This past summer I had a great opportunity to prevent one of my pet-peeve landscape design mishaps from taking place. I was at the house warming party of a young couple that I have known for years. This was their first home purchase and like many first home buyers, they have great plans of many things to update and remodel, inside and out. One of their friends introduced them to a designer with lots of personality but very little real-world experience – especially when it comes to landscape design and plant selection and placement.
When my friends excitedly produced the blueprint of their new landscape design and asked for my opinion, I found myself biting my tongue. It became very apparent to me that their designer had little plant knowledge and had specified quite a number of native species trees and shrubs along with some older cultivated varieties. Perhaps this would have been a good design if city lots were the size that they were 50 or 60 years ago, but not these days. My friend’s tiny lot would have been over grown by large, wild growing plants that in no time would engulf the property, house and all.
Thinking how I might diplomatically make my friends aware of the potential problems with the design (which as a design was quite nice, just spec’d with inappropriate plants) I asked, “Is it your desire to live in a dark, shady forest?”
My suntanned host replied, “What do you mean, Ed? I love the sun – I can’t wait to have a nice garden to lie out in and soak up all the rays!”
“Hmmm… You might want to reconsider some of the plants in this design, it will take about ten to fifteen years, but you’ll be pretty much shaded and crowded out using these plants. I could make some more suitable plant suggestions using this design if you like.” And I proceeded to pencil in some of my favorite dwarf and miniature conifers to replace the fast-growing and high maintenance plants on the list.
One of the first plants I suggested replacing was the “Mugho” pine (Pinus mugo var. mughus) in the design. There were several that seemed to be placed willy-nilly around the garden and in some of the most inappropriate places. 50 years ago, “Mughos” were used fairly commonly as a “dwarf” pine. You’ve probably seen them as unsightly, hacked pines in parking lots, along sidewalks or any number of places that a cheap, dwarf plant might be desired. Unfortunately, they generally are anything but dwarf and in a span of a few years outgrow their intended space (and aesthetic usefulness).
Being seedling grown, Pinus mugo var. mughus will produce plants of entirely unreliable growth rate and form. These plants, if still grown by wholesale nurseries, will be heavily sheared to create the illusion of uniform compact plants that will look so cute in the garden. Then, when planted in the landscape, unless the regular regimen of shearing continues, the plants will quickly become overgrown (and in some cases, quite unsightly.) That is why excellent, reliably compact and low maintenance cultivated variants have been selected, propagated and have begun to enter the market in the past 20 years or so.
These new and improved cultivars are true dwarf and miniatures that will require very little care, are extremely hardy, and will not surprise you with unexpected growth habits. Quality growers will know their plant’s characteristics very well and provide accurate information in their catalogs, websites and on the plant tags.
I chose to suggest three groupings of three different cultivars of Pinus mugo for my friends to replace the designer’s poor choice. True, I could have suggested any number of other conifers, but, in my best diplomatic behavior, I thought it best not to change the plant specifications too drastically. After all, the three cultivars I chose are really great plants and using my suggestions will not adversely affect the nature of the original artist’s intention.
Pinus mugo ‘Mops’ is a delightful, globe-shaped dwarf pine. Hardy into Zone 2, ‘Mops’ will grow almost anywhere in North America. It has dark green foliage and a compact form that will never require shearing to create or maintain its neat and tidy form. In thirty to forty years, it may be six or seven feet in diameter and just about as tall appearing almost like a perfect sphere buried half way into the ground.
Pinus mugo ‘Sherwood Compact’ has a little more character with its somewhat irregular form. Still considered globe-shaped, ‘Sherwood Compact’s unique form adds a pleasant texture to the garden. Its dwarf growth rate and Zone 2 hardiness make it another winner for my friend’s new garden.
Pinus mugo ‘Slowmound’ is a newcomer that has increased in popularity rather quickly. This absolutely reliable dwarf mounding pine will slowly create a green mound. Placing three in a group can have a similar effect in that garden as a cluster of small boulders – except that these living rocks will increase in size about an inch or two every year.
When compared to the “Mugho” pine in the original design and its unreliable growth rate that will undoubtedly exceed six inches per year, my mugo selections will provide many more years of worry-free enjoyment for my novice gardening friends.