As with lawns, the search for the perfect landscaping tree goes on forever. Strangely enough though, while we insist that grass be green, we strive hard to establish trees of every novel color possible: Blue Spruce, Copper Beech, Crimson Maple, Sunburst Locust. If a tree cannot have some weird color during summer, it must at least turn to gorgeous colors in the fall, and then the leaves should disappear into thin air. The perfect tree does not have roots to rear up on the soil surface and lunge at the mower blade, nor tunnel down into the ground and clog sewer systems. It should bloom prodigiously, but make no fruit to fall squishy-squashy on the ground. No bug or disease should ever molest it. In short, the perfect shade tree would be an artificial tree, possibly of plastic, and if you’ve got the money, I imagine Neiman-Marcus will find someone to make it for you.
Searching for That Perfect Tree
Leaves are the biggest hindrance to the low-maintenance yard. The easiest way to get rid of them is to mulch them in place. Run over them as they fall with a rotary mower that you have plugged or partially plugged so the leaves can’t squirt out the normal way. The whirling blade then shatters them to powder and they drop harmlessly on the grass to make fertilizer. Some mowers have a mulching attachment that narrows the slot that grass usually exhausts from under the deck, and so accomplishes the same purpose—at least my Gravely does. This method does not leave the lawn perfectly spotless green in the fall, so it is spurned by the Superneats, who use baggers instead.
Trees and Shrubs for the Seashore
Trees and ornamentals that will grow along the seashore without too much fret and worry from you must withstand wind damage and salt spray. Bayberry, beach plum, privet, and rosa rugosa are at home in this environment. American and English hornbeams, English hawthorn, honey locust, red maple, red oak, sassafras, and sycamore are other good choices, especially against strong winds. Among evergreens, creeping juniper, Japanese black pine, pitch pine, red cedar, and Swiss stone pine, resist both wind and salt.
The improvements in baggers and/or vacuum units to suck up leaves make them the next best alternative, although you then still have the bagged leaves to contend with. If you garden, this is great, because you can use them for mulch or compost.
But the best road to low maintenance in leaf removal is to grow mostly evergreens in your yard. Conifer needles hardly ever need to be raked up. Even when they accumulate, as under large white pines, they seem somehow appropriate. If I may make a suggestion or plead a strong case, the blue spruce (or green if the specimens you buy do not turn out to be as blue as you desired) is one of the very best in terms of low maintenance. It never needs trimming. Neither insect nor disease is a big problem with it. It does not grow so almighty fast. It is easy to mow around and grows thick and low to the ground so that mowing under it is not usually necessary. It makes no leaves or needles that need to be cleaned up. It is beautiful. It adapts well to a wide variety of soils. It is immensely hardy and seldom damaged by heavy snows.
Another excellent choice is the Japanese umbrella pine (Sciadopitys verticillata), the favorite low-maintenance tree of Lane Palmer, of whom I spoke about in my discussion of ground covers in chapter 7. (In this chapter, as in chapter 7, I will give botanical names only for those plants that are not so common, or in instances when I want to distinguish one plant genus or species or variety from another.) Palmer, who’s planted and ripped out many trees in search of the perfect low-maintenance species, gives the nod to this oriental pine because it has no pest or disease enemies; grows slowly; lives to at least 100 years; never gets beyond about 25 to 30 feet tall in that length of time; is hardy even in Maine; does not winterburn and needs no protection against it; and when the needles do fall, they are inconspicuous and do not need to be raked up. He started with seedlings he bought for 50c1 each and his specimens some 30 years later are about 20 feet tall, beautiful, and worth over $500 apiece.
Both this tree and the Colorado blue spruce (Picea pungens) are exceptions to a general low-maintenance rule. Normally, you should lean toward planting the native trees of your region, which are better acclimated to your climate, local diseases, and pests. Trees not native should be grown only if their endurance is proven in your climate. A walk through any older suburb in your area or older residential city street will quickly acquaint you with such proven trees.
