It’s hard to figure why anyone would plant redtip photinias beneath first-floor windows. Their full mature height is 20 feet! (It’s hard to figure why anyone would plant redtip photinias anywhere, owing to their extreme vulnerability to a fatal leafspot disease, but that’s a topic for another meeting.) Big plants beneath low windows? Not this guy. That’s a recipe for sweaty blisters as you spend much of the rest of your life shearing, shaping and swearing.Or, coming into the picture from the much less traveled logical side, why don’t we use plants that grow small and stay small when we’re landscaping small spaces? What a novel plan. Why, it might even free us to spend more time with the family or out planting flowers, since our beds won’t be overrun with sprawling, unappreciative shrubs.All of this makes way too much sense. Our lots are much smaller now than they were even 30 years ago. Our landscapes, in many cases, are a quarter the size they were when we were kids. Big plants create big problems, so as you landscape (or re-landscape) your estate gardens, make the conscious shift over to plant types that won’t require much pruning. Tam junipers are a mix between groundcovers and very low shrubs. They’re deep green and evergreen. They grow to 18 inches tall and several feet wide, so they’ll need to be planted several to a bed, and must have full sun. Liriope and aspidistra (cast iron plant) are two other groundcover plants that can play the parts of very low shrubs, just because of how they grow. Both of these do best in shade; in fact, aspidistra must have it.“Harbour Dwarf,” “Harbor Belle” and “Flirt” dwarf nandinas are great little shrublets that bridge between tall groundcovers and very low shrubs. They all look like regular nandinas, but they stay ultra-compact. They color up beautifully in full sun, but they’re also quite functional in shade. Trim out any tall canes as needed, and you can easily maintain them at 16 to 18 inches tall.One final tall groundcover that might substitute as a low shrub is dwarf rosemary. It grows to 15 inches tall and 24 inches wide. It’s not as winter-hardy as you might want it to be if you’re planting more than a few, but in a sunny, protected spot, it’s really pretty (and great for cooking). Dwarf yaupon holly is the shortest of our true woody shrubs. They can be maintained at 24 inches tall and 30 inches wide with very rare shearing, perhaps only once annually — late each winter. They’re great in sun or shade, and they’re almost immune to insect and disease problems. They have no spines, and their tiny leaves give them very fine texture. That’s an asset if you’re using them in front of mid-size shrubs with bolder foliage. Carissa holly has become a common star of Texas border plantings. It grows to 30 inches tall and 36 inches wide, and it’s an excellent choice for partial shade to mostly sun. It does not handle hot, reflective spots, and it struggles when it gets too dry. Carissa has comparatively large leaves, making it an ideal replacement for Indian hawthorns now that they’re succumbing to the same leaf spot as the photinias.Somewhere in here we need to talk about boxwoods. They grow to 36 to 42 inches tall and 36 inches wide, but they’re usually trimmed to shorter heights, often as low as 18 inches tall. They’re best in sun or part sun, and you’ll want to choose a type known not to turn brown or bronze in the winter. Look for names like “Wintergreen” or “Green Velvet,” etc. Dwarf abelias fit in about here. There are several types, and most of them grow to 30 to 36 inches tall and slightly wider. They’re somewhat arching in their habit, and they cover themselves with small bell-shaped white or pink flowers. Variegated selections are also common. If used in moderation, they can add a nice touch to a small part of the landscape.Next taller in the stack would be compact nandina ( Nandina domestica “Compacta”). When it was introduced 50 years ago, this one was noteworthy because it stayed shorter than its old-fashioned mama. Now, we have other shorter types, but this is still my personal favorite. I prune the tallest canes (half of them) in my beds to the ground late each winter. They send out new canes from the ground, and the planting looks great all year.And our final entry falls to dwarf Burford holly. It’s an old favorite that’s still commonly used. While it grows to 48 inches tall and 42 inches wide if left unpruned, it is usually kept more compact by infrequent trims. I prefer only to reshape mine in late winter, before the burst of new growth in the spring, but you can trim them formally if that’s your goal. Sun or shade. Nice large red berries all winter. Deep green, evergreen foliage. This plant has it all going.
Neil Sperry publishes “Gardens” magazine and hosts “Texas Gardening” from 8 to 11 a.m. Sundays on WBAP AM/FM. Reach him during those hours at 800-288-9227 or 214-787-1820.