Deciduous Trees Are Not Necessarily The Messiest

This weird Euphorbia is one of the few small evergreen trees that drops no foliage.

Contrary to popular belief, most deciduous trees, those that drop all their leaves in autumn, are not as messy as most evergreen trees. There are of course a few exception; such as cacti that lack foliage completely, or Italian cypress that drop their finely textured foliage straight down within a very narrow drip-zone, where it decomposes and disappears unnoticed. Very few leaves fall from a big silver maple through winter, spring and summer, so that almost all of the raking is done when almost all the leaves get shed in autumn. However, a big Southern magnolia generally drops leaves throughout the year, so that raking is always necessary.

The problem is that when deciduous trees get to be messy, they are very messy. Also, they get to be messy at the worst time of year, when their leaves mix with rain to clog drains and gutters. Unraked leaves become hazardously slippery when they get wet and start to decompose. It is amazing how something that can be so appealingly colorful through autumn can so quickly become such a nuisance.

Leaves of deciduous trees somehow seem to be better for composting than those of some of the evergreen trees. Anyone with a Southern magnolia knows how slow the foliage is to decompose. Foliage of camphor, bay, carob and various eucalyptus certainly decompose slower than various maple, ash, poplar and birch. Many of us outfitted with green waste bins or curbside collection of green waste prefer to recycle the less desirable evergreen foliage, and compost primarily deciduous foliage. Those of us who do not compost but need to rake under large or many deciduous trees may fill bins for several weeks, or leave very big piles of leaves at the curb.

Small leaves, such as those of most elms, or finely textured compound leaves, such as those of silk tree, jacaranda or locust, may not need to be raked if they fall onto lower shrubbery or ground cover. Small leaves or the small leaflets of disintegrating compound leaves simply sift through the lower plant material to decompose below. However, large elms may produce such an abundance of foliage that some may need to be removed. Maple and other large leaves are not so easy to ignore. They can shade lawns, ground cover or bedding plants, so need to be raked as they fall.


Juniper Cultivars Deserve More Consideration

Evergreen juniper foliage has distinctive texture.

Fads come and go. Many can be good, even if only briefly. A few might be bad enough to later stigmatize the object of the fad. For example, the formerly esteemed crape myrtle is now familiar as a mundanely common tree. Flashy bloom and complaisance contributed to its excessive popularity. Most sorts of juniper are similarly victims of their previous fad.

A few cultivars of juniper suddenly became overly popular during suburbanization of the 1950s. They were remarkably reliable and resilient. Most were shrubbery or low hedges. A few were groundcover. Hollywood juniper grew as a compact sculptural tree. However, most junipers grew too big. They became difficult to maintain, or impossible to renovate.

As many outgrew suburban gardens, few junipers outgrew their reputation. Even modern cultivars that were unavailable during the fad of the 1950s are perhaps less popular than they should be. Realistically, many old and new cultivars of juniper are quite practical for refined home gardens. They merely need to be appropriate to their particular application.

Many cultivars of several species of Juniperus are commonly available. Straight species are very rare from nurseries, although a few are native nearby. All junipers are evergreen with tiny awl or scale leaves. Foliar color ranges from forest green to silvery gray. Bloom is unremarkable. Some junipers produce pretty and aromatic blue, gray or black berries.

Junipers generally do not respond favorably to pruning that damages their natural forms. Those that grow as groundcovers, with stems that sprawl over the surface of the soil, are not offended by pruning to contain their edges. However, most groundcover junipers are actually just low shrubbery. Pruning might leave holes within their dense foliar canopies.

Junipers that grow as small trees do not mind removal of lower limbs at their main trunks, but object to partial pruning or ‘stubbing’ of such limbs. Regardless of their natural forms, all junipers should be proportionate to their particular applications. With sufficient space, they can mature and develop their naturally distinguished forms with minimal altercation. Maintenance could really be quite minimal.

Evergreen Foliage Has Distinct Advantages

Evergreen foliage is shady all year.

Gardening was easier before suburban lifestyles became so passe. Now, larger modern urban homes occupy smaller urban parcels. Modern fences are taller to enhance privacy for such densely situated homes. Garden space is both minimal and shaded by so much infrastructure. Ironically, shady evergreen foliage is now more practical for such gardens.

