Evergreen shrubs are the backbone of the garden. They provide essential structure and are the foundation of any permanent planting scheme. They are often used to create hedges; some are used to trim and train into topiary shapes. Perhaps most importantly the larger evergreens are used for screening, providing privacy and hiding horrors. In beds and borders they add enduring foliage interest, form and texture at all levels in the planting.

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Some evergreen shrubs have the benefit of conspicuous flowers, others are grown mainly for their foliage and form. All of those mentioned here are easy to grow on most soils and need relatively little attention.

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Viburnum tinus 'Eve Price
Viburnum tinus 'Eve Price © Rachel Warne

How to grow, prune and care for evergreen shrubs

When to prune evergreen shrubs

Pruning shrubs is only really necessary to control the size and shape of an evergreen shrub. Although some will respond well to trimming with shears or a hedge trimmer, this does result in dense growth on the outside of the shrub and eventually a hollow centre. To preserve the natural habit use secateurs. Cut the longest shoots back into the shrub to encourage new growth from within. This is the ideal way to tackle choisya, escallonia, pittosporum and viburnum. If possible prune after the flowers and before a flush of new growth; usually mid to late spring.

When to plant evergreen shrubs

Plant evergreen shrubs as container grown plants at any time of the year, however they are easier to establish when planted in autumn or early spring when rainfall is more plentiful. Patient gardeners will get good results when planting a shrub grown in a 3 litre or 5 litre pot. These are cheaper than more mature specimens grown in 10 litre pots, or larger. These will give a more instant impact, but in the long run the results are the same.

Choisya x dewitteana ‘White Dazzler’
Choisya x dewitteana ‘White Dazzler’ © Richard Bloom

How far apart to plant evergreen shrubs

The ultimate size of a shrub depends on the growing conditions. Most of us make the mistake of planting shrubs too close together in an attempt to achieve an instant impact.

How to take cuttings of evergreen shrubs

Some gardeners may wish to propagate and make more of their existing evergreen shrubs. Many, including hebes, escallonias, choisyas and euonymus can be successfully propagated from cuttings taken during the summer months. These are known as semi-ripe cuttings - when the stem is still flexible, but not soft and not too hard and brittle. Small cuttings around 6-7cm long are best, without flower buds. Strip off the lower leaves and inset the bottom third of the shoot into a pot of seed and cutting compost and cover with a polythene bag to prevent drying out.

When to move evergreen shrubs

Sometimes moving an established plant is desirable. The best time is between mid-autumn and early spring before new growth commences. To minimise the disturbance and keep the root ball intact, cut around the plant with a sharp spade at least 30cm away from the main stem. Then carefully lift the plant and replant in the desired location. If possible, reduce the top of the plant by pruning to keep the stems and leaves in balance with the remaining roots. Keep well-watered until established. It is rarely worth the effort of moving an old overgrown evergreen, it is better to start again with a new plant.

Osmanthus x burkwoodii in bloom
Osmanthus x burkwoodii in bloom © Getty

How and when to feed evergreen shrubs

None of the shrubs mentioned here have particular soil or feeding requirements, but all will benefit from an annual application of a slow release general fertiliser at the beginning of the growing season. This is true of both newly planted shrubs and those that have been growing on the same spot for a few years where soil can become tired and impoverished.

Here are a few of the best evergreen shrubs that work well in most gardens. Sizes given are approximate in five to ten years from planting.

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The best evergreen shrubs for your garden

Large evergreen shrubs

Abelia grandiflora (2.4m x 2.4m)

Evergreen shrub: Abelia grandiflora
© Jason Ingram

A light, airy evergreen with arching stems which gradually form a substantial, mounded shrub. The neat, shining, dark green leaves are the perfect background for the pale-pink, bell shaped flowers, carried at the ends of the shoots from mid-summer through to autumn. The blooms are fragrant and have copper-pink calyces which remain after the flowers have faded, often into early winter.

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Although slow at first, abelia grows quickly once established. It likes well-drained soil and is chalk and drought tolerant. Flowering most prolifically in a sunny position, it will thrive in shade and is a useful contrast to heavier evergreens under the light shade of trees. Pruning is only necessary to control size and spread. Cut back long shoots in early spring to encourage new growth from the base. There are numerous dwarf and variegated varieties. These are a better choice where space is limited.

Sun/shade? Good for sunny positions and will thrive in shade

Pruning? Only to control size

Evergreen flowering shrub? Yes!

