Types of low-growing spreading evergreen shrubs

Written by laura reynolds
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Types of low-growing spreading evergreen shrubs
Boxwood lines walks and flower beds in a formal garden. (Medioimages/Photodisc/Photodisc/Getty Images)

Evergreen shrubs, according to the Morton Arboretum, create year-round privacy and screen unwanted views. While those might not be the primary purpose for low-growing evergreen shrubs, they certainly act as permanent groundcover and stabilise slopes. They may provide structural elements for formal or large gardens and serve as contrast for other plants and add colour to the winter landscape. Choose types of plants based on location and the function they fulfil.


Juniper comes in several compact varieties. It is a rugged, sun-loving, drought-tolerant groundcover that discourages foot traffic. Two varieties, compact Pfitzer juniper and Sargent juniper, are Juniper chinensis varieties that grow no taller than 24 inches. Both spread slowly to between 4 and 6 feet. Horizontal juniper, Juniperus horizontalis, varieties 'Bar Harbor' and 'Hughes', slowly spread to 8 or 9 feet but grow no higher than 12 inches. In addition to sharing other junipers' sun and drought tolerance, horizontal junipers have an attractive bluish cast.

Juniper is tough, but Russian or Siberian cypress, Microbiota decussata, makes a better choice for areas in partial to full shade with moist, well-drained soil. Russian cypress spreads slowly from 6 to 8 feet and grows no taller than 18 inches. It is a zone or two hardier than junipers, growing to zone 2, but it is also less heat tolerant, growing only to zone 7; junipers grow well to zone 9.

Garden Structure

Dense mugo pine and boxwoods make good linings for garden walks. They can also separate or frame garden segments or form a permanent structure as part of a complex landscape. Pinus mugo 'Mops' is a green globe, spreading to 3 by 3 feet. 'White bud' grows a foot wider and features white buds against dark green needles in spring. 'Slowmound' grows 4 feet tall but spreads in a mushroom shape 6 feet across. Mugo pines are drought resistant and prefer full sun.

Buxus, known as boxwood, is a broad-leaf evergreen that is easy to shear to shape. Most boxwood tolerates moist soil and partial shade; 'Green gem' grows only 2 feet tall and wide. 'Glencoe' and 'Green mound' are very cold hardy; both spread slowly to 3 feet wide on 2-foot-tall plants. Buxus 'Wintergreen' or littleleaf boxwood has very small leaves and spreads into a dense 3- to 4-foot-tall-and-wide shrub with light green foliage.

Winter Color and Contrast

Boxwood also brings colour to the winter garden. Both 'Wintergreen' and 'Green mound' keep their lustrous green leaves through the winter. Taxus provides winter colour with its soft green needles and red berries. Taxus cuspidata is commonly called Japanese yew; 'Monloo' grows only 3 feet tall but spreads to 8 feet in moist, well-drained soil; it tolerates partial to full shade. Berberis x mentorensis, known as Mentor barberry, is a drought-, sun- and shade-tolerant shrub. Its leaves turn purple and persist through winter on spiny twigs.

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