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Mixing Evergreens With Deciduous Plants

Is your garden a quiet space or a loud space, an intimate space or a shared space, a small space or a large space, or all of the above?

At night after dinner, my garden often seems very calm and quiet, but can change dramatically by the next morning to a very loud space when all my neighbors are out mowing their lawns. In the back of my garden is a small, enclosed space that is very formal and intimate. It has two chairs where I can sit and relax with my husband or a friend, and enjoy our conversation in the peace of my garden.

In the winter, the garden always seems smaller and quieter to me than in the summer. You would think it would seem the opposite: larger and louder since all the foliage has fallen from the trees and all the perennials are cut back. All the lush foliage that serves as a wonderful sound buffer in my urban garden oasis is gone, yet it remains quiet.

Balancing your garden
I have a mix of evergreen and deciduous plants in my garden, and I encourage all my clients to do the same. The change of the seasons in our area is inevitable, and how a garden looks should change with the seasons as well: too many deciduous plants and you have a very drab winter garden; too many evergreen plants and you have a garden that barely changes and lacks personality.

One group of plants that has both deciduous and evergreen plants is the magnolias. Clients come into our store looking for a magnolia, especially in the spring when all the deciduous magnolias are blooming, but I always have to ask, “What kind of magnolia are you looking for?” Southern magnolias, Magnolia grandiflora, that are deciduous magnolias like M. soulangiana, M. loebneri, M. stellata, or Magnolia virginiana—Sweetbay magnolia… and this is only a partial list.

Each magnolia has its own unique and many times distinct characteristics, so it is important to know which one you are looking for before you begin to shop. Nothing would be worse than wanting a deciduous spring-flowering magnolia and mistakenly getting an evergreen Southern magnolia, as the two are very different.

Sweetbay magnolias
One of my favorite magnolias that actually has characteristics of both the deciduous and Southern types is Magnolia virginiana var. australis—swamp or evergreen sweetbay magnolia. Their leaf and habit resemble the deciduous magnolias, but the flower looks more like a smaller version of the Southern magnolia flower.

The flower is a 2- to 3-inch diameter creamy white and slightly lemony scented beauty. They do not have one big flowering burst like the deciduous magnolias, but bloom sporadically throughout the summer months like the Southern magnolia.

The leaves are 3 to 5 inches long and oval to lanceolate in shape. The color of the leaves is the same whether evergreen or not, and is a medium to dark green above, slightly glossy and a softer green or silvery below. In extremely harsh environments, the leaves can be a much lighter shade of green as well as having a much thinner canopy of leaves.

Sweetbay magnolia grows on average, in Kentucky and throughout their northern range, to about 15 to 20 feet tall and typically only about half as wide as they are tall. More to the south in the eastern part of the United States, they can be found growing an amazing 40 to 60 feet tall.

Native to swampy regions, this magnolia thrives in wet or compacted sites where other plants will not grow. It prefers full sun but grows almost equally well in part shade. It is an excellent small tree for small gardens, but looks amazing when planted in groupings of three or more if you have the room, and makes a beautiful hedge.

Evergreen varieties
Magnolia virginiana is deciduous in our climate (can be semi-evergreen in a very mild winter) but is truly evergreen in its southern range, while Magnolia virginiana var. australis and M. virginiana ‘Henry Hicks’ are always evergreen in our area. The northern evergreen sweetbay magnolia is, unfortunately, difficult to propagate and therefore somewhat difficult to find. As soon as we locate a few in our store, they are immediately bought. Sweetbay magnolia is incredibly beautiful 12 months of the year, but when you see one of the evergreen varieties standing so beautiful and in full leaf in the winter, you will definitely want that one in your garden.

When I look at my garden, I often think it doesn’t seem possible to receive so much joy from one small garden space. I look forward to the summer months again when I can stand just outside my kitchen door and see a garden full of family and friends laughing, talking, and sharing their lives with one another, and I can see that everyone feels right at home in my garden.

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