In the case of evergreens, you will find for example that balsam fir (Abies balsamea) thrives in the cool, moist climate of the Northeast, even in wet places, but tends to be short-lived in the Midwest or any area with hot, dry summers. White fir (Abies alba), on the other hand, is drought-hardy, will even grow on poor, dry shallow sites, and is a fine selection for the western Plains. Red and Austrian pines (Pinus resinosa and P nigra, respectively) are beset by sawfly larvae and tend to blow over in windy locations in early spring when the ground is soft, at least here in Ohio where there are no native conifers. White pine (Picea alba) tends to grow scraggily if not pruned and is also subject to diseases. Arborvitae, once the darling of landscapes for foundation plantings, is really a tree of wide-open spaces and moist soils. It requires high maintenance if planted next to the house. Heavy wet snows break down the limbs, too. Hemlock (Tsuga canadensis) is good for shady, moist areas, bad for dry, windy places. Junipers (Juniperus sp.) winterburn and become infested with red spider mite.
Of the smaller evergreens, yews (Taxus spp.) are one of the best low- maintenance trees, although in the shrubbier hybrids and strains, it needs to be pruned yearly to keep it within limits, especially when trained as a hedge. But Japanese yew, which is hardier than English, is nearly pest-free. In 20 years of growing both upright and spreading varieties, I’ve never had any problems, even in this harsh northern Ohio climate. Yews prefer a neutral soil, but will endure a rather acid one. They need fairly good drainage, but will stand shade better than any foundation plant I’ve tried. They endure dry sites fairly well, but try not to position one at the corner of the house where the downspout dumps the roof water. Neither snowdrift nor ice storm has ever harmed mine.
Deciduous Shade Trees
If you want a deciduous tree (one that sheds leaves every year) in your yard, you can still avoid much leaf collection by choosing species with less leaf bulk. Unfortunately, such a selection excludes the large maples that otherwise make magnificent shade trees and provide delightful fall color. Nothing shades like a maple, and very little grows under them as a result. If you put a shade-loving ground cover under a maple, you can’t rake up the thickly falling leaves. And maples are notorious for roots that hump up out of the ground to make mowing hazardous.
If you wish to avoid heavy leaf raking but still enjoy large shade trees, select one of the finer-leaved oaks, especially pin oak (Quercus palustris), willow oak (Q. pheflos), or shingle oak (Q. imbri caria) , which is often called northern live oak. These oaks cast considerable shade, but if lower limbs are pruned off as the tree grows large, enough sun passes through for shade-tolerant grasses to grow under them. The leaves tend to shrivel when they fall and do not mat down as badly as maple leaves to smother grass if you don’t get them cleaned up right away. Even the leaves of the white oak (Q. alba) make far less bulk than maple and, if you mow over them when dry, they shred enough to prevent a heavy mat forming on the grass. White oaks, especially when young (under 25 years of age) share another advantage with pin oak and shingle oak: Many of the leaves do not fall in the autumn but hang on the tree through winter, coming off only gradually up into early spring when the new buds begin to swell. Holding their leaves, the trees soften the winter landscape and greatly reduce leaf collection chores. Unless you are a really neurotic Superneat, you hardly notice them when they do fall in late winter, and they are not then a threat to the lawn grass.
Other good large shade trees with light leaf bulk are honey locust, which does well even in the dry Plains regions, black walnut, and the willows. Older weeping willows are a bit messy because they shed twigs regularly, but picking them up is a lot easier than raking leaves. Most of the willows thrive in a wet situation, and weeping willow and related species green up very early in spring and hold their green to very late in fall. Black walnut is an excellent choice where you want grass under a shade tree. You have the job of cleaning up the nuts that fall, but if you like black walnut cake and fudge as much as I do, you don’t call that maintenance work. Bluegrass seems to grow well under the lacy shade of black walnut trees, not only because of sufficient sunshine, but because the natural herbicide that the tree’s roots emit, called juglone, apparently keeps down competition from other plants while affecting the grass not at all. Black walnuts should not be grown near a garden. Tomatoes especially are susceptible to juglone.
Locusts are good for grass, too, since they are legumes and draw nitrogen from the air into the soil. The several varieties of thornless honey locust are favorites today in areas where mimosa webworm damage is not severe. A century ago, the black locust (Robinia pseudoacacia) was a favorite yard tree in addition to being planted in groves, its wood being almost impervious to decay and used extensively for fence posts and lumber. Its thorns are rather inconspicuous and it blooms beautifully in spring. It will grow on the poorest soil if it is fairly well drained.
