When it comes to selecting an evergreen tree for your garden, the choice is limited in temperate regions. Of course you could go for a coniferous tree, but most would favour a broad-leaf variety. Evergreen trees are a popular idea for year-round interest, but more importantly for their screening ability. In reality, they are not always the best choice if you are trying to hide something, because their solid form tends to attract attention. It may be better to diffuse a background with the lighter habit of a deciduous tree; but that is another subject. If you definitely want an evergreen, what's on offer? I've chosen ten evergreen trees that are suitable for gardens, all of which look reasonable when fairly young, and either don't get too big, or can be restricted by pruning.
Arbutus unedo 'Atlantic'
The Killarney strawberry tree has dark green, fairly small, leathery, evergreen leaves and a bushy habit. You will often see it as a shrub, but it does make a lovely multi-stemmed small tree with deep brown shredding bark. Small pinkish white, bell-shaped flowers appear in autumn and early winter at the same time as the round fruits ripen to scarlet. It is great in coastal gardens and although ericaceous seems to do better on alkaline soils. It doesn't like my dry, rather acidic sand. Good for small gardens; be patient if you want impact. Look out for the variety 'Atlantic' which flowers and fruits well.
The olive, a Mediterranean native, would not have been on this list 30 years ago. With our changing climate it is now widely used as a light, airy evergreen tree with silver stems and narrow deep green leaves, silver on the undersides. Olives respond brilliantly to pruning in late winter, so you can train them and control them how you wish. Great for small gardens and growing in containers. They hate wet soil and will defoliate in very cold conditions.
Photinia x fraseri 'Red Robin'
Standard forms of the ever popular Photinia 'Red Robin' are probably the evergreen trees you will find in every garden centre. Relatively fast growing, they have colourful new shoots and loose clusters of single pinkish flowers on mature, unpruned plants. 'Red Robin' responds brilliantly to pruning, hence its use as a hedging plant; regular clipping promotes new, red shoots. Great for small gardens if pruned regularly. Left to its own devices it can become top heavy. The cognoscenti will say it has a suburban appearance. I say it has colourful foliage throughout the year, if you treat it well.
The cabbage palm was once the “palm tree” you saw on a visit to milder regions. Now few gardens are without one at some point. Often the spiky centrepiece in a patio pot, it will grow to form a compact-headed, branched evergreen tree of exotic appearance. Worst attribute is the dead leaves which hang below every crown. Also growing points are often killed by severe frost, causing unsightly appearance and further branching. In a sheltered garden, or by the sea, it can look great. Very difficult to remove if you want to get rid of it, so be certain before planting.
The golden wattle, or florist's mimosa, is known for its fabulous fluffy golden-yellow flowers in late winter; that marzipan fragrance is unmistakable. It grows to form a lovely, feathery evergreen with fern-like foliage. It is brittle, especially when laden with flowers, so is not great on exposed sites, although it is great by the coast. Easily scorched by cold winds and severe frost. Great for sheltered gardens and controllable, if light pruned regularly after flowering. Prune it hard and suckering can be a problem.
Eucalyptus pauciflora subsp. niphophila
Eucalyptus grow quickly and get big! They are lovely trees with fabulous foliage and great bark. This one is a bit smaller than the others, but still tall. Always plant eucalypts small and let them grow and establish. Planted as larger container specimens they are more likely to topple because the root system is insufficiently developed. Great for quick results and light height. Personally I love them.
The evergreen oak is slow to get going, but good in the long term. Very dark evergreen leaves and a bushy habit mean it is not to everyone's taste. Usually seed raised, it is variable in habit and character. I wouldn't use it in the average garden, except as a trimmed, trained specimen, when it can look fabulous. Well-groomed it gives excellent solid structure and has great presence.
Ilex altaclarensis 'Golden King'
Hollies make some of the best evergreen trees for gardens, whether you choose a plain green variety, such as Ilex aquifolium 'Pyramidalis' or a variegated variety like Ilex x altaclarensis 'Golden King', which will add foliage colour throughout the seasons. You need a female variety, with male pollinator, or a self-fertile one to get berries. Confusingly those with masculine names are usually female. They can be pruned to control size and shape. Left to grow naturally most are ultimately conical and tidy, although they can be gangly as adolescents. Also good to protect the house from witches and evil spirits; according to folklore.
The southern magnolia has the benefit of large glossy, evergreen leaves, usually with rusty undersides, and big, creamy lemon-scented summer flowers. Some varieties flower earlier in life than others. This tree can be pruned selectively to shape it, so it can be used in a smaller garden or a large pot. It's not for cold sites or wet soil, but great for town gardens and its weight is good at balancing surrounding buildings. Despite its rather exotic appearance it fits in well to traditional and contemporary gardens. A great screening tree, but more expensive if you want to buy a specimen of any size.
Seldom seen to date, but growing in popularity with designers, Maytenus boaria has fine twigs and narrow, pointed, shiny emerald-green leaves. It can be quite upright or distinctly weeping when mature and has nice movement. It does not like very cold conditions but is good by the coast. Light and bright for an evergreen it is much livelier in character than many others. Well worth a go.
To learn more about trees why not join me on my four week online course A Comprehensive Guide to Choosing, Using and Planting Trees? See you in class,