Needled evergreens can provide a unique backbone to the landscape, creating a textural interest with sharp to soft needles. More importantly, there is something of color in the landscape during the long boring brown winter months.

Needled evergreens can provide a unique backbone to the landscape, creating a textural interest with sharp to soft needles. More importantly, there is something of color in the landscape during the long boring brown winter months.

Most people associate evergreens with windbreaks and Christmas trees. Neither is a good analogy for most landscapes.

Christmas trees are small evergreens that growers shear to keep dense, and harvest when less than eight feet high. Windbreaks used to be something you saw all the time around rural homesteads as a means to cut down on snow and reduce heating expenses. These days, most of the trees have been displaced by corn and soybeans.

The biggest problem with evergreens is that they grow. Like kittens and babies, trees grow into something bigger and bigger. While they’re young, they are cute and cause few problems short of needing water and the occasional feeding.

At least with kittens and babies, we have a sense how big they will get. With evergreens, people forget the little blue spruce that seems so perfectly conical in the yard at 8 feet tall covered with white lights in December will soon be 30 feet tall and hiding the house.

You can travel down many streets and see all sorts of evergreen trees that dwarf the houses behind them. Besides looking like giants in the land of Lilliput, large evergreens can interfere with cleaning siding and gutters, painting or washing windows.

Large trees also pose safety hazards, especially if they provide a potential hiding place. Some will try to solve any problems by removing the lower limbs, opening up the base of the tree. Unfortunately, most arborists will tell you the only thing worse is to top the tree.

Lower branches keep the branches above them horizontal. If you cut the lower limbs, eventually, the upper limbs droop. As long as the branches are horizontal, the tree is more structurally sound and will be able to withstand more weight from snow and ice. When you remove the lower limbs and let the upper limbs sag, the next time there’s heavy wet snow or a layer of ice, the branches will start to break.

It’s true that in an evergreen forest you don’t find lower limbs. However, you have trees so tightly packed that they support each other.

If you are trying to keep an evergreen small by cutting off the lower limbs, you could be better off just making one cut right at the base of the plant and putting in something naturally small.

Topping or shearing the tree to keep it small won’t work, either. Again, nature abhors someone messing with an evergreen to keep it tiny.

The other drawback with evergreens is that branches like light. With the exception of the hemlocks, needled evergreen trees like to be exposed to sunlight all the time. When branches are shaded, those limbs start dying.

Of the urban-loving evergreen trees, white pines and Douglas firs are probably the two best, followed by the spruces. White pines have a softer effect than Austrian or Scots pine. The latter two are coarser but provide a stiffer windbreak.

White pines, with five needles in a bundle, have a feathery look. On the whole they tend to be much narrower and layered, though a mature specimen can still fill a front yard.

Douglas firs are the urban substitute for blue spruces where summers are hot, which is the downside to blue spruces. Douglas firs –– sometimes called Doug firs once you get to know them well –– aren’t as blue as some spruces but enough that you recognize they aren’t green.

Douglas firs aren’t true firs, but the botanical aspect is almost irrelevant unless you are a true fir. The Douglas fir cones have unique pronged seeds that makes identification a piece of cake. But like blue spruces, they still may be too large for a small city lot.

Norway spruces are more forgiving than blue spruces when it comes to hot, dry summer days. However, over the last few years, Norway spruces have suffered some drought damage when it’s been too hot and have died quickly.

This, ultimately, brings up the realization there might not be a good evergreen for the typical city lot. You need space, space and more space.

Figure the trees will spread at least 15 to 20 feet and zoom past 60 feet. It probably isn’t a good idea to plant them closer than 10 feet from any foundation, driveway or sidewalk. Setting them back twice that distance is preferred.

There are dwarf versions of many evergreens. Some are columnar and may only spread five to six feet, while others may only grow that high. Some of the micro-dwarfs may only get a few feet high and wide.

The dwarf blue spruce forms may spread six feet and reach the same, but stay globular. Weeping forms, a somewhat Addams Family-look in the landscape, also abound.

In other words, if you imagine a size and shape you want, you probably can find it in the evergreens. Just be prepared to open the wallet.

David Robson is a specialist with University of Illinois Extension. For more gardening information or for your local extension unit office, go to www.extension.uiuc.edu/mg.