At the present time, Dutch elm disease makes elms a poor choice for a large shade tree. Ash trees produce much seed, which sprout seedlings everywhere—under hedges, in ground covers, in the garden, etc. These seedlings can become as bad a nuisance as any weed. Beeches cast very heavy shade. Old ones become hollow, perhaps with no noticeable indication, and then wind blows them over easily on your house, or worse, on your neighbor’s house. “Old shade” makes a home sell better, but if the old shade is close to the house, it will become a high-maintenance factor sooner or later, and generally sooner. As a rule of thumb, do not plant trees that grow large any closer than 30 feet from the house and farther than that on the side of the house from which storm winds usually blow—which is southwest to west throughout most of the United States. Or plant some trees closer and some farther away. Then, when the close ones become tall enough or old enough to present a hazard, take them out and rely on the ones farther away for shade.
There is another way to look at the problem, probably more sensible. An oak or any large shade tree known for its longevity in your climate is going to be a pretty safe risk even 20 feet from the house for at least its first 50 years unless a tornado happens by, in which case nothing is safe. Big trees that fall over and damage houses severely are usually very old, 75 years or more. The trees to worry about are fast-growing, short-lived ones, like Lombardy poplars (Populus nigra var. italica), which grow large enough before they keel over (in about 15 years) to do harm to the roof. Avoid anything advertised as fast growing, especially when low maintenance is your goal. Slow growing is much better. As a matter of fact, slow growing is often a matter of “compared to what?” Some supposedly slow- growing trees like white oak and blue spruce actually grow quite fast, especially in good soil. Black walnut will grow fast in a rich loam, slow in a poorer clay. Some trees appear to grow fast when young, then slower in middle age, although the opposite is actually the case. A tree with a diameter of 9 inches might put on an inch of trunk diameter in a year. A similar tree with an 18-inch diameter might add 1/2 inch in the same year. But the larger tree is adding a whole lot more circumference, a whole lot more board feet, and has a whole lot more leaves to make that growth possible.
Large versus Small Deciduous Trees
In deciding whether to plant large trees or small trees, you make trade-offs. Houses under a heavy shade of maple or even oak, or in one instance I know well, English walnut (Juglans regia, which casts a very heavy shade), are cool in summer, sometimes without air-conditioning at all, thus cutting down on that kind of maintenance. The owners feel that having to take down a tree or two in a lifetime in return for that shade is small payment indeed. In one case, the tree was a huge tulip poplar (Liriodendron tulipifera), which had stood for at least 60 years right next to the house. It was sawed up on the spot and the wood used to make furniture. This kind of arrangement is becoming common now that mobile band-saw sawmills have been invented. Nearly every community has someone offering this service. Formerly, sawmills would not take a yard tree for fear hardware in it would ruin costly blades. But a band-saw sawmill blade costs only about $20.
I think the real reason homeowners choose small trees rather than large ones is for variety in their landscape. A lot 50 by 100 feet will support two large shade trees or five small trees, without crowding. Close to the house, the small trees are practical not so much from a safety standpoint, but because they do not so quickly crowd against the house or obscure it from view or fill the gutters with leaves. (The high maintenance I endure from my white oaks around the house is cleaning out gutters. In spring, the gutters plug with catkins and in fall with leaves.) But small trees do not necessarily mean less maintenance, since it is possible to make much ado with planting, fertilizing, spraying, and pruning a small tree as much as with a large one. And you have in any event more trunks to dodge when you mow and more to trim around.
Small Tree Choices
In selecting small trees, the first rule is the same as for large ones. Choose trees native to your area or those with proven acclimatization. Take a walk along a wooded area or down an old grown-up fence row or roadside or simply down the street of an older suburb or city residential area. Excellent choices throughout the heartland of America are dogwood and redbud. Both stay relatively small, both bloom beautifully, both are relatively free of pest problems. They both prefer a woodsy soil, especially redbud, and rarely survive on subsoil left from bulldozed building sites or on beat-out farm soil.