Deciduous trees are still practical for single story suburban homes on suburban parcels. They provide cooling shade for summer, and allow warming sunshine through for winter. Smaller evergreen trees and shrubs closer to fences obscure unwanted scenery beyond, without shading homes during winter. Such strategy is facilitated by sufficiency of space.

It is not so practical for confined and modern urban gardens though. Space is insufficient for big deciduous shade trees. Smaller trees can not get tall enough to shade roofs of tall modern homes. Insulation of modern homes is fortunately so efficient that summer shade and winter sunshine are not as advantageous as they still are for older suburban homes.

Therefore, most trees in modern home gardens primarily obscure unwanted scenery and provide privacy, rather than merely provide shade. Not only should they be proportionate to their gardens, but such trees should also retain evergreen foliage as low as the tops of associated fences. Some of the more practical options are actually evergreen shrubbery.

Large evergreen trees, such as Southern magnolia, California pepper, camphor, various palms and some eucalypti, are too big for some confined modern home gardens. English laurel, New Zealand tea tree, hopseed bush, various arborvitae, and particularly various pittosporum function as small evergreen trees that are proportionate to confined gardens.

As practical as evergreen foliage is for modern urban home gardens, it requires as much maintenance as other forms of vegetation. Contrary to common belief, evergreen foliage sheds. It is just sneaky about doing so slowly throughout the year. Additional foliage also innately adds shade to already shady situations, which can complicate other gardening. To become compact evergreen trees, shrubbery requires directional pruning.

Evergreen Tendencies Are No Mistake

Evergreen foliage is resilient through winter.

Evergreen plants retain foliage throughout the year. Deciduous plants defoliate for part of the year. That is the simplest explanation. The various reasons for shedding or retaining foliage are not so simple. Annual plants die after their single growing seasons. They can not live long enough to be either evergreen or deciduous. Some plants just may be both.

Foliar color, to some extent, conforms to preferable environments. Monterey cypress and Monterey pine have richly deep green foliage. It maximizes absorption of sunlight within the foggy coastal regions that the trees inhabit. Blue spruce has glaucous bluish foliage. It reflects a bit of sunlight to protect from sun scald within severe high mountain climates.

Similarly, deciduous plants generally defoliate for environmental situations. Most go bare for winter, in order to be less susceptible to damage from wind and snow. Bare stems do not collect as much heavy snow as foliated growth. They are also less resistant to wintry winds. If foliated, they are more likely to succumb to wind or overburdening snow weight. 

Evergreen plants may retain their foliage because they are from climates in which winter weather is not so harsh. Wind may be no more extreme than it is in other seasons. Snow may never occur. Plants from tropical regions may be unfamiliar with colder weather and shorter daylength associated with winter. Their evergreen foliage might function all year.

Some tropical plants that are evergreen within their native environments may defoliate or die back as a result of even mild frost. Some recover as if deciduous. (Those that can not survive local climate conditions are not very popular here.) For example, canna die back to the ground after frost, but regenerate later. In tropical climates, they can be evergreen.

Evergreen species from mountainous regions or extreme northern latitudes are generally uncommon here. They prefer harsher weather. Although evergreen, they are remarkably resilient to wind and snow in the wild. They are likely evergreen to always stay receptive to limited sunlight whenever it is available, though wintry weather is possible at any time. 

Evergreens Make A Mess Too

Big evergreen trees make big messes.

Nature is messy. It is that simple. Leaves, flowers, fruits and stems regularly fall from vegetation onto the ground. Animals contribute their mess too. Insects and microorganisms seem to eliminate most of the mess. In reality, they merely accelerate the process of recycling the mess back into more mess. Decomposing organic matter sustains viable vegetation as it perpetuates the process.

Natural mess serves many other purposes as well. It really is an important component of ecology. It retains moisture and insulates the soil. Many plants drop foliage that inhibits the germination of competing plants. Many merely smother competing plants with their mess. Several, particularly locally, produce combustible debris to incinerate their competition in the next convenient forest fire!

