Neil Sperry

The garden of unreasonable expectations. It sounds like a Harry Potter book, but it's real

It's unreasonable to plant a redtip photinia beneath a window, for obvious reasons.
It's unreasonable to plant a redtip photinia beneath a window, for obvious reasons. Special to the Star-Telegram

I saw a greeting card once that so caught my eye that I bought all that they had. It said simply, “Life is Plan B.” It’s all about accepting where we are today and being willing to see reasonable expectations of where we might go from here.

I’m going to give you some of the questions I’ve been asked — ones that I felt were unreasonable. Then I’ll tell you how I tried to pare things back to manageable levels as I answered them.

“What are the best flowering shrubs to use across the front of my house?”

I’m a big fan of flowering shrubs.

Crape myrtles bloom several times over a period of four months in the summer. Forsythia and bridal wreath are lovely in spring. Flowering quince is stunning in late winter, but unattractive the rest of the year. Azaleas are evergreen, so they probably come as close as any, but they require heroic and expensive bed preparation prior to planting.

Most of these plants only bloom for a couple of weeks and then are not as attractive as you might want in a massed planting. My suggestion is always to use evergreen shrubs like hollies, nandinas, junipers and others as the backbone of your landscape, then use flowering shrubs as accents in strategic places, but not across the entire front of your house.

“How far back can I prune my redtip photinias? They’re blocking my windows.”

There is a basic problem here. If you’re having to prune any shrub to maintain its size, you’re eventually going to wear the shrub and yourself out. That shrub has a genetic predisposition to grow right back to that same height. Pruning is only short-term cosmetic relief. It’s probably time to consider a new, shorter plant. (Especially if you’re dealing with disease-prone redtip photinias.)

“I want to have a native plant xeriscape landscape. What suggestions do you have?”

How can you have a xeriscape landscape in a place that gets 40 inches of rain many years? It’s as simple as that. Those plants that are native to arid West Texas don’t grow here natively for one or more reasons, and waterlogged soils are a big one. We also get colder than much of Southwest Texas, where they originate. But to answer your question as best I can, you plant in full sun, on a slope in a raised-bed setting.

Prepare the soil so it will drain quickly after heavy rains. Choose your plants carefully to select those that are reliably winter-hardy, and keep things simple and manageable.

Remember that your landscape still needs to blend in with the rest of the neighborhood. If your main goal is to reduce water use, that part is easy. Your independent retail nurseryman can point you to plants that don’t guzzle, and you can limit the amount of bed space you develop, using mulches and decorative river rock to cover bare ground whenever you can.

If you want to grow plants from desert backgrounds, grow them in decorative pots so you can provide more tailored care.

“I’m tired of lawn care. What is a good ground cover that would be less maintenance?”

Are you ready for a surprise? The lowest-maintenance plant to serve as a ground cover, if it will grow there, will always be turfgrass. You can plant it on our native soil. You mow and maintain it with power equipment, and you can spray to kill or prevent most weeds that come into it.

Trailing or clumping ground covers, by comparison, have to be planted by hand into carefully prepared and rototilled garden soils. You hand-pull weeds that show up, and you use a line trimmer to groom them. I’m a strong advocate of including ground covers in landscapes, but not because they’re going to save work in their upkeep. Because that isn’t the case.

“Having to plant flowers two or three times a year costs too much and it’s too much work. I want to switch to perennials. How do I get started?”

Perennial flowers are fabulous, and every landscape ought to include them. But you don’t just plant perennials and forget them. They need to be dug and divided every two or three years. They have to be groomed and tidied. And all of that work has to be done by hand, often on your hands and knees. Don’t ever assume that perennials are less work than annuals. And remember that almost every perennial plant that you grow will have its prime time of color for only a couple of weeks.

Think about iris and daylilies. Think about daffodils and thrift. Two or three weeks each. That means that you’re going to have to have a steady stream of perennials blooming in your landscape to keep things colorful throughout the year. Annuals, by comparison, bloom for four or five months. Sure, you have to replace them a couple of times every year, but there’s a place for both types in your gardens.

“I want to go pesticide-free by using home remedies. Will they be effective?”

For all of my career I have insisted on research-driven information for products before I’d be willing to recommend them. Before you start spraying, you ought to be able to find instructions on the product label telling you what plants you can treat, what problems it will control, and also what to do if there is some kind of a mishap. You’re not going to find those on “home brews,” so you proceed at your own risk. It’s not a risk I’m willing to take.

There are plenty of fine organic and inorganic alternatives that have been properly tested and labeled.

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: