For me, this year has been full of exciting information about the temperate climate. Having spent most of my permaculture life in Central America, moving to North Carolina has had me say goodbye to many old favorites and marvel at a host of new possibilities. It wasn’t until November, however, that I realized just how naked the forest and garden would be due to the cold.
I’ve spent quite a lot of time thinking about cold weather crops and cold frames for year round production, but until recently, I’d thought more along the lines of food in the winter rather than appearance. While the revealed vistas are often incredible, the collection of bare branches—kind of like a skeleton forest—really made me recognize the need to include evergreen plants in temperate designs.
So, I’ve done a bit of research and built myself a starter list for what might work where I am now: USDA Zone 7a or Köppen Classification Cfb. To my delight, there is a lot to choose from, plants that are both productive and evergreen.
Culinary herbs are great on so many levels. They have huge health benefits, with lots of anti-oxidant and medicinal qualities, and they usually smell and taste great. Many are also perennial, which means they provide stability in the garden. And, just about all of them are great for repelling and/or distracting pests and attracting beneficial butterflies and bees. It turns out that a good lot of them are evergreen as well.
Rosemary is suited ideally for the Mediterranean temperate climate, which immediately signals that’s also equipped for drought and sea air. It won’t withstand much below freezing, but it grows well as potted plant. For really cold spots, it can be moved indoors.
Lavender, though more revered for scent than flavor, does actually have edible varieties that are sometimes used in desserts. Even without using it as food, it’s a beautiful evergreen plant that repels pests and attracts beneficial insects, as well as provides soothing aromas. It makes a great hedge. It’s also a bit hardier than rosemary.
Sage may be one of the more underrated herbs. It is the crux of holiday meals, and it also makes absolutely fantastic tea. It, too, is evergreen. There are several varieties of sage to choose from, and the lot of them provide lovely flowers that attract bees, as well as some that entice hummingbirds.
Thyme is yet another classic culinary herb that survives the winter without loosing its rather tiny leaves. Some varieties of thyme work as a hardwearing groundcover, and a few types of creeping thyme (Thymus praecox) and lemon thyme (Thymus x citriodorus) are edible as well.
Bay leaf is wonderful herbs for adding depth to dishes, especially those stews, soups, and pots of stuff we like to have in the winter. It also provides green in the wintertime garden. This is yet another Mediterranean plant. It’ll survive into USDA Zone 8 but will need to come inside (it works as pot plant) in environs colder than that.
Winter Savory (Satureja montana), not to be confused with the annual summer savory, is a semi-evergreen, which was a new term for me. In essence, it’s a group of plants that function somewhere between deciduous and evergreen, but more or less maintains leaves for the entire year. This herb is often substituted for salt and pepper.
One of the scariest parts of transitioning from the tropics to the temperate climate is that, suddenly, vegetables don’t just grow year-round, at least not for the most part. While cold frames and cold-tolerant species have opened the door to extending the growing seasons through the winter, it’s exciting to learn that there are even some possibilities for evergreen veggies that’ll keep the uncovered garden green.
Sorrel (Rumex acetosa) is a perennial, evergreen (up to Zone 6) leafy vegetable that is suggestive of spinach but with a nice lemony flavor about it. Like kale and spinach, it does have plenty of oxalic acid, so it can’t be eaten pounds at a time. It tastes better in the spring and fall and bitter in the summer.
Artichokes, globe not Jerusalem, are native to the Mediterranean climate and perennial evergreen plants in those circumstances. They produce an abundance of vegetables to eat, and though the leaves do die back in colder spots, in some temperate areas they’ll hang on through the winter. They are a really pretty, productive plant to have around.
Perhaps the crop I’m most excited about with regards to the temperate climate is berries. They were around in the tropics, but not with such diversity and flavor. I’m really pleased to have blueberries in my life again, and I’m very excited at the prospect of berry hedges dividing gardens and bordering food forests. And, now I’ve found out there are some evergreen options.
Lingonberry (Vaccinium vitis-idaea) shrubs are extraordinarily cold-tolerant and like to hang out in those Scandinavian countries. The plants stay relatively low, no more than 30 cm high, and they produce a tart, edible berry. They like soil conditions similar to blueberries. They are a late fruiting berry distantly related and similar in appearance to the cranberry.
Sunshine blueberry (Vaccinium ‘sunshine blue’) is another new, exciting plant for me and another semi-evergreen (from Zone 5 to 10) on this list. They are a more compact variety, only reaching about a meter high and wide, and they produce small berries once established. This plant is said to tolerate heat a little better than other varieties.
Evergreen Huckleberry (Vaccinium ovatum) is yet another berry bush that’ll provide something to eat as well as something green to look at in the winter. It’ll grow from Alaska to California and is close enough in appearance to blueberries that it’s not difficult to mistake the two. Huckleberry works in the sun or shade, grows as a hedge, and attracts wildlife.
I wouldn’t have guessed fruit trees as an evergreen option here, but there are a few potentially stout enough to hang onto to their leaves. They’ll offer some interesting experimentation if nothing else.
Pineapple Guava (Feijoa sellowiana) does not sound like a fruit tree one is likely to run across in the temperate climate, but they survive in Zones 8-11 in the ground. They can be grown in container elsewhere and, at just a couple meters tall, are easy to move. Apparently, they are beloved as a deer-resistant plant.
Strawberry Tree sounds more like something from a cartoon or Dr. Seuss book, so it’s even more wonderful to learn that they are very much real and, in fact, evergreen. There are several varieties, but Arbutus unedo, provides late autumn flowers and fruit. Unfortunately, the fruit is known to leave a bad aftertaste.
Japanese Plum Yew is respected for being very versatile with regards to sun and shade, drought-tolerant, and evergreen. The low-growing, spreading variety (Cephalotaxus ‘prostrata’) comes highly recommended and is said to resemble a large fern. Note: Yew trees, in general, are quite dangerous to eat, so take caution to get this one right.
Bamboo plants often get put only into tropic plant lists, but there are plenty of cold hardy bamboos (Fargesia denudate/robusta/scabrida) to grow in temperate climates. Running bamboo tends to be invasive and require some serious cordoning off; however, large clumping bamboos can be very useful. Though not many are edible, they are super handy plants on a homestead.
To be honest, I’m relieved to discover there are so many useful evergreen plants available for my (and my wife’s) upcoming garden designs. We will definitely be sure to dot the landscape with productive evergreens so that winter still has some of the color and life that we enjoy so much. Of course, we’ll likely be looking at it more often through a window from the confines of warm house, but I’m sure the greenery will inspire a few blustery walks as well.
Header Image: Courtesy of Dan Keck