Neil Sperry

Compromise sometimes necessary in gardening

People come to me with their shopping lists. They’re looking for just the right plant for a place at their house, yet it quickly becomes obvious that their expectations far exceed my ability to deliver good options. I’ll address several of those requests here, and tell you how I’ve approached them.

“Neil, I need a good, fast-growing shade tree. I need shade and I don’t want to wait.”

Those terms are mutually exclusive. Fast-growing tree species all have one or more fatal flaws that make them very poor landscaping investments. Most have life expectancies of fewer than 25 years.

You’re much better advised to choose a tree that’s beautiful, adapted, pest-resistant and that grows at a moderate rate of speed. Oaks, for example, don’t grow nearly as slowly as many people think, especially if you give them good care and attention, particularly water and fertilizer. They’ll live for 100 to 250 years with far fewer problems.

“Neil, what’s the best grass to grow under our big trees? I’ve tried several types and they haven’t survived.”

I always confirm that people have at least tried St. Augustine once. It’s our most shade-tolerant turf grass, and even if it failed, we have our answer: There isn’t enough sunlight to grow grass in that place. It’s time to switch to a shade-proof ground cover, such as mondograss (also known as monkeygrass — not a true grass you can mow), Asian jasmine, purple wintercreeper or others.

It’s at this point that many start to argue. “Well, my neighbor has grass under her trees.” “The trees’ roots are just soaking up all the water and nutrients. I can compensate for that.” “I’ll have the trees thinned. Again.” And from my almost 50 years of answering this question and watching the results, I know, to use the old Hank Snow song title, they’re headed 90 Miles An Hour Down a Dead-end Street. Excessive shade is the issue.

“Neil, I want a landscape using only native plants. What are the best ones for me to consider?”

Some of our very best shade trees for North Texas are native here. Live oak, Shumard red oak, chinquapin oak and bur oak, also cedar elm and pecan. So you can certainly find great shade trees for your native plant landscape.

The bigger problem comes in finding truly native shrubs. “Native” to a purist means growing natively very near to the site, not imported from some other part of the world (or even some other part of Texas) where conditions may be similar. We have very few shrubs native to North Central Texas that would make attractive landscaping specimens.

Even if you expand the list to include all of Texas, it’s still going to be rather short. Texas sage doesn’t handle our winters and rainy years well this far north and east in the state. Agarita is very prickly. Yaupon holly and possumhaw holly are both great, but both are too large for use as small shrubs.

My suggestion, oft-repeated right here, is that “adapted” is a far more useable term. It doesn’t matter nearly as much where a plant calls home as long as it will thrive in your landscape.

“Neil, I’m doing a foundation planting for my house. I really like color, and I’d like to use a lot of flowering shrubs. Which would you recommend?”

Almost all flowering shrubs bloom one time each year, and that’s usually for two or three weeks maximum. Crape myrtles, Texas sage and the re-blooming azalea selections are just about it. Plus, most of the other flowering shrubs are deciduous and would not make good groupings in front of your house for five winter months.

While there’s a place for flowering shrubs, you probably should choose dependable evergreens for the bulk of your planting and leave the shrubs to smaller accenting places.

“Neil, I need to redo my landscape. I really don’t want to use hollies because I don’t like their spines. What else could you suggest?”

That’s like saying to Willie Nelson, “I like your music, but do you have anything without guitars?” Hollies make up probably 80 percent of my own landscape. I have 34 types, and most do not have threatening spines. Some have fruit. Some do not. Some grow to 2 feet tall, and others grow to 22 feet tall. All are good in sun or shade, and all of the ones that I have are well-suited to alkaline soils. So please don’t turn away from hollies entirely.

Other good shrubs would include nandinas, abelias, elaeagnus, low junipers, mahonias (shade only), Oakleaf hydrangeas (shade only) and some of the viburnums (morning sun only). And of course, crape myrtles in all their different mature heights.

“Neil, I’m tired of having to plant annuals. I want to set out perennials to lighten my workload. Which are the best?”

Almost all perennials bloom one time per year and for two or three weeks (or less). Plus, all the work you do in an established perennial bed must be done by hand. That’s because types that flower in spring must be dug and divided in fall, and vice versa. You never get a second chance to rework the soil by means of a rototiller.

This is not to discourage you from growing perennials, but merely to let you know what you’re getting into. Annuals that are colorful for four or five months between plantings may suddenly seem like a better idea than before.

Neil Sperry hosts “Texas Gardening” from 8 to 10 a.m. Sundays on WBAP/820 AM. Reach him during those hours at 800-288-9227. Online: http://neilsperry.com.

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