Obviously, the sort of mess that is so beneficial in nature is not so desirable in home gardens. Even if weed suppression and moisture retention are appealing, combustibility is not! Neither is any mess that vegetation deposits onto hardscapes, roofs or lawns. Such mess becomes more apparent as deciduous trees defoliate this time of year. Most produced no other mess since last year.

As messy as deciduous trees are, they are generally no messier than evergreen trees. They just happen to defoliate within a very limited season, rather than throughout the year. Some evergreen trees shed more in a particular season, typically as new foliage replaces the old. Otherwise, they shed slowly and persistently throughout the year. The mess seems like less, but is just prolonged.

Both evergreen and deciduous trees serve their respective purposes. Evergreen trees obscure unwanted scenery all year. Deciduous trees provide cooling shade for summer, and allow warming sunlight through for winter. The misconception that deciduous trees are necessarily messier should not exclude them from home gardens. Deciduous trees are often the most appropriate options.

Every species and cultivar of tree is unique. Many deciduous trees actually are messier than some evergreen trees. However, most are not.

Aleppo Pine

Aleppo pine thinks it is native.

From coastal regions around the Mediterranean Sea, the Aleppo pine, Pinus halepensis, came to be right at home on and near the coast of California. Once established, it can survive quite happily on rainfall. Trees that get too much water can actually get too heavy with foliage, and may eventually get disfigured if limbs break.

Shade under an Aleppo pine is not too dark. The light and sometimes yellowish green foliage is rather wispy, comprised of thin paired needles that are about three inches long. The sculptural trunks almost always lean to one direction or another, and often divide into multiple trunks once they grow out of reach. Bark is light gray with light brown striations.

Young trees can get big rather fast. They tend to be somewhat conical, or at least upright, until they get to be about forty feet tall. Then, they tend to shed lower stems and develop irregular branch structure with rounded tops as their growth rate slows. Only a few old trees in ideal situations slowly get to seventy feet tall. Seedlings sometimes appear where they are not wanted.

Not All Evergreens Are Conifers

41217thumb‘Conifer’ and ‘evergreen’ are almost synonymous. Of the two, ‘evergreen’ is the more familiar term. Some people do not know what a ‘conifer’ is. Simply speaking, an evergreen is a plant that retains foliage throughout the year, even while deciduous plants defoliate through winter. A conifer is a plant that produces seeds in cones, such as pine cones, although many are not easy to recognize as such. Actually though, not all evergreens are conifers; and not all conifers are evergreens.

Southern magnolia, glossy privet, lily of the Nile, all sorts of eucalyptus and all sorts of palms retain their foliage through winter, but none are conifers. Larch, dawn redwood and bald cypress are conifers, but are also deciduous. This can be quite a surprise for anyone expecting them to be evergreen. The foliage turns brown enough to resemble death before defoliation, although larch can get quite colorful in autumn where winters are cooler.

Now that flowers for cutting are scarce, evergreen foliage is popularly cut and brought into the home instead. Here in California, not many of us have fir or spruce out in the garden. Redwood, pine, cypress and cedar (deodar and Atlas) are more common. Leyland cypress, Western red cedar, incense cedar and the various chamaecyparis are not as common, but are just as effective. Incense cedar as well as some of the junipers (unshorn) are particularly aromatic.

Since the various hollies are uncommon here, Californians prefer other evergreens with berries, such as firethorn (pyracantha), contoneaster and toyon. Incidentally, toyon had been so recognized as a substitute for holly that it had historically been known as California holly, and is the origin of the name of Hollywood. Magnolia grenades (fruiting structures) can function like weird pine cones. Southern magnolia has big and glossy leaves with rusty orange undersides. They can provide bold color and texture, even if they have dried to a rich brown.

There are of course no rules for cut foliage. Anything that is still foliated and appealing in the garden may work nicely in the home. Ferns are an obvious choice, although some drop spores that stain fabric. Various pittosporums, podocarpus, eucalyptus, New Zealand flax and even the leaves of bird of paradise are all worth a try.

