A common landscape mistake that both homeowners and landscape professionals make is to choose the wrong plant for its intended spot. Sometimes the reason for the mismatch is due to unmet cultural needs or a lack of plant cold hardiness, and sometimes it is because the eventual size of the plant is wrong for its given spot. In the former, a sort of horticultural Darwinism applies, and the plant struggles or dies. In the latter, the plant happily establishes itself and grows to exceed its allotted space. Then the loppers or hedge shears are taken off the hook on the wall, and the mistake is "corrected". Some people are so eager to correct these mistakes that they do so several times each year.
There should be a 12-step program for lopper addicts, something like Plantabusers Anonymous ("Hi. My name is Tim, and I...I am a lopaholic. I can't help myself. I see a bush, and I gotta get the hedge shears out. I crave the smell of clippings on a Saturday morning. My father was a lopaholic, too...; I got the habit from him...")
Consider the use of the so-called dwarf burning bush (Euonymus alatus 'Compactus') near the home. This plant provides little interest to the landscape except for a couple of weeks in the fall, when its leaves turn ruby-red before dropping. The word "dwarf" is actually a misnomer: the standard form of the burning bush will get to fifteen feet in height, and the same in spread. The dwarf form will easily get to twelve feet, both in height and width: hardly a dwarf. When I advise people against the use of this plant near the house, I am usually told "That's OK, I can hack it back each year." (That's one of the warning signs of lopaholism). If you want a plant to get no more than four feet tall because it is to be planted below a window, then it makes sense to choose a plant that won't grow any taller than four feet, rather than one that must be cut back regularly. (By the way, burning bushes, dwarf or not, are now categorized as invasive exotics that spread into the natural landscape by their prolific seeds, displacing native plants. A ban against their sale and distribution is presently under consideration in New Hampshire as well as other northeastern states.)
There are many other examples as well, all of which are typically found in "foundation plantings" on any street or road. Most yews are actually trees, unless we clip them into cones, hockey pucks and McNuggets. Arborvitae and hemlocks will become tall as well: usually to forty feet or more. And large-leaved rhododendrons will one day become house-eating green monsters as well. All of these require periodic lopping to prevent them from reaching their genetically-programmed size.
There are many choices of plants that will fit comfortably around a house better than the usual choices we usually see. Instead of the typical large-leaved rhododendrons, why not try some of the compact types? 'Boule de Neige' is a dandy, with white flowers in late May. This variety, although less common, has been available for about a hundred years or more. It performs better in New Hampshire than 'Cunningham's White' or 'Chionoides', which are easier to find. Weston Nurseries, in Hopkinton, Massachusetts has developed some other compact rhododendrons with pink or red flowers. These may be difficult to locate. Or, try some of the compact small-leaved hybrids, which are usually hardier anyway, especially in full sun. 'Waltham' will only grow to about three feet in height, and wider than tall. The Wilson rhododendron (Rh. laetivirens) will become a bit taller, but no more than four feet, and has excellent foliage that somewhat resembles that of mountain laurel. Both of these have clear pink flowers in May.
Rather than the ubiquitous yew, why not try a dwarf conifer? There are many types available, more than the number of varieties of yews, including dwarf forms of spruce, false cypress (Chamaecyparis spp.) and fir. Foliage colors range from green to yellow and blue. Most of these will never need trimming, if the right plant is selected for the spot.
For shrubs, put forsythias and burning bushes in a shrub border, where they can grow as tall as they please, and replace them with an assortment of ornamental shrubs. Some of my favorites are the many forms of Japanese barberry (Berberis thunbergii), which provide at least 6 months of interest. A dwarf form of the native summersweet (Clethra alnifolia 'Compacta') is especially nice, with fragrant flowers in mid-summer. It will get no more than four feet tall. It has proved hardier than the other compact form called 'Hummingbird'. There are several spireas that have interesting foliage as well as early summer flowers: Spirea albiflora, or the white-flowered spirea, will get no more than three feet tall; Spirea 'Magic Carpet' has colorful yellowish foliage with burgundy tones at the tips of the branches. It, as well as the dwarf alpine spirea (S. japonica 'Alpina') are superb in the mixed border, where they associate well with perennials.
Dwarf weigelas, fothergillas,and winterberry are but some of the other choices of plants available that will not outgrow their welcome in the garden. Their size makes them adaptable to the traditional foundation planting, as well as to their inclusion in a perennial garden or mixed border.
If low maintenance is your goal, why not choose plants that don't need to be cut back to keep them in check? There are many advantages: no wondering if you have just cut off next year's flower buds, the natural shape of the plant is maintained, and you have more time to do other activities. Like cutting the lawn.
The previous article originally appeared in the Hollis Times, Hollis, NH.