Sassafras is a good choice for the eastern half of the country because it too has no serious disease or pest problems. Though it seldom receives much praise, sassafras is one of the most interesting trees horticulturally. The leaves are not all the same but of varying design. Hardly any tree turns a more gorgeous gold in the fall. The flowers are yellow and fragrant in spring. The fruits are blue, about the size of a large pea, and the fleshy stems that hold them a bright red. The wood is orange-yellow and interesting to use in woodworking. The root bark is used, of course, for sassafras tea and the making of delicious old-fashioned root beers. Sassafras can grow quite large, as is true of many of our native trees that we customarily see in only small size. The wood is somewhat brittle and should not be allowed to grow old close to a house. Sassafras spreads by shoots coming from the mother root, and if you cut down an established tree, a new sprout will invariably come up to take its place—a handy characteristic where you wish to keep a tree small to medium size.
Among non-native plants, mountain ash, with its bright orange berries that attract the cedar waxwings, is hardy and trouble-free. Japanese maple is trouble-free but not so hardy above zone 5 and sometimes freezes back in zone 5. (See the zone map later in this chapter.) Japanese snowbell (Styrax japonica) is very hardy, small, beautiful, and is given an A rating for yards by all landscapers.
Avoid white birch trees, as they are high maintenance. Their fragile trunk form, beautiful white bark, and absence of heavy leaf fall make them favorites around the house, but pests and diseases almost always take their toll before the tree is 12 years old, unless you spray routinely. The golden chain tree (Laburnum X watereri) is small and beautiful with its panicles of yellow flowers. It doesn’t require spraying but usually dies anyway in about 12 years.
Most domestic fruit trees are high maintenance, especially in humid regions. The closest thing we have to a trouble-free apple are the scab- immune varieties recently developed: Liberty and Freedom are the two latest and most highly touted. They can be grown successfully without any fungicidal sprays. This does not mean they will be free of insect damage, but in my experience, apples immune or highly resistant to scab, fire blight, cedar rust, and powdery mildew will produce enough good apples for family eating without any spraying. It is fungal diseases that are the big problem. You can make pies out of wormy apples, but nothing out of rotten ones.
Sour cherry trees are relatively low maintenance, but until they grow to at least medium size, the robins get all the fruit. You can screen small trees, but in my experience, it is easier to grow the larger, standard-size trees and let the birds have half the crop. You’ll get enough, and the birds clean up the rest, which controls the cherry fruit worm problems better than any spraying.
Most dwarfed fruit trees on dwarfing rootstock are high maintenance because the roots are weak and not well acclimated to many American soils. If you must have dwarfed trees, buy those that have standard root- stocks and a dwarfing inter-stem grafted between rootstock trunk below and varietal trunk above. Most nurseries now offer most varieties this way, or will custom-graft such trees for you.
The Seckle pear, an old variety with small juicy fruits, is a good low maintenance tree, being somewhat resistant to fire blight, the biggest problem with pears. Kieffer pear is another very old and very hardy pear that requires little care, if you don’t mind cleaning up the fallen fruits. The fruit is very hard until early winter and is best used for canning. As with apples, I prefer standard pear trees to dwarfed, because in my experience, in typical yard situations, dwarfed fruit trees do not grow with good vigor. I’d rather prune a standard tree to a smaller size if I have only several to care for.
But by far the best solution to high-maintenance fruit trees in the home orchard is to propagate trees from wild specimens found in your climate—trees that are producing good fruit without any care at all. You find these trees, particularly apple trees, along country roads, fence rows, woods, abandoned homesteads, or old orchards no longer cared for. I have written elsewhere and often about these trees, and as I gain in experience, my enthusiasm increases. If a tree has lived in the wild for many years, it has demonstrated proof of some immunity to scab and to insect problems. If the fruit tastes good (often it does not) you have found a treasure. Members of the North American Fruit Explorers (see address a bit later or in Appendix C) make a lifetime hobby of hunting wild fruit trees for good quality.
