Beware the House-Eating Bushes!

What looked cute and cuddly at first may end up monsters.

I'm not here to point fingers. All homeowners do it. We move into a new home and immediately plant bushes on the front and sides to show pride in our new acquisition. They start out as two-, three-, or five-gallon plants that look so cute and orderly and we can't wait for them to grow and fill in. They do so much quicker than we notice or expect. Ten years down the line, each cute little shrub is the size of a Stegosaurus.

How did this happen? I mean, we did trim the bushes a bit every year! Yes, but every time we did, we left them a little bit bigger than the year before. Then one year we took that trip of a lifetime and didn't trim at all. The next year the hedge trimmers broke. Then the washing machine line burst and flooded the basement. By the time we realized what had happened, that four-foot arborvitae planted at the front corner had lifted the window to the upstairs bedroom and crawled inside.

House covered by shrubs and bushes
Getty Images

Repeat Offenders

Grumpy's strolls through the neighborhood have revealed many of the plants likely to swallow the house if planted too closely. Check this list to see if any name rings a bell at your house.

Holly (Ilex sp.). Holly has to be the most commonly used plant for up against the house, at least where it's cold-hardy. There are many different kinds and most get YUGE unless you prune them a couple of times a year. I'm talking about 30 feet tall and 15 feet wide. You really want that in front of your bay window and satellite dish?

American arborvitae (Thuja occidentalis). In many parts of the country, this is the go-to conifer for every corner of the house. If you consider your house is your castle, arborvitae is a great way to make it look like one. It grows narrow and upright, like castle spires, but never stops, reaching 40 feet tall. People in one place I used to live invariably planted them under the eaves of the house. As soon as the trees reached the gutters, they'd lean out to get around them until they were nearly growing diagonally – at which point a heavy, wet snow descended on them and smashed them flat to the ground. One selection, 'Emerald,' tops out at about 15 feet. Plant that one, if you must.

Leyland cypress (X Cupressocyparis leylandii) and 'Green Giant' Western red cedar (Thuja plicata 'Green Giant'). These two conical to pyramidal conifers have one legitimate use in the average garden and it's not anywhere near the house. It's forming a tall, fast-growing, evergreen screen near property lines for privacy. Left unchecked, they can grow more than three feet a year to an ultimate size of 60 feet tall and 20 feet wide. Plant them next to the house? Only if you live at Biltmore.

Crepe myrtle (Lagerstroemia indica). Planting a crepe myrtle near the front door or living room windows is de rigueur in almost every Southern neighborhood. The summer flowers are just so pretty. Unfortunately, the mature size listed on the tag often understates the height by 30 to 50 percent. Grumpy himself was victimized this way. The tag for the one I planted to the side of my front steps listed a mature height of 15 feet. Right. This tree is now more than 30 feet tall. The trunks are beautiful because I pruned them perfectly as you'd expect, but the branches drop flowers and leaves on the porch for months. This is why so many people practice crepe murder. The takeaway – plant crepe myrtles out in the yard, not near the house.

Privet (Ligustrum sp.). I'll be up front with you on this. Some privets are popular for hedging up north, but I've never met a privet I can stand. They grow too big, they grow too fast, they need too much pruning, they're weedy, and the pollen from their flowers causes widespread allergies. If you live in the Hamptons and treasure afternoon tea and biscuits between your privet hedges, more power to you. Elsewhere, change their botanical name from Ligustrum to Disgustum.

Chinese fringe (Loropetalum chinense). Known widely as simply "the purple bush," Chinese fringe pairs burgundy-red, evergreen foliage with showy pink or red spring flowers. It's tough, fast, easy to grow, and takes pruning well. But there are about as many different selections as fish in the sea and some get to be enormous – 20 feet tall and wide. Every time I see a neophyte setting out Chinese fringe beneath low windows, I cringe. Do yourself a favor and look for smaller growing kinds, such as 'Purple Diamond,' 'Red Diamond,' and 'Purple Daydream.'

Solutions for Overgrown Bushes

Once you've determined a plant is too big for its spot, you have three options – move it, replace it with something more appropriate, or cut that sucker down.

Moving it will be hard because it will be big. That's why you're moving it. Choosing this option means waiting until the cooler months and having a place for it to go. And you'll need professional help. Forget this option. It ain't worth the coin and trouble.

Replacing it with something better will require professional help too, but at least you'll be rid of that ugly thing you've grown to hate and can instead enjoy something you'll grow to love.

Cutting that sucker down might be the end of it if you're dealing with a conifer (needleleaf evergreen). Once you cut below the lowest green needles, it won't grow back. Broadleaf evergreens are different beasts. Most will grow back from the roots. You can either keep the resulting plant under control by pruning or digging up the roots and replacing it. Cut a big crepe myrtle to the ground and it will send up dozens of root suckers as far as 20 feet away forever. To prevent this horror, treat the cut stump immediately with Bioadvanced Brush Killer according to label directions.

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  1. Missouri Botanical Garden. Ilex opaca.

  2. NC State Extension. Thuja occidentalis (American arborvitae).

  3. NC State Extension. Thuja 'Green Giant'.

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