Flower Gardening

Low Maintenance Shrubs Under Five Feet Tall

By Jean Starr


It happens to gardeners of every level, most of them claiming, “It looked so cute and tiny when it was at the nursery.” Overplanting can occur when too much is planted, but it also happens when the ultimate size of a plant is under-estimated.

Whatever the cause, you know it’s time to take things in hand when:

  • you need a machete to get down a path that was visible just a few months ago
  • the cute little shrub that was supposed to grow four feet high is now closer to six feet
  • dwarf plants aspired to giant proportions while you weren’t looking
  • you’re missing several perennials you know you planted earlier in the year

If you’re designing your own landscape, make sure your paths are wide enough. A minimum of three feet might seem excessive before the plants grow, but any narrower than that and you’ll have to wade through foliage by July. To avoid overgrowth, plant low-growing plants near the path’s edge, with gradually taller plants away from the path.

Ultimate heights shown on plant labels are estimates, and can vary for reasons linked to less than ideal growing conditions. Plants that call for full sun will stretch if planted in shade.

If you’ve purchased a plant labeled “dwarf”, the label often shows its growth rate, not its ultimate height. In the case of evergreen shrubs or trees, the rate of growth determines its category, and ultimate height listed on a tag is after 10 years. For example, according to the American Conifer Society, conifers considered “dwarf” grow one to six inches per year and reach between one to six feet at 10 years. It will continue to grow beyond six feet after that.

Gardens always have open spaces in April. It’s one of the reasons spring is a great time to add plants. I have lost several plants to overcrowding. A low-growing perennial might survive a season or two when left to its own devices among stronger, taller growers. But if it’s not visible by June, it probably isn’t thriving. Exceptions are plants that go dormant when the weather warms up, including Virginia bluebells (Mertensia virginica), and bleeding heart (Lamprocapnos spectabilis). Other spring bloomers like coral bells (Heuchera), and Epimedium, need their space.

We all know there is no such thing as a “no maintenance” garden. But we can strive for lower maintenance. I’ll keep my perennials, annuals, and tropical for their colorful personalities, but I’ll be adding more shrubs that remain under five feet tall and wide in order to send the maintenance level just a couple of steps toward the low side. Some will require a bit of pruning to look their best, but knowing when is half the battle. A rule of thumb for spring-blooming shrubs is to prune them-if necessary-right after blooming. I’m listing half a dozen shrubs that I’ve been growing already and can recommend for fitting into the lower maintenance slot.

Related Videos

Growing Trees and Shrubs from Cuttings and Seedlings
Growing Trees and Shrubs from Cuttings and Seedlings
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Pruning: The Tools and Techniques for Success
Pruning: The Tools and Techniques for Success
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