After all this has been said, I must add that a fruit tree that flourishes in a wild environment may not necessarily do well in a conventional orchard alongside disease-susceptible trees, where sprays kill beneficial bugs and fungi as well as harmful ones. The trick is to mimic the wild environment from which the wild tree comes as much as you can. A typical backyard with only one or two species of each fruit tree, mixed in with other trees, and where little or no spraying of toxic chemicals is done, and little or no heavy fertilizing practiced, mimics pretty satisfactorily that wild environment. (And of course lowers your maintenance work.) You will not get 100 percent perfect fruit like the conventional orchardist must strive for to stay solvent at the bank, but you will get plenty. My trans planted fence row trees produce about 70 percent undamaged fruit with no spraying. Yellow apples, Grimes Golden and Golden Delicious, do about 60 percent so long as there are no red cedar trees within a couple hundred yards. (The red cedar is a host for cedar rust, which infests apples, too, particularly yellow varieties.) A late apple like a Winesap does best of all—about 80 percent undamaged fruit.
For years I did spray my trees once—with dormant oil in early spring, since light petroleum oil is not dangerous to humans. But I could not see where this spray application was cutting down on insect damage. Scab, a fungal disease, seemed to be more virulent than ever. I formulated my own theory, which has no support from science as far as I know, but which seems to be true in my experience. Perhaps the oil spray was killing as many (or more) beneficial bugs than pest bugs, and perhaps it was killing natural fungal enemies of the scab fungus. So I quit spraying altogether and at the same time tore out the varieties most susceptible to scab: Red Delicious, MacIntosh, and the varieties developed from them. I also quit manuring heavily around the trees, which prompted them to grow too lushly from the influx of all that extra nitrogen. By the second year of such low-maintenance or no-maintenance practices, I began to harvest more apples than I ever had before, and scab subsided even though the weather was wetter than it had been in the preceding years.
The homeowner wishing fruit that need not be sprayed can grow persimmons, papaws, and mulberries. Selected, named, grafted varieties are better when available, but you have to search through nursery catalogs assiduously to find them. The best way is to subscribe to Pomona, the quarterly journal of the North American Fruit Explorers (write Robert Kurle, 10 South 055 Madison Street, Hinsdale, IL 60521), in which in formation continually appears on the availability of select varieties of these rather esoteric fruit trees, and many others.
In warm climates, citrus in the backyard environment is a fairly low-maintenance fruit to grow. But of course only where it is acclimated. Not even birds bother citrus very much.
Horticultural varieties developed from the native American hawthorn make excellent small low-maintenance yard trees, the fruit (usually red) hanging on into late fall and not messy like mulberries. Avoid ginkgo trees unless you are sure they are male (staminate). The fruit of the female ginkgo is messy where it drops and smells exactly like dog manure. Male ginkgoes are good no-maintenance trees because they are not bothered by pests or disease and endure city pollution well.
Native crab apples make decorative small yard trees. If the birds don’t eat all the little apples, or you don’t make sauce out of the rest, the fruit may have to be cleaned up, though this is not a hard job and if you are not a Superneat, not absolutely essential. The problem with crab apples is that those developed from European or Japanese origin, rather than native American, are apt to be susceptible to the same scab that affects apples. The leaves discolor in wet humid weather, wrinkle, turn brown-black and fall off. The tree, if very susceptible, will eventually die; spraying is not always a remedy. I have not been able to find a list of crabs, among the numerous hybrids, strains, and varieties, that are resistant to scab, and both trees I have grown succumbed to it. Serviceberry or shadbush (Amelanchier sp.) are trouble-free smallish trees in their native habitat. They have fruit good for pies and for birds. There is one species native to the mid-Appalachian region, and a bushier one in Canada south into Minnesota and Wisconsin, which has become known as the saskatoon or Juneberry and is now grown commercially. Where winters are mild, the franklinia tree (Gordonia alatamaha) and the sourwood (Oxydendrum arboreum) are small, beautiful, white-flowered trees good for yards.
Wild nut trees by and large are low-maintenance trees in their range. Hickories, black walnuts, and hazelnuts in the North, native pecans (not paper-shelled, commercial pecans) in the South and in central areas, and pine nuts in the West can be particularly rewarding with little maintenance work. If you are not interested in these trees for food, however, you will still have to clean up nuts from the ground occasionally.