Elaeagnus x ebbingei ‘Compacta’ (2.4 x 2m)

Evergreen shrubs: Silvery grey-green foliage of Elaeagnus 'Compacta'
© Getty

A compact form of the silverberry with the same dark green leaves, silver on the undersides. Elaeagnus x ebbingei has a rather sprawling habit as it matures; ‘Compacta’ retains a denser, more upright habit. It may not be the showiest of shrubs, but it is one of the most versatile. It makes an excellent hedge, screen or backdrop to a border. It grows in full sun or semi-shade and is very drought and wind tolerant. An excellent choice for coastal gardens it is often used to shelter more vulnerable subjects.

Perhaps its greatest attribute are the insignificant tiny cream flowers produced in autumn. They would go un-noticed but their perfume is strong, sweet and delicious on the cool air. Quick to establish it soon makes an impact and requires little attention, apart from pruning as required to control shape and size. This can be done at any time.

Sun/shade? Full sun or semi-shade

Good for coastal gardens

Osmanthus x burkwoodii (3m x 2m)

Osmanthus x burkwoodii in bloom
Osmanthus x burkwoodii in bloom © Getty

Osmanthus x burkwoodii can make a very substantial shrub, or even a small tree if lower branches are removed later in life. However, it is usually used at the back of a bed or border to provide dark, evergreen structure with the benefit of small, white fragrant flowers in late spring. As a young plant the straight, light brown shoots carry small, leathery yew-green leaves, it becomes more branched and twiggy as it matures. It can be trimmed, shaped and used as an attractive hedging subject, however it is at its best allowed to grow naturally into a large, loose shrub.

A shrub that is very hardy and one that grows any soil that is reasonably well drained. It will grow in sun or shade, but is not at its best in deep shade. The dark green foliage and bold form are a good contrast to light, variegated shrubs such as pittosporum and rhamnus. Prune at any time, but ideally after flowering in late spring.

Sun/shade? Sun or shade but not deep shade

Evergreen flowering shrub? Yes!

Pittosporum tenuifolium ‘Variegatum’ (1.8m x 1.5m)

The cultivars of Pittosporum tenuifolium have become some of the most widely used and valuable shrubs in our gardens. Their small shining leaves and finely branched structure mix well with deciduous shrubs and other evergreens. Hailing from New Zealand and once regarded as tender, they seem to thrive in all but the coldest regions and are a good choice for coastal gardens. They need well drained soil and are best in an open, sunny situation.

Variegated pittosporums add year round colour, interest and structure in the garden. However most become large, flame-shaped shrubs that are useful for screening where space permits. Pittosporum tenuifolium ‘Variegatum’ is more compact and retains its dense, tidy habit. The small sage green leaves are waved and boldly edged with cream. It forms a broad, rounded cone and is excellent in a pot as well as in beds and borders. It can be trimmed or pruned with secateurs to control shape a size, or allowed to grow naturally.

Other pittosporums: Cultivars such as ‘Golf Ball’ and ‘Tom Thumb’ remain compact, dwarf and rounded in habit. They are often clipped and used as an alternative to box. The species can be allowed to grow and form a substantial evergreen tree.

Sun/shade? An open, sunny situation

Viburnum tinus ‘Eve Price’ (1.5 x 1.2m)

Viburnum tinus 'Eve Price
© Rachel Warne

Viburnum tinus, traditionally known as laurustinus, is one of the most reliable flowering evergreens. ‘Eve Price’ is a free flowering cultivar, more compact and manageable than the species it has become an enduringly popular choice. Dark green foliage and dense growth are the perfect setting for the flattened clusters of pink buds which open into tiny white blooms. Buds appear as early as late summer and have a conspicuous presence from mid-autumn. The flowers start to open in early winter and can continue until mid-spring, or even later. Perhaps the longest flowering period of all shrubs? Although the fragrance of the flowers is not pleasant the winter blooms are a valuable source of nectar and pollen for insects that venture out in the cold. The flowers are often followed by small, elliptic blue-black fruits.

Growing on any soil in sun or shade it is particularly happy on chalk. Pruning is only necessary to control shape and size and is best done after immediately after flowering.

Evergreen flowering shrub? Yes!

Sun/shade? Good for sun or shade

Likes chalk soil

Small evergreen shrubs

Choisya x dewitteana White Dazzler (90cm x 90cm)

Choisya x dewitteana ‘White Dazzler’
Choisya x dewitteana ‘White Dazzler’ © Richard Bloom

A compact cultivar of Mexican orange blossom, perfect for the smaller garden or the front of a bed or border. Neat dark green leaves divided into finger-like leaflets are carried on well-branched stems on a dense, rounded shrub. Pleasingly fragrant white flowers are abundantly produced in spring and again in late summer or autumn and randomly at other times.

