Landscape challenges grow as North Texas yards get smaller. Here are tips for gardeners

Urban landscapes have changed a lot during my time in office. At the risk of sounding like an old guy (which I admittedly am), it took me two hours to mow each of my seven yards for which I contracted back in my teen years in College Station. I won’t even mention how little I charged, because what I want to address here is how landscapes have evolved, and how our challenges have grown larger as our landscapes have become many times smaller.

Our choices in shade trees are shifting. For most of my career I’ve been content to recommend seven large shade trees for most Texas landscapes: Shumard red oak, live oak, Chinquapin oak, bur oak, cedar elm, pecan, and Chinese pistachio. But those are all very large trees when they mature, and they’ll crowd in on houses and utilities.

We’ve adapted by starting to plant mid-sized trees, but the list is much shorter. Little Gem southern magnolias are the best of the bunch. Other good candidates include redbuds, Mexican plums, golden raintrees, tall types of crape myrtles, and (if you’re willing to wait on their slower growth) ginkgos. These are all very nice trees, but they don’t give nearly as much shade because of their reduced size.

I’ve never lived under the jurisdiction of a homeowners’ association, but from all the questions I’ve been asked and the comments I’ve heard, I know they can be a bit rigid.

A friend lives where the HOA required two trees in every front yard, yet his family is at the end of the street in a cul-de-sac. That means that their front yard is even smaller than those down the street. That meant that the two live oaks put in by his builder were a preposterous choice in the first place. Fact is, even one live oak was too much. It’s about 35 feet from their front door to the street and live oaks have a 60- or 70-foot wingspan once they’re grown.

Luckily my friend was able to replace the two live oaks with one cedar elm (a more upright-oval grower) and nobody cited him. St. Augustine is now happily growing beneath it.

Some of the other neighbors, whose live oaks are reaching two-thirds full size and they have no grass beneath them. They’ve had to switch over to shade-tolerant groundcovers like mondograss, liriope, English ivy, or purple wintercreeper euonymus. HOAs would do well to involve a professional horticulturist in their rule-setting decisions.

If you’re looking for privacy plants to isolate your backyard from the neighbors, your best bets would be some of the intermediate hollies. Willowleaf hollies grow to eight to 10 feet tall and seven to eight feet wide. Oakland hollies are a bit more deliberate, but they’ll grow to the same height, but six or seven feet wide. If you want something taller, consider Nellie R. Stevens hollies. If they’re not pruned to be kept shorter they’ll grow to 15 to 18 feet tall and 12 to 14 feet wide. All of these are good in sun or shade.

For a compact evergreen tree to use for your privacy, one of the dwarf magnolias would be good. Teddy Bear southern magnolias have normal-sized leaves and flowers on trees that will top out at 16 to 18 feet Little Gem magnolias grow to be 30 to 35 feet tall, and 20 feet wide, but they are upright-oval, so they don’t eat up a lot of yard space. The fact that they’re evergreens helps with the privacy all year long. Even Nellie R. Stevens hollies and yaupon hollies can be trained tree-form for use as accent trees or privacy screens.

If you enjoy colorful foliage and flowers over the course of the year, but you don’t want to tie up valuable yard space, plant that color in pots. Choose large decorative containers that will blend harmoniously into your landscape. Fill them with a good potting soil and choose a nice assortment of well-adapted flowering and foliar plants. Choose wall brackets, hooks and hanging baskets to maximize the plantings around you. Use water-soluble and timed-release fertilizers to keep everything coming along vigorously.

If you’re going to be planting vegetables in the next week or two, choose your crops wisely. If space in your modern urban garden is limited, stick with small to mid-sized crops. Avoid the space-gobblers such as melons, okra and sweet corn. (The plants of melons and okra are large, and you must have a large block of corn to ensure full pollination of the ears.)

There has been a theory over the past 10 to 20 years of cutting back on the amount of turf we have in our landscapes. It’s been an effort to reduce our consumption of water, and that certainly makes good sense. However, before you convert totally to hardscape and groundcovers, consider the option of shrinking the amount of lawn area without completely removing it. Turf gives you recreational space, plus it’s very effective at reducing glare and cooling your house. And, truth be known, we probably over-water our lawns anyway.