Five questions to ask about that shrub mustache at the front of your house

You say you can’t see out of the front windows any more because the shrubs have grown too tall or you’re constantly trimming branches that create spooky sounds by brushing the house when the wind blows.

It may be time for a “tough love” approach to your foundation plantings for a successful low maintenance aging-in-place garden.

One component of your landscape is likely to be the shrubs and trees that were installed by the builder. The same planting may be installed as a set of shrubs along the foundation at the front of all the houses on the street, or across the entire subdivision. Why do they do this?

It’s the "big box store" approach to landscapes. The developer negotiated a good price for plants that cost substantially less if a large quantity of fast-growing plants are purchased.

When they were first planted, this shrub grouping looked like a small green mustache across the front of the house. And in some areas, the homeowners association even writes into the agreements that these mustaches are required, specifying the list of plants to use.

But is having a landscape that looks like every other landscape on your street beneficial to you as you age in place?

Are the shrubs the right ones for their location? Those shrubs that looked right for a new house in a narrow front flowerbed may struggle to reach their mature size with adequate space for their natural  pleasing proportions.

Overgrown crape myrtle looking for sunlight May 2015

Overgrown crape myrtle looking for sunlight May 2015

Shrubs also age. Their lifespan is shorter than trees, though you can extend it with careful pruning. But it’s OK to say goodbye and replace a shrub with one better suited for its location and your needs.

Here’s how to evaluate that shrub mustache.

  • Are the shrubs well-shaped, not grasping for light?
  • Are the shrubs healthy, with leaves the correct color?
  • Are the shrubs still vigorous, putting out adequate leaves, flowers, and berries in season?
  • Are the shrubs attractive from outside the house?
  • Are the shrubs adding to your view from inside the house?

If the answer to any of these questions is no, think about whether to replace or rehabilitate one or all of the shrubs. Substantial restoration can often be done with overgrown shrubs. Some will spring back from drastic cutting within 12 inches of the ground. Others need pick-pruning, only cutting back a portion of the shrub deeply each year for 3 or 4 years, until the entire shrub is restored. But if the plant is desperate for light because its home is now shaded by those trees that started as small sticks in the yard, it’s time to remove the shrub and find one that likes shade.

And think about whether that shrub mustache is still the right option for a planting bed. Your aging-in-place garden should be delightful for you, not the homeowners association. It should provide you sensory delight in every location in your yard. It should connect you with nature, de-stress you, and help you keep your memory strong. If that shrub mustache requires constant work and doesn’t provide you with Nature’s Vitamin N, it’s time for a change.