Neil Sperry

Neil Sperry: These are the plants I can’t imagine landscaping without

A great garden in a small space

Jake and Sharyn Schaffer's patio garden in San Luis Obispo makes the most of the small landscaping space.
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Jake and Sharyn Schaffer's patio garden in San Luis Obispo makes the most of the small landscaping space.

Last week I probably lost a few friends by announcing a dozen plants I can’t see myself ever including in another one of my landscapes.

I explained why bald cypress, sweetgums, lacebark elms and fast-growing trees in general, Japanese ligustrums, redtip photinias, Indian hawthorns, pittosporums, gardenias, bamboo, roses (for now) and ornamental grasses (most types) aren’t going to tempt me again. The reasons varied from winter hardiness to diseases, invasiveness, poor adaptability and overall poor performance.

Then I promised to round out the discussion by listing those plants that are my own personal favorites in this week’s counterpoint. These are the plants that will form the backbone of any landscape I develop from here on out. These are the ones that have never let me down.

Shade trees

I put good looks, longevity, freedom from significant insect and disease issues and adaptability to soils and climate as the main considerations when I’m choosing my trees. When I combine all those factors into my considerations, I end up with nine outstanding large trees.

Four of my top choices of trees are oaks. In fact, they may be the top four. Live oak, Shumard red oak, chinquapin oak and bur oak are all native in or around the Metroplex and all are perfectly suited to area landscapes as long as you have ample room.

Pecans are our largest trees, and they’re excellent choices for large landscapes. The varieties Caddo, Kiowa and Desirable offer excellent yields as well as good shade trees.

Cedar elms are the very best of all elms. They’re oval trees with fine-textured leaves and twigs. Other than being favorite host plants of mistletoe, they have few problems.

Southern magnolias are excellent, although they’re slower growing than the other trees mentioned.

If you need a tall evergreen conifer, the only dependable one of the bunch is our native eastern redcedar juniper. Pines, Leyland cypress and Italian cypress are all extremely challenged here.

Small accent trees

Sometimes you want the look of a tree, but you don’t have the room to use one of those I just mentioned. You need something smaller.

Little Gem southern magnolia is our best mid-sized tree. If it’s too large, Teddy Bear magnolias are smaller still.

Golden raintrees, Mexican plums and redbuds are all good options, although their life expectancies aren’t nearly as long as those of the magnolias.

Large types of crape myrtles can be trained as multi-trunked trees, and they’re excellent small accent trees that can be expected to live for scores of years.

Screening shrubs

If you need tall shrubs for privacy and sound deadening, you might have leaned toward redtip photinias or Japanese ligustrums in past years, but as I mentioned last week, they’re taboo plants for us now.

Nellie R. Stevens hollies would be by far the better choice. If planted on 7- or 8-foot centers and not pruned to reduce height, they’ll grow to be 14 or 15 feet tall and 10 or 12 feet wide. If you need something smaller but with the same look and density, consider Willowleaf hollies. If you need something more upright, but still growing to 10 feet tall, use Oakland holly. Warren’s Red possumhaw holly is an excellent tall shrub. Although it’s deciduous, it covers itself with red fruit all winter long.

I’ve also used Ebbengi elaeagnus as a tall screen, although the hollies are my favored choice. Sea Green juniper works well, but it takes 8 or 10 years for it to grow tall enough to provide a good screen.

Mid-sized shrubs

Hollies are going to move to the top of this list as well. They’re just so downright dependable. Some people assume that all hollies are prickly, but that’s absolutely not the case. Fact is, we have prickly hollies on either side of our front entry and no one has complained about them in 35 years of having them there.

The shortest hollies I grow are dwarf yaupons (no spines at all), Carissa and dwarf Chinese. Each of these grows to be 24 to 30 inches tall and 30 to 36 inches wide without pruning. Dwarf Burford hollies grow to 4 or 5 feet in height and 3 to 4 feet wide, and they bear fruit reliably.

Italian jasmine is hard to find, but tough as a boot when it comes to durability. It’s an arching shrub with very dark green foliage and small yellow flowers in late winter and spring. I love this shrub.

Nandinas need to be in every landscape. My favorites are Nandina domestica ‘Compacta’ and Harbour Dwarf and the other low-growing types. Compacta is a slightly dwarf form of regular nandina. I keep mine at 36 inches by cutting the tallest canes back to the ground every January. It stays low and full. Harbour Dwarf, Flirt and Harbor Belle all grow to be 18 inches tall.


I have many types of groundcovers in our landscape, but the two I always rely on are purple wintercreeper euonymus for sun or shade and mondograss (a.k.a. monkeygrass or ophiopogon) for shade). Both are quick to cover, highly pest-resistant, completely winter-hardy and handsome. Liriope is the big sister to mondograss, and it’s another option if you need something taller.

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:

Some plants, like certain vegetables and tropical plants, need to move indoors for the winter or during a freeze. Others, including certain herbs, just need to be covered up. Find out how to best take care of your plants in 90 seconds.