A good way to determine the best low-maintenance bushes for your yard is the way I’ve already recommended for discovering the best low-maintenance trees: to drive through the countryside and learn what grows well where you live. Study especially abandoned farmsteads you pass or farmsteads that have been neglected or rented to people who have little interest in their landscape beyond mowing the lawn. What shrubs are still growing there? In our area, you would find lilac, a flowering red quince, perhaps a trumpet vine cascading its orange blossoms over an old post, a rose bush with small yellow blossoms, a rose of Sharon, a mock orange, maybe a weigela bush, sometimes an ancient wisteria vine climbing the windmill, surely a forsythia, and often a spirea.
These old-fashioned, common shrubs are old-fashioned and common because they endure without much maintenance, which should en dear them to landscapers. But what appears common to the eye appears less desirable and is therefore shunned by those who wish to establish themselves as top gardeners, or who simply suffer from the common human desire to have “something different.”
Objectively speaking, old-fashioned shrubs bloom or grow just as prettily as the New! Sensational! ones. If they were rare, they would be standards of beauty. That old yellow rose bush in the abandoned yard looks delightful after you have become jaded looking at fancy roses in an arboretum all day. And the rewards are great for being content with the commonplace. A fancy rose grower showed me through his collection one day, impressing me not only with the beauty of the flowers, but with the amount of work he did to keep them pretty. In addition to a spray schedule and a soil fertility program that would boggle Burbank, he painstakingly filled tar paper cylinders around each plant with peat moss every fall to guard against winterkill. And still some of the roses died back. “But look at this old red rambler,” he said at the end of the tour. “It blooms nice every year and I never do a thing to it.”
The same gentleman nodded towards his flowering crab and re marked that it was a “real bother” to keep it from growing too tall for his small yard and to keep suckers from growing thickly on the limbs. “But that mock orange gets about 7 feet tall and stays there without pruning, and it blooms just as nice as the crab.”
Lilac will eventually grow too tall for most yards without pruning. But growth of that size takes a long time, and pruning is not necessary every year.
Both upright and low-growing forms of yew make excellent low-care bushes (see discussion of same under small trees). They make good foundation plants on the shady side of the house, although in this situation they will need periodic pruning.
Korean boxwood, being much hardier than American or English boxwood is another evergreen bush that requires little work except an occasional pruning if you wish it to look formal.
In their natural range, laurel, rhododendron, and even azaleas require little care if the soil acidity meets their requirements, a pH of 5 to 5.5. Rhododendron and azaleas will sometimes grow in more neutral soil, but only with much maintenance. Although it is never mentioned as such, elderberry makes a nice landscaping bush with very fragrant blossoms in June. Its fruit is beloved by many bird species and makes distinctive jelly and pie. Elderberry spreads by suckering, but you can maintain a bush a long time with the lawn mower. Let it sucker out on one side and mow down the old plant after three to five years. Then when the new group of suckers has aged three to five years, let new suckers grow at the original site and mow down the aged group, moving back and forth indefinitely.
Skimmia (Skimmia japonica) is a very nice shrub for southern and coastal areas up to about as far north as New York City. It grows about 4 feet tall and stays there without pruning. It has fragrant white blooms and showy red berries.
In addition to the shrubs already mentioned, the following thrive without care and even under neglect:
• American hazelnut (Corylus americana). Hardy to zone 4 and parts of zone 3. No problems and good nuts to eat, too.
• Chokeberry (Aronia arbutifolia). Sports dense white to pink flowers. It has red fruit and stays 6 to 9 feet tall. It’s hardy to zone 5.
• Privet (Ligustrum sp.). Some privets are hardy only in the South or where winters are mild. But California privet is hardy in zone 4 and will survive freezing to the ground in zone 3. The privets, each in their range, are an excellent choice for low-maintenance hedges. Hedges, by definition, are not low maintenance, in that they require clipping periodically, but privet hedges are otherwise easy to keep growing.
• Saint-John’s-wort (the shrub, Hypericum aureum or H. frondosum). A small shrub to 3 feet, with interesting reddish bark.
• Spicebush (Lindera benzoin). Also called benjamin bush, has good autumn color. It draws birds and butterflies and is very hardy.
