Photo by Nan K. Chase


The all-green garden makes quite a statement

Story by Nan K. Chase

Sometimes we go overboard with color in the garden: carpets of pastel bulbs in spring, big bold patches of orange and red and purple in summer, and then washes of crimson and gold in fall.

If it’s a crime to plant loads of color, then I plead guilty. Color just feels good. Or does it?

Over the past few years – during my morning walks around my neighborhood – I’ve begun to notice that my eyes continually seeking out green-on-green gardens – landscapes that relied on nothing for their beauty other than year-round evergreens, perhaps a lawn area, and some especially bright green summer additions.

This streetscape offers shades of green even in late winter before most trees have leafed out. Various shades of evergreens are punctuated by the bright spots of color of a white pine. Photo by Nan K. Chase.

These islands of green, especially when well maintained and planted in harmonious combinations of shape, size, texture, and tone, are so calming to the eye. Winter, spring, summer, fall: A green-on-green garden looks lush and healthy, elegant on any property.

During my walks, as season followed season, I noted that the most appealing green gardens had several specific components:




The composition – the mix of plants and their placement – of most green-on-green gardens usually falls into one of two categories: uniformity of color and texture for a smooth, calming feel; or a crazy quilt of contrasting shades and textures of green, creating visual stimulation.

This long view includes a sweep of lawn, billowing boxwood, and well-spaced evergreen and deciduous trees – a symphony in green. Photo by Nan K. Chase.

On a large lot, particularly one with a large house, the uniform look is undeniably regal. Wide plantings of just a few species create a stunning backdrop for a single specimen tree – say, a Japanese maple (Acer palmatum) amid an expanse of ferns.

A small yard can be just as regal, perhaps with a fanciful mix of plants that draws the eye here and there, or one with strong contrasts, such as a manicured boxwood hedge juxtaposed with evergreen natives.

What I refer to as “definition” is the practice of separating each plant from its neighbor with a ribbon of space, a little gap where pruning leaves just an inch of air. Plant as many different things as you like, but make sure to keep them looking sharp by defining each one. 




Remember that evergreen plants can range from just a few inches tall, think mosses and succulents, to hundreds of feet high, such as the largest conifers. Between those extremes, you will find endless variety. Some plants are naturally slender, some are low and spreading, while others grow into rounded or conical forms or may even trail over a wall or container. Don’t plant too many of the same form together; incorporate different shapes maximum depth and finesse.

This green-on-green landscape has it all: variations in height, shade, and texture. Photo by Emily Jenkins Followill.




So many greens! There are so many shades of green – from almost white to nearly black, yellow green, blue green, pale creamy green, light clear green, dark green that blends into purple, and on and on.

The bluish-gray tone and bold leaves of ‘Halcyon’ hosta contrasts nicely with the finely textured, reddish fronts of the lady fern. Photo by Theresa Schrum.

It’s easy to end up with a muddled look in the green-on-green garden. Plant only what you really like – preferably just a few shades at a time – until you can judge how well plants look together through the seasons. I like some sharp contrast, like a bright green hosta next to the dark leaves of Rhododendron, or a blue green hosta next to fresh green ferns. 

Think of greens as a fashion statement. The medium green of boxwood is like denim: It goes with everything; from hot chartreuse green to greens so dark they appear nearly black.

A shady all-green landscape plan brings the temperature way down, no matter how hot the setting, and the slightly shaggy look makes it easy to relax underneath the boughs. Photo by Phillip Oliver.




Consider a Magnolia, holly, and Camellia: Their leaves are glossy and reflect light. Conifers may have a rough, shaggy texture that absorbs light. Ferns are airy and move in the slightest breeze, whereas cacti and yuccas are generally rigid and have fine tendrils or spines that throw their own delicate shadows and hold winter’s snow in sculptural patterns.

Use texture as a way to extend the green garden, since the same shade of green can have many different “looks,” depending on texture.

This formal garden is rich with textures and shades of green – from the lightest green hydrangea blossoms, through the green of boxwood, to the darkest green undersides of bay laurel (foreground). Photo by Nan K. Chase.




What to plant? A green-on-green landscape needs strong evergreen structure: height, width, shape, and density.

Boxwood (Buxus spp.) or holly (Ilex spp.): What’s the difference? There are many cultivars of both boxwood and holly. In some cases they look nearly identical and can function the same way: an evergreen backbone that can be massed and shaped any way you like. An easy way to tell them apart is by leaf arrangement: boxwood has opposite leaves, while holly has alternate leaves. Boxwood growth is softer, holly tends to be stiff.

Hosta: Made for the shade, hostas come in every shade of green imaginable, with a huge variation in leaf sizes and shapes.

Ferns: A large planting of ferns can brighten up a dark corner of a green-on-green garden. There are ferns in an amazing range of sizes, shapes, and textures. Once established, they fill in quickly.

Conifers: This is a group of plants with endless interest. Look to dwarf conifers for a green-on-green landscape that won’t grow out of bounds; some are even small enough to grow in containers.

Cacti and friends: Are deer a problem where you live? They might leave cacti alone, and you can enjoy their phenomenal shapes unfolding all year. As wildflowers, many cactus varieties can withstand freezing temperatures as well as hot beach sand. The same goes for handsome Yucca filamentosa, which is available in both green and variegated forms. Spineless succulent plants are also available in many shapes and colors, so mix them into the green garden here and there.

Green flowers: Many summer favorites come in green or near-green shades, including Gladiolus, Chrysanthemum, daylilies (Hemerocallis spp.), hellebores (Helleborus spp.), bells of Ireland (Moluccella laevis), and Hydrangea.

Scroll to Top