Evergreen Trees Drop Leaves Too

IMG_20141004_153228As the deciduous trees that will soon be coloring for autumn defoliate for winter, the evergreen trees will become more prominent. Some evergreen trees will drop some of their foliage along with deciduous trees through autumn and winter. Many drop some of their old foliage as new foliage develops in spring, or later in summer. All are on distinct schedules, but are never completely bare.

That certainly does not mean that evergreen trees are not messy. To the contrary, some happen to be significantly messier than some deciduous trees are. They are only evergreen because they do not drop their old foliage until it is replaced by new foliage. Whether individual leaves last just slightly longer than a single year, or for several years, they eventually shed and fall to the ground.

In fact, evergreen trees may shed small but pestering volumes of foliage for a few months or even constantly throughout the year. Some deciduous trees defoliate so efficiently within a very limited time once the weather gets cool, that all of their fallen leaves will be raked away within only two or three weeks. Of course, some trees, both deciduous and evergreen, drop flowers or fruit or both.

Not only do most evergreen trees shed for a longer time than most deciduous trees do, but most shed foliage that is not so easy to rake away. Cypress shed minute and finely textured leaves that are impossible to rake from lawns, but toxic if they accumulate. Juniper and arborvitae are easier to accommodate only because the trees are smaller. Fir, spruce and cedar have bigger needles.

Broadleaf evergreen trees are very different from coniferous trees. Their leaves are considerably easier to rake. They are generally more substantial than those of deciduous trees though. Some may not decompose so readily in deep groundcover. Southern magnolia leaves are notably slow to compost. Instead of producing cones, some broadleaf trees drop acorns or other messy seed.

Nonetheless, where there are compatible with their landscapes, evergreen trees are as practical as deciduous trees are.

California Bay

70823Just because California bay, Umbellularia californica, can be used like Grecian or sweet bay for culinary purposes does not necessarily mean that it should be. California bay has a stronger and much more pungent flavor and aroma. Some might suggest substituting less than half California bay for Grecian bay. However, even if the intensity is adjusted accordingly, the flavor might be off.

As the name suggests, California bay is native to California. However, because it is from rainier climates, it prefers a slight bit more water than it would get naturally in the drier parts of the local chaparral climate. It provides nice cooling shade in large landscapes, but is a bit too dark and messy for refined home gardens. The aromatic leaf litter can annoy delicate annuals and seedlings.

Well exposed trees can eventually get more than thirty feet tall and almost as broad. Forest trees that compete with other trees can get a hundred feet tall! Small trees can be shorn as hedges. If not watered too generously, the roots tend to be rather complaisant. However, old trees can eventually develop massively distended burl growths known as lignotubers at the bases of their trunks.

How Shade Is Made

70816thumbMany of our trees live at our homes longer than we do. Some of our trees were there before we got there. Some of the trees we plant will be there for whomever comes along after we are gone. Trees very often evolve into something very different from what they were intended to be. Nonetheless, since they are the most significant features of our gardens, trees must be selected carefully.

The recommendation that shade trees near the home should be deciduous is cliché but accurate. It makes sense that the trees that provide cooling shade in summer will also allow warmth and light through while bare in the winter. Evergreen trees are better for obscuring undesirable views around the perimeter of the garden, where they will not shade the home too much through winter.

The problem is that many modern gardens are too small for such diversity. Modern homes are so close to each other that evergreen trees are more important for obscuring views. Consequently, evergreen trees that provide privacy between homes and gardens might also function as shade trees. Limited space also means that trees affect neighboring homes and gardens significantly.

This is why so many of the small trees (that are known almost disdainfully by some arborists as ‘microtrees’) are so popular. Japanese maple, flowering cherry and smoke tree that were once popular for atriums and small enclosed gardens are now popular shade trees. Realistically though, some modern backyards are not much bigger than what was once considered to be an atrium.

Small evergreen trees or large shrubbery, like Australian willow, mayten, photinia and the larger pittosporums, work nicely by providing both privacy and shade for small areas. Contrary to popular belief though, evergreens are generally messier than deciduous trees. They drop small amounts of foliage throughout the year instead of dropping most or all of their foliage within a limited season. Flowers or fruit add another dimension of mess, even for deciduous trees like crape myrtle, flowering crabapple and saucer magnolia.