• Sweet gale (Myrica sp.). Pungently fragrant. Grows only to 4 feet. Very hardy. Caution: it suckers rather vigorously.
• Sweet pepper bush (Clethra alnifolia). Hardy to zone 4 but doesn’t like overly dry conditions. Fragrant white blossoms in midsummer.
• Viburnum—almost all species. Some tend to grow too tall for small lots.
• Witch hazel (Hamamelis virginiana). Good for shady places. It blooms very early in spring. To zone 5.
The other two plants that make fairly carefree hedges are yew in the upright bush hybrids, particularly Taxus Xmedia, var. hicksii, and buck- thorn (Rhamnus sp.) The former I’ve already described in this chapter. In hedges this yew does better than most plants because as the branches crowd each other, they do not kill each other because of lack of sunlight, as do many hedge plants that otherwise take shearing well. Buckthorn hedge plants are tall, slender bushes that grow densely enough so that clipping is not necessary. No disease or insect has harmed mine in years. The bushes tend to grow up too tall for hedging a small lot but are fine in the countryside. American holly also makes a low-care hedge where the soil is fairly acid and the winters fairly mild.
The following shrubs are low growing by nature and so require little pruning to keep them within prescribed bounds.
• Cotoneaster (Cotoneaster horizontalis and C. adpressa). Hardy to zone 4.
• Deutzia (D. gracius). Lots of flowers. Hardy to zone 5.
• Inkberry. This is a holly, hex glabra. This is a lovely old-fashioned shrub. Hardy to zone 3.
• Japanese holly. The variety flex crenata var. micro phylla, especially. Hardy to zone 4.
• Juniper (the low-growing forms). Hardy to zone 4 and warmer parts of zone 3.
• Kema (Ken-ia japonica). Will sometimes be frozen back in zone 5.
• Mahonia or Oregon holly grape (Mahonia aquifolium). Hardy to zone 5.
• Prostrate yews, e.g., Taxus baccata var. repandens.
• Snowberry (Symphoricarpos racemosus). Hardy to zone 3.
• Stephanandra (Stephanandra flexuosa or S. incisa). Related to spirea but does not grow as tall.
• Viburnum opulus var. nanum. A very dwarfed form of viburnum growing hardly 2 feet tall. I hesitate to advocate dwarfed forms of plants, even though they mean less pruning chores. In my experience, dwarf plants are not particularly vigorous and must be fussed with to keep them growing—not low maintenance. This one, which I have never seen nor grown, appears to be an exception. Hardy to zone 3.
• Winter jasmine (jasminum nuthlorum). Called winter jasmine be cause in the South it may bloom all year. Hardy to zone 4. In colder zones, flower buds may winter-kill, but the plant itself remains unharmed.
You can plant any of these in front of your picture window and not have to prune continually to keep them from blocking the view.
Pruning: Do as Little as You Can Get by With
Shearing or clipping a hedge is similar to giving a young man a butch haircut. (The idea is to get a smooth, dense surface.) But pruning shrubs is, or should be, another matter. Most of them are not meant to be clipped like a formal hedge, that is, all the branches cut off at the same height. Rather, older branches should be cut back at the base, to allow room for newer ones to grow vigorously. Don’t give your shrubs butch haircuts. Bushes that blossom on new growth in late spring or early summer should be pruned in very early spring or in late winter, Bushes that blossom on the preceding years growth should be pruned soon after blooming if the fruit or seeds are not desired. If desired, prune after harvest—late fall or winter, the idea being to prune off the branches that have borne fruit—if any pruning really is necessary.
From the standpoint of low maintenance, be assured that pruning a la the experts, is usually overdone, or done for reasons that need not concern a busy homeowner. Observe an old practical saying: “When there is no clear need to prune, don’t.”
I know of three instances when there is this clear need: (1) In transplanting, top growth should be cut back to match approximately the root growth. (2) Dead wood or branches can be pruned out for appearance’s sake, if nothing else. (3) Where a bush is definitely overcrowded with branches, older ones can be pruned out to rejuvenate the plant. But be aware that on a vigorous plant tending toward dense growth, pruning will encourage more lush water-sprout growth, so that by pruning a lot, you will make it necessary to prune still more.
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