Carolyn Singer: Suitable shrubs for the site |

Carolyn Singer: Suitable shrubs for the site

Sweet olive (Osmanthus fragrans) fits into smaller spaces.
Photo by Carolyn Singer |

As I turned a corner to enter a narrow Nevada City side street recently, I was momentarily distracted by a planting of English laurel (Prunus laurocerasus). A common shrub, but this particular landscape was not where it belonged.

The evergreen laurel had been planted atop and just behind a very tall wall. I could only imagine what a challenge this would present for maintenance in the years ahead. English laurel grows quickly, reaching a height of thirty or more feet and a spread of half the height.

Pruning this choice on the driveway side could be done, but once the hedge filled in, there would be no access to the street side of the laurel. Maintenance requirements must be one of the primary factors considered in selecting any plant for a landscape.

How much better it would be to select plants that fit the space and reduce or even eliminate costly pruning in the years ahead.

Osmanthus is one of my favorite choices. Deer-resistant, water-efficient and evergreen, Osmanthus fragrans (fragrant sweet olive) has the winning attribute of fragrant flowers in late winter and sometimes in fall. It will tolerate light shade and is upright in growth habit with an eight- to 10-foot height and a six- to eight-foot spread. Mature plants that are growing in fertile soil with regular irrigation may grow larger.

I have also been growing holly-leaf Osmanthus (O. heterophyllus). It has been growing slowly for years in my garden, with the same density and sweet flowers as the fragrant sweet olive. An excellent shrub choice for a hedge in deer country.

Where deer are not a problem, Italian buckthorn (Rhamnus alaternus) is a good choice. Upright in growth habit, the buckthorn is evergreen and water-efficient, needing no irrigation once established. It grows very quickly, with dense growth to 12- to 15-foot height and width.

Pineapple guava (Feijoia sellowiana) is a beautiful evergreen with edible flowers and fruit. Deer may browse on young plants. Height and spread are determined by early training. Choice of form is really up to the gardener when the pineapple guava is young.

It may be pruned and trained as a shrub, a small tree or even espaliered. Full sun is the best exposure for this South American native, and best growth habit is with regular irrigation.

Where space allows, hedges may be developed as hedgerows. A variety of plants may be grown in close proximity. The historical hedgerows in Great Britain were highly maintained plantings designed to define properties and even enclose livestock. Careful attention was given to weaving branches together and pruning for maximum density. This was a high maintenance hedge.

In my vision of a modified hedgerow, evergreen and deciduous plants both have a role. One primary goal is to attract as much wildlife as possible, from beneficial insects to birds. Another goal is to keep maintenance at a minimum. Seasonal changes with flowers and leaf color may add drama and fragrance.

Many plants achieve these goals: common lilac, spring-blooming Japanese flowering quince, Spiraea, native Ceanothus and even native roses. Each one has a preferred amount of space it needs to maximize its beauty and minimize future maintenance. Do your homework and plan in advance for perfect placement of each chosen selection.

The taller forms of Spiraea mature to an eight-foot height. While deciduous, most leaf out early in spring. The display of white flowers in March or April is stunning. A Nevada City residence on a street corner just west of Pioneer Park has a hedge of Spiraea thunbergii. This particular cultivar holds its leaves into December, a delicate display of fall color. Within weeks of winter storms blowing off the last of the foliage, the fine branches begin a display of tiny white flowers. By March the hedge glows with masses of white blossoms.

Fall is the ideal planting season for these shrubs (and for any landscape plant). Clay soils remain warm for weeks before chilly winter days and nights move us into the dormant season. Even rootbound plants that have been in a container will do well planted in fall. Planning now for fall planting gives you enough time to make wise choices.

Carolyn has gardened organically in Nevada County since 1977. She is the author of the award-winning “The Seasoned Gardener, 5 decades of sustainable and practical garden wisdom,” and two volumes of “Deer in My Garden” (deer-resistant plants), available locally. Send your gardening questions and comments to Check out her website at

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