3 feet wide. Though it’s nonflowering, Japanese plum yews have dark green needles that are densely spaced on bottlebrush-like, upright branches. Each needle is about 2 inches long. It thrives in full to partial sun but prefers afternoon shade in hot southern regions during the summer months.
Compact Oregon Holly Grape (Mahonia aquifolium ‘Compacta’):
Oregon holly grapes are attention-grabbing plants, and this compact selection is no different. The new growth is bronze colored, and it ages to a deep, glossy green. Then in fall, the foliage turns a rich purple-red. The fragrant yellow flowers in spring are followed by elongated clusters of purple, grape-like fruits in the summer and fall. With a low and spreading growth habit, compact Oregon holly grape adapts well to shadier spots, but be forewarned that the edges of the leaves have sharp spines. This is one of several small evergreen shrubs that’s useful as a low hedge or underplanting. It matures at 2 to 3 feet tall and 3 to 4 feet wide, and is winter hardy down to –20°F.
Little Giant Dwarf Arborvitae (Thuja occidentalis ‘Little Giant’):
Most people think of arborvitae as being tall and cone shaped, but this compact variety is globe shaped, reaching just 4 feet tall and wide. Winter hardy down to –40°F, this slow-growing, rounded shrub produces soft, feathery, fan-shaped foliage. Its tidy shape needs no pruning, making it a terrific choice for foundation plantings, low hedges, or along garden edges.
This article on small evergreen shrubs is excerpted from my new book, Gardener’s Guide to Compact Plants: Edibles & Ornamentals for Small-Space Gardening (Cool Springs Press, 2019). Be sure to grab a copy for more great ways to use compact plants in the landscape, including using them to solve problems like covering slopes, adding color to shady areas, and providing privacy screening. Plus, you’ll find profiles on dozens of dwarf trees, shrubs, perennials, fruits, and vegetables that are perfect for small gardens, including containers and raised beds!
For more great small-space landscape ideas, check out the following articles:
- Flowering shrubs for shady gardens
- Narrow, columnar trees for small gardens
- Dwarf flowering shrubs for sun
- Compact evergreen trees
- The best compact vegetables for container gardening
What are your favorite compact evergreen shrubs to use for year-round interest? Share them in the comment section below.