Thank goodness the leaves are almost off the trees! The last few weeks of color are always a dangerous time for me to be driving – I’m so busy looking at the leaves that I can hardly focus on the road! However, the absence of deciduous leaves now reveals some “views” that are not so pleasant. Now is the time to evaluate areas of your garden that might benefit from the screening that native evergreens can provide.
The definition of “evergreen” is of course that the plant does not drop all of its leaves come winter. Instead these plants shed a portion of their leaves during the year while retaining others. In our area, evergreens can be “needled” or “broadleaf”. Needled evergreens are those like Pines, Junipers, Hemlock and our single false cypress, Chamaecyparis thyoides (Atlantic White Cedar). Broadleaf evergreens include Hollies, Rhododendrons, Mountain Laurel and others.
As with any plants, it is important to choose site-appropriate plants to ensure that your choices thrive and that you don’t have to prune them unnecessarily to make them fit the space. If you’re considering a hedge of plants to screen off a large view, I’d like to recommend that you create a “mixed” hedge. A mixed hedge has several benefits: you avoid destruction by a single disease if you stay away from a monoculture; it looks more natural to have different plants; and you don’t have to limit your choice to a single plant (because there are so many good ones to choose from!).
Here are some ideas simply based on light exposure: full sun and partial shade. Be sure to research mature size – some dwarf cultivars are available for smaller spaces.
Wax myrtle (Morella cerifera or Myrica cerifera) – Shrub to tree sized evergreen with medium green leaves, fragrant foliage and small blue-grey berries that are popular with birds. Dwarf cultivars can be found in nurseries.
Eastern redcedar (Juniperus virginiana) – A soft needled tree that is technically a Juniper, it is often grown for Christmas trees. This plant is commonly found along fence lines in pastures. The wood is very fragrant and coincidentally makes great fence posts. Birds like to nest in these.
Hollies (Ilex spp.) – The evergreen hollies (there are deciduous ones too) come in all sizes from the large American holly (Ilex opaca) to the shrub-like and wet-tolerant Inkberry (Ilex glabra) to the very variably formed Yaupon holly (Ilex vomitoria) which can be a weeping tree form or a small foundation shrub. You may be surprised to know that not all of them have spines. If you want berries, remember to look into getting male and female forms.
Evergreen magnolias – Southern magnolia (Magnolia grandiflora) is native to coastal Georgia primarily but is available in nurseries everywhere. While many cultivars are now available, be aware that in the Piedmont region of Georgia, this plant is a bit of a pest. Birds have dispersed seeds into natural areas where it can outcompete some of the regionally native trees. Sweetbay magnolia (Magnolia virginiana) is another evergreen magnolia native to Georgia; it happens to tolerate wet conditions. Here is a bloom on M. virginiana:
Pines – Pines are much maligned as desirable trees for a variety of reasons. I think the two most common reasons are that ice storms bring out the worst in pines, and that they are very common trees. However, I think they should be considered for screening for 3 reasons: they can be very inexpensive, they grow fast and they are easy to remove when you don’t need the screen. Loblolly pine (Pinus taeda) seedlings can be reasonably priced as seedlings from the Georgia Forestry Commission’s seedling program. A less common but very attractive pine for North Georgia is White Pine (Pinus strobus); hands down, white pine has the prettiest cone of all pines that I’ve seen in Georgia and the blue-green needles make very soft pine straw.
Check out the Georgia Forestry Commission’s seedling program. You can get seedlings of Wax Myrtle, Eastern Redcedar and several different pines: Georgia Forestry Commission
Hemlock – A stately tree of mountainsides and trout streams, the Hemlock is under active attack from an invasive insect pest, the wooly adelgid. However, I think we should keep planting them, you never know if yours might be the one with resistant genes! Eastern hemlock (Tsuga canadensis) is the most commonly available one for purchase. Beautiful foliage and shade tolerance make this a very desirable choice for partial shade areas.
Florida Anise – I love this tree (Illicium floridanum) for not only shade tolerance but also handsome foliage that is fragrant when you brush up against it. Flower fragrance, however, can be a little “off” depending on your individual sense of smell so site it carefully. Many people mistake this for evergreen Rhododendron when they first see it.
Rhododendron – In the same family as Azaleas, the evergreen Rhododendron catawbiense is the one I find most often in stores. If you can find it, Rhododendron maximum is very handsome but a much larger plant at maturity. Both of these prefer to grow in North Georgia (for a similar look in the rest of Georgia, see the Florida anise description above). This is R. maximum:
Mountain Laurel – few plants are more dazzling in full bloom than Kalmia latifolia. Another mountainside plant, this one can still do quite well as a garden plant in North Georgia. I have used it as a foundation plant, and you can fit a variety of cultivars in better nurseries. ‘Elf’ and ‘Minuet’ are two dwarf forms. Similar to Rhododendrons, plant them a little “high” to achieve the good drainage that they need.
Carolina Cherry Laurel - Prunus caroliniana is good for screening and the berries are enjoyed by wildlife. The cultivar ‘Compacta’ offers a nice dense form. Some people find this plant a bit “weedy” because of the seedlings, similar to the issues with Southern magnolia seedlings.
If you need help finding these plants, check out the Native Nurseries page on the Georgia Native Plant Society's website: Sources for Native Plants