Midwest: Private Arboretum

Kansas City, Missouri, Zone 5

This is strictly unofficial, but my garden has become an arboretum—a one-sixth-acre collection of small trees and shrubs suitable for a tough climate and a tight spot. I suppose there is a limit to how many trees and shrubs a gardener can respectably plant on an urban lot, but I’m trying to ignore it.

When I moved to Kansas City from New Orleans a dozen years ago, I thought I had moved too far north for boxwoods (Buxus spp.). Brooding yews are the evergreen of choice here on the windy edge of the prairie. Bright winter sun and bitter winds make growing box difficult here, but in the past 10 years widely available hardy culti-vars have made boxwoods a better proposition in this part of the country. Spring is the time to plant them.

Experienced midwestern gardeners stick to hybrid boxwoods, which are less susceptible to sunscald and desiccating winter winds than B. semper-virens, common box. My ‘Green Velvet’ (B. sinica van insularis x B. sempervirens), a fine, shaggy boxwood hybridized in Canada and hardy to USDA Zone 5a, is among my favorites. It grows only imperceptibly, and will never spread beyond three feet tall and wide, but it is as steadfast as the little tin soldier. ‘Green Mountain’, which has a naturally pyramidal form and may eventually reach five feet tall, is another handsome hybrid, also hardy to Zone 5a. I recently crossed my fingers and planted B. sempervirens ‘Graham Blandy’ (Zone 5), a skinny, columnar boxwood that grows to nine feet tall by about one foot wide in the South. I am ambitious for it, but I have to be reasonable: in this harsh climate, ‘Graham Blandy’ may only attain the stature of the three-foot fence post I planted it next to.

In the backyard I also harbor a perfect little jewel of an elm, Ulmus xhollandica ‘Jacqueline Hillier’ (Zone 5b). The elm’s tiny leaves, about the size of a thumbnail, are so crowded on the branches that the tree resembles an extremely showy, wind-tossed fern. It has grown steadily to a formidable five feet tall, and I’m told to expect a mature height of six feet.

I am partial to trees and shrubs in the witch hazel family, including fothergillas, spring-blooming shrubs happy in the dappled light under a canopy of tall trees. I have planted F. major ‘Mt. Airy’ (Zones 4-8) in an informal mixed hedge with hybrid witch hazels, a small tulip magnolia (M. xloebneri ‘Leonard Messel’), and four boxwoods. Fothergilla gardenii ‘Blue Mist’ (Zones 5-9) is a little tender; I have it in a slightly more protected spot in a bed nearby. The fothergillas bloom in April, with the daffodils. Their irresistible bottlebrush flowers smell like honey and tickle your nose.

Last fall I planted a promising little fringe tree (Chionanthus virginicus; Zones 4-9) in an undulating line of shrubs along the back fence. It will eventually be 15 feet tall, filling in nicely between a big redbud and the neighbor’s gregarious Magnolia xsoulangeana in the corner over the compost heap.

Worth Growing: Hepatica acutiloba
Cheerful constellations of tiny flowers emerge from the dormant crowns of Hepatica acutiloba (Zones 3-8) in early spring. The blooms may be blue or white, and they last a good two weeks. These charming native plants thrive in moist woodlands. As the flowers fade, tender new leaves with fuzzy, silvery edges unfurl. 

To Do in the Garden: Spring

  • Although it’s not really necessary, I like to deadhead my daffodils. They bloom for almost two months, and if you snip off the flowers as they fade, the garden always looks fresh.

  • Roses usually start to leaf out in April; remove the mulch around them when night temperatures stay above freezing. Prune winter-damaged canes, cutting just above a strong leafbud. A dab of Elmer’s glue over each cut protects the stems from boring wasps.

  • Sow nasturtium seeds in the garden now. The seeds germinate in about 10 days, and stand up well to spring’s fickle weather.

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