It grows in sun or shade on most soils but dislikes heavy wet conditions and severe cold. It seems to be at its best on chalk soils and in semi-shade. Little or no pruning is required apart from occasional shortening of any long shoots to keep it in shape.

A really useful anchor in any green and white planting scheme, it is a good subject to repeat and adds a floral element amidst green and white variegated foliage shrubs.

Sun/shade? Sun or shade

Dislikes heavy wet conditions and cold

Evergreen flowering shrub? Yes!

Euonymus japonicus ‘Green Rocket’ (1.2m x 60cm)

A striking evergreen with vertical stems forming a dense column of rounded, shining, emerald green foliage. The leaves are regularly arranged on the stems resulting in a bold, architectural appearance. This is a tough, drought tolerant shrub, perfect for narrow borders, pots and containers, ornamental hedges and to add vertical interest in any planting scheme. Plant as single specimens or in small groups, but avoid overcrowding with other subjects which could detract from the effect. It grows in sun or shade and is tolerant of coastal conditions. Particularly successful on chalk it will grow on any well-drained soil.

No pruning is required apart from the removal of any dead or damaged growth and branches that grow out of line. This can be done at any time of the year.

The cultivar Euonymous japonicus ‘Green Spire’ is similar in appearance but grows more quickly and attains a greater size. It is the more popular choice for a narrow hedge.

Sun/shade? Sun or shade

Good for narrow borders, pots and containers

Escallonia laevis 'Pink Elle' (1.2m x 90cm)

Evergreen shrub: Escallonia laevis Pink Elle
© Getty

Many escallonias suffer badly with leaf spot disease which robs them of vigour and detracts from their appearance. ‘Pink Elle’ is an exception. The relatively large rounded leaves are bright green and glossy and are carried on a well branched rounded shrub which mixes well with other shrubs, roses and perennials. It is healthy, trouble free and compact in habit. The large clusters of clear pink flowers appear in mid- summer and continue through to early autumn. They are attractive to bees and butterflies.

Escallonia 'Pink Elle' makes an excellent low hedge for an open, sunny position. It will grow on any well-drained soil and soon makes an impact, even if planted as a small specimen initially.

Only prune to shape as necessary; it looks best when allowed to achieve a loose, natural form.

Sun/shade? Open sunny position

Good for Butterflies and bees

Evergreen flowering shrub? Yes!

Hebe pinguifolia ‘Sutherlandii’ (90cm x 90cm)

One of the most useful low structure shrubs forming a dense round mound of tiny grey green leaves on straight, slender branches. Like other small-leaved hebes it is hardy and more heat and drought tolerant than its larger-leaved relatives. Small spikes of white flowers appear towards the tips of the shoots in summer. They are not prolific and are very secondary to the foliage but are very attractive to bees and butterflies.

Hebe ‘Sutherlandii’ grows on any well drained soil in full sun. It is a useful plant to mix with lavender, santolina, rosemary and other Mediterranean subjects. It is a good alternative to box and works well in the corners of beds and as a plant to repeat to hold a scheme together. It eventually gets larger than expected, so take that into account when planting.

No pruning is required. Old plants do tend to sprawl and lose shape. They can sometimes be rejuvenated by hard pruning, but replacement is usually the best solution.

Sun/shade? Full sun

Pruning don't prune!

Evergreen flowering shrub? Yes!

Skimmia japonica ‘Kew Green’ (75 x 75cm)

Evergreen shrubL Skimmia × confusa 'Kew Green'
Evergreen shrubL Skimmia × confusa 'Kew Green' © Richard Bloom

Apple green, shining pointed leaves carried in rosettes on straight, regularly branched stems grow to form a low, rounded shrub. Conical clusters of pale green buds appear at the tips of the shoots in autumn remaining showy through the winter months. These open in spring into small creamy flowers with a strong lily-of-the-valley fragrance.

Unlike other skimmias, ‘Kew Green’ tolerates direct sun, although it is at its best in shade. It grows on any well-drained soil that is not too dry and is perhaps at its best under light deciduous trees or shaded courtyards. It requires no pruning, but is highly desirable to cut for floral decoration which often restricts its size.

The perfect companion to hellebores, pulmonarias and spring flowering bulbs it is also good with sarcococca, Christmas box which produces its fragrant flowers early in the New Year.

Sun/shade? Tolerates direct sunlight although best in shade

Good for lovely fragrance

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Evergreen flowering shrub? Yes!

Authors

Andy McIndoe lectures to gardening groups and societies at home and abroad, leads gardening tours and is consultant to well-known suppliers in the garden industry.

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