It was my job as a kid in junior high to trim our privet hedges every Friday evening. Without those hedge trimmers and my sweat equity, they would have been 10 feet tall.
I enjoyed grooming our landscape, but I do have to confess that I found myself wondering why anyone would plant 10-foot shrubs and then punish them by whacking them back to 42 inches every seven days.
That is why we’re having this meeting. We’re going to figure out a better way, so that your kids and grandkids won’t have to do all that trimming. Heaven forbid that they’d go outside and do actual yard work! (I actually am chuckling as I type that.)
Here are shrubs that will grow to the height that we need and then stop. I have a list of my favorite plants that stay at 4 feet and shorter, generally from shorter to taller.
▪ Tam junipers. These have a hard time deciding whether they’re ground covers or shrubs. Either way, they’re handsome evergreens that grow to 18 inches tall and several feet wide. Full sun.
▪ Liriope. There are several types of this lovely tall bordering plant. I really prefer them to the ornamental grasses because they’re boldly evergreen. I’ve been especially happy with giant liriope. It grows to 15 to 18 inches tall and produces spikes of lavender blooms each summer. Part sun or shade.
▪ Dwarf nandinas, specifically Harbour Dwarf, Harbor Belle and Flirt. These all have foliage that looks like true nandinas, but the plants stay at 15 to 20 inches tall. I trim out the canes that shoot up beyond the rest of the planting by cutting them completely to the ground. They’re green in the summer and plum-red in the winter. Sun or part sun.
▪ Dwarf yaupon holly. This fine-textured shrub grows to 24 to 30 inches tall and 30 to 36 inches wide. It has no spines, but it also does not produce fruit in the winter. Sun or shade. No major insect or disease issues.
▪ Carissa holly. This larger-leafed holly is the ideal replacement for Indian hawthorn when the latter plant succumbs to Entomosporium fungal leaf spot (which it will). Carissas have one lone spine at the end of each leaf, but it’s rather prickly, so plant them accordingly. However, many of us have it along sidewalks and have had no particular issues with it. It does not bear fruit. Mature size: 30 inches tall and 36 inches wide.
▪ Dwarf Chinese holly. This grows to the same size as Carissa, but it has far more spines. It’s well suited to full sun, and it does equally well in shade, although it will become somewhat more open in its growth habit. It is not seen in nurseries as commonly now as it once was. Many of us have moved past a fear of its spines and have found it to be an outstanding low shrub, especially out in the landscape. I have it near our home’s front door and have never had a complaint from anyone who was stuck by its leaves. It does produce fruit, but my plants did so only after they reached 35 years of age.
▪ Japanese boxwood. These can be kept at 36 to 42 inches with regular pruning, but when buying, specify one of the types such as Green Beauty, which holds its dark green color all winter. Original Japanese boxwood turns an unattractive bronze in cold weather.
▪ Dwarf abelias. There are several selections of these on the market. Some are brightly variegated, but my experience with them has been that they are not nearly as strong growing as the green forms. That’s not surprising, but I offer it only as a warning that you shouldn’t use them to excess. The dwarf green types like Sherwood are excellent for small groupings.
▪ Compact nandina. I love this shrub. It was introduced decades ago, but it’s still one of the finest. At least for me, it holds its foliage color better in our alkaline soils that Gulfstream and Moonbay. I trim my plants by cutting the tallest half of their canes completely to the ground every January. The plants remain full and compact at 24 to 32 inches in height. It does equally well in sun or part sun.
▪ Dwarf Burford holly. This deep green evergreen actually grows to 5 or 6 feet tall given enough years, but it’s easy to maintain it at less than 4 feet with occasional pruning. It grows equally well in sun or shade, and all plants produce multitudes of large, bright red berries each winter. It’s one of our all-time finest landscaping shrubs for North Texas.
Two colorful shrubs that may be conspicuous by their absence in my list are barberries and fringeflowers (loropetalums). As much as I want to include each of them for the brilliant leaves they bring to their surroundings, I just can’t recommend them for large-scale plantings.
Dwarf barberries like Crimson Pygmy and others struggle with our intense sun, high temperatures and alkaline soils, and with lace bugs that suck the color from their leaves. Dwarf loropetalums, in my repeated experiences in growing them, don’t hold up to our alkaline soils, and they, too, suffer damage from lace bugs each summer.