When gardeners go to a nursery and ask, “What shrubs can I plant that don’t require pruning?” they are bound to get a wide variety of responses. Some shrubs are best left unpruned because pruning reduces the number of flowers. Other shrubs simply look best left in natural state. And then there are some shrubs that just have a naturally compact, slow-growing habit that eliminates the need for regular pruning. These are ideal choices for small areas or for those folks who just don’t want to spend a lot of time on garden maintenance.
Here is a sampling of low-maintenance shrubs that rarely require pruning:
Azaleas and Rhododendrons
This is perhaps the largest group of shrubs that are typically left unpruned. Azaleas and rhododendrons (Rhododendron spp.) naturally have an elegant, compact shape. They can end up looking butchered when pruned plus, the more you prune them, the fewer flowers there will be next year. Rhododendrons have large, glossier leaves than azaleas and are almost always evergreen. Rhododendrons are best in cool climates. Azaleas thrive in warm climates and have smaller leaves that may be deciduous or evergreen. Both come in a wide variety of sizes and colors. Be sure to choose one that fits the space you have so you won’t be tempted to prune them! USDA zones 5 to 9.
In addition to the familiar white-flowering dogwood trees, there are several outstanding shrub-size dogwoods (Cornus spp.) that are known for their colorful bark, including red and yellow twig dogwoods. These are varieties of native dogwood that are useful in naturalized woodland gardens where they can cover a lot of ground and provide habitat for birds. They could be pruned, but that would go against their wild, rambling nature. Plant them where they have room to spread and enjoy their four-season beauty. USDA zones 2 to 8.
Like dwarf Japanese cedar, Daphne (Daphne odora) naturally has a round, compact shape. And like rhododendrons and azaleas, it flowers less the more it is pruned. Daphne’s pinkish white flowers are a show stopper when they appear in mid to late winter and fill the neighborhood with their ethereal fragrance. Use it as a low evergreen hedge in a shade garden and as a well-behaved potted shrub outside your door during its bloom time. USDA zones 7 to 9.
Bog Rosemary, Marsh Andromeda
Bog rosemary (Andromeda polifolia) is a charming, well-mannered shrub found naturally in damp, marshy areas. Its common name reflects its moist, native habitat and its fine, narrow foliage that resembles the leaves of the rosemary plant (the two plants are not related). Bog rosemary is tolerant of locations that only get about four hours of direct sun per day making it a perfect choice for shady borders and woodland gardens. Rarely growing taller than two feet, it’s also a good selection for small-space gardens. From late spring into early summer you can expect the shrub to be covered with dainty pink flowers that look like little lanterns. Plant bog rosemary near broad-leaved plants such as hosta, coral bells or Lenten rose to create a beautiful contrast of foliage textures. USDA zones 2-6.
Dwarf Heavenly Bamboo
Despite its common name, nandina (Nandina domestica ‘Compacta’) is not a true bamboo. Its foliage texture and growth habit are just similar to bamboo. The dwarf version of this shrub grows into a compact mound – just two to three feet high – that is ideal for small spaces or growing in a container. The evergreen foliage emerges bright green and turns to brilliant red in the autumn. Some varieties have red-tinged leaves year-round and bring terrific color to the landscape even without big, showy flowers. USDA zones 6-11.
So the next time you are adding to your landscape and looking for low maintenance, yet beautiful shrubs consider one of these five options and enjoy!