Create an Evergreen ‘Skyline’: Blend Texture, Color, and Shape for Year-Round Drama and Beauty

By Lisa Watters Lain, Arizona’s garden gal


ur house is a classic mountain home with large windows that enable us to enjoy both the natural and cultivated beauty outside.  The landscape has been a labor of love, and the gardens are finally filling in and showing off our master plan.  The design showcases each of the four seasons, but evergreens are the central focus. Their easy-care hardiness guarantees they look beautiful, no matter the season.  Even on the bleakest winter days the gardens are attractive thanks to the evergreens.

Prescott is famous for its rolling forests of pine and juniper, so it’s natural to begin a landscape plan with these conifers.  Because evergreens and conifers come in all shapes and sizes they are useful for privacy screens, foundation plantings, backdrops for flowerbeds, and accents in rock gardens.

Mixing evergreen shapes and sizes can bring to life the parts of the garden where they are planted in combination. The screen pictured here blends the blues of the skyrocket juniper with the green color of its cousin, the weeping juniper. The greens of the Alberta spruce and the weeping Norway spruce contrast attractively with the golds of the Gold Coast juniper.  The pleasing combination of colors and textures is there year ‘round—yes, even in the middle of winter.

Choosing the best plant combinations can be tricky, and doing it well can be a challenge. Conifer colors are subtle, and their shapes never really change. A five-year-old conifer shaped like a Christmas tree will be the same cone shape when it is 50 years old; only, larger.

In my mind conifers come in four basic shapes: round, cylindrical, weeping, and flat “ground huggers.” For simplicity’s sake, I think of both a ball-shaped false cypress and a mound like “Blue Star” juniper as being round. It’s helpful to think of them as silhouettes. Once you understand the shapes, making eye-catching combinations becomes easy and enjoyable.

When first landscaping with evergreens, begin with small groupings, and make sure each conifer is as different as possible from its neighbors. One of my favorite compositions begins with a “Bird Nest” globe spruce.  Place a broadly conical-shaped hinoki cypress next to it.  Maximize the contrast with an under planting of a flat, ground-hugging Japanese juniper.  Each enjoys growing the other in our area’s tough mountain soil.

You don’t want to plant a twelve-inch-high miniature next to a giant that will grow to a height of fifty feet; eventually the maxi will overpower the mini. In small planting beds, I use mainly miniatures and dwarfs, and I’ve discovered that intermediate-sized ground huggers like cotoneaster, juniper, and mahonia rarely overtake their allotted spaces.  Slim cylinders like skyrocket juniper and tiny tower cypress serve well as accents and never get too massive.

Conifers are the kings of foliage plants, no matter the season. In early spring, the color of new candle growth appears exceptionally rich because so few flowers are up and blooming.  In summer, conifers provide a splashy backdrop for the most colorful bloomers. In fall, they take on a renewed glow, as their greens, blues, and yellows contrast marvelously with autumn reds and yellows. But evergreens truly are in all their glory as we head into winter.

Mountain gardening in Arizona is chilly, but even in the middle of winter the days are bright and warm, compared to other parts of the country. As conifers continue to root and form new candle buttons, they lose moisture through their needles. It is important to water established conifers with one deep soak per month.

Newly planted winter evergreens should be watered by hand if necessary at ten-to-fourteen day intervals through winter to maximize their spring growth. It is not unusual to plant evergreens as we head into winter—it’s even preferable—but keep in mind that cold weather planting really makes watering critical.

Evergreen trees can be likened to the skyline of a city. Close-up views reveal the essence of an individual tree, or building, by baring its shape, color, and texture. But when seen from a distance, the colors and textures fade. Shapes dominate. Drama and a sense of wonder are experienced when blended together properly.  Conifers are the structural backbone of a garden just as buildings are the architectural building blocks of a city.

If you feel a little down during the holidays come visit Watters’ company mascot, Vincent Price. He roams freely through the garden center most days that I work at the nursery. Vincent loves, loves, loves people and rarely passes up a good back rub, or doggy treat. We even had the wording on his service vest changed to read, “Service Dog, Please Pet Me.”

Until next issue, I’ll see you at Watters Garden Center. Lisa Watters Lain can be found throughout the week at Watters Garden Center, 1815 W. Iron Springs Rd in Prescott, or contacted through her web site at or .