As I look outside our back window at the birds flocking to our feeder and bath and the never-ending construction site behind us, one thing is clear: We’re in dire need of more native evergreen plants that provide privacy and beauty for us, and food and shelter for wildlife that lasts through winter.
The rhododendrons we planted a couple of years ago should eventually reach a point where they cover the fence in the corner (and more!), but there are only two of them toward one corner and lots of space leftover for a shrub and understory layers. We also planted some Christmas ferns, which seem happy back there. You’re probably thinking, “Arborvitae! Duh!,” but Tim seems to have been scarred for life after a long, hot summer spent planting arborvitaes along the perimeters shopping centers and people’s expansive lawns while landscaping in his 20s.
Anyway, this isn’t a particularly wet area, so I’ll stick to evergreens that are more drought-tolerant for this post and save other great plants like inkberry (Ilex glabra) for a future rain garden post.
My favorite resources for finding new plants are JerseyYards.org and Wildflower.org, and this research required both because the Barnegat Bay Partnership’s database doesn’t include filtering by leaf retention and Lady Bird Johnson WildFlower Center’s database doesn’t have more localized info.
The area I’m focusing on now is a mostly shady spot when the oak tree has leaves, and sunny during all other months, so I kept those conditions in mind.
Bearberry (Arctostaphylos uva-ursi)
I want to plant some of this trailing shrub as a sort of groundcover border. We spotted some bearberry our in the wild recently, and both really liked it even though without its flowers or berries. I’d love to get some rocks to border the meadow, separating it from the evergreen area, and plant the bearberry so that it grows similarly to the photo.
Birds and native bees love it, and it’s a host plant for butterfly and moth larvae, including Rocky Mountain Clearwing (Hemaris senta), Hoary Elfin (Callophrys polios), Freija Fritillary (Boloria freija), Brown Elfin (Callophrys augustinus), and Elf (Microtia elva).
While it’s common in the Pine Barrens’ sandy soil, it also grows in loam and in rock gardens, so it should do well. Also, here’s a little fun fact for you: People smoked bearberry before tobacco was available.
- 6-12 inches in height, spreads up to 15 feet
- Adorable little white/pink bell-shaped flowers come out in April/May, and berries follow
- Low water use/ very drought tolerant
- Dry/Moist Soil
- Sun, part shade and shade
Mountain Laurel (Kalmia latifolia)
Mountain laurel can be found in the pine barrens and in many parks, but it’ll always remind me of trips to the Poconos, where they make a regular old roadside beautiful when they bloom. Full disclosure: We already tried to plant these in the exact area I’m talking about, and they died. Though we’ll never know the reason for sure, we assume the death was due to a combination of planting them too close to a black walnut tree and not giving them enough water during that first year. (Our daughter was born in July that year, and we were just a little bit distracted!) This time I’m going to try to plant one further away from that toxic tree and give it more TLC, and hope that improved conditions will make a difference.
Mountain laurels are one of the prettiest shrubs due to the white and pink clusters of bell-shaped flowers that bloom in June and July, and the fact that they stay green all through the winter.
- 12-20 foot shrub
- White/pink bell-shaped flowers in July and July
- Drought tolerant
- Moist Soil
- Part shade
American holly (Ilex opaca)
Slow-growing trees bring out my impatient side, but beneficial trees like this are always worth the time investment. And really, it’s not about me. American holly trees can grow up to 100 feet (though are typically much smaller), producing berries for at least 18 species of birds, including songbirds and mourning doves, as well as deer, squirrels, and other small animals.
- Medium drought tolerance
- Medium- to well-drained soil
- Grows an avg. of 50 feet
- Likes full sun, but tolerates shade and part-shade
Fan Clubmoss / Running Cedar (Lycopodium digitatum)
It looks kind of like Christmas decor, pine or cedar sprigs, thrown all over the ground, but this neat plant is actually a relative of ferns. It tolerates moisture but likes dry ground, spreads quickly, and could a really nice complement to the bearberry.
New Jersey naturalist Edna Greig described clubmoss as “an ancient forest at chipmunk height,” which is pretty awesome description. I’m hoping that planting some in our yard will bring more critters like chipmunks and while I’d love for it to serve its purpose for ground-nesting birds, we have too many roaming cats for that to be possible.
- High drought tolerance
- 5-10 in. high
- Spreads quickly
- Cover for smaller animals, protection for ground-nesting birds
Eastern Red Cedar (Juniperus virginiana)
This little tree makes a screen from things like, say, never-ending construction or the “pool cabana” a lengthy zoning notice said that never-ending construction would result in. It’s an aromatic, dense conifer that stays a shrub forever in poor soil but can grow to 50 feet tall and 20 feet wide if placed in better conditions.
The light blue juniper berries that stick around during the winter are a great source of food for birds, and add a little extra color to the dreary winter landscape. You know who doesn’t like an eastern red cedar, though? Moths. That’s why the wood is often used for cedar closets. Here’s another fun fact for ya: The oil extracted from the wood is used to flavor gin.
- High drought tolerance
- Likes full sun, but will settle for part-shade and maybe even shade
- 16 – 66 feet tall, depending on conditions and age
- Slow grower