Think of the countless homeowners who plant Pfitzer junipers (Juniperus chinensis ‘Pfitzeraiana’) in front of their living room windows, then shear them to a fraction of their normal size. That’s not fair to the plant, it’s unattractive, and it makes a lot of work for the gardener.
Similarly, junipers are planted along sidewalks and in parking lots (where they tenaciously hang on despite compacting foot traffic and scorching summer heat). Quickly outgrowing the space allotted, they’re pruned at the edge of the pavement, resulting in a wall of dead, brown branches.
I also dislike junipers because they’re horribly overused. When we first moved to Colorado, I quickly noticed that the majority of the yards we saw were planted with grass, rocks, and junipers. (If someone had gotten a bit more creative, you might see a Japanese Barberry or Shrubby Cinquefoil, or maybe a few petunias.) While I realize we suffer from a severe shortage of evergreen shrubs, surely junipers weren’t the only option!
I was so frustrated by the lack of alternatives that when I applied for Colorado Master Gardener training, I wrote on my application that I hoped enlighten the public about the many other plants would thrive here, despite the dual challenges of weather and soil.
(I should point out that in the 22 years since that time I have come to appreciate the many beautifully landscaped homes in town. It’s just that they’re still in the minority.)
Then one day I visited a local xeriscape demonstration garden and noticed a lovely carpet of feathery, steel-blue-green plants covering a large open space. As I took a closer look, I was surprised to realize they were junipers! The sign identified the plants as Juniper ‘Blue Chip’ (left), a readily available cultivar. I was intrigued.
Since that time, I’ve come to realize that the juniper, perhaps more than any other plant grown here, suffers from ignorance of the concept, “right plant, right place.” Given room to spread out, and left unpruned, junipers can be quite striking. Who would have thought?
The key here is “unpruned.” Unlike most shrubs, junipers lack dormant growth buds on older twigs and branches. As a result, severe pruning reveals an ugly mass of dead growth that will never look attractive.
There’s really no excuse for pruning a juniper. Plant breeders have created so many cultivars that you can find one to fit almost any space. How many other species are available as a groundcover, a spreading shrub, an upright shrub, or a tree? It’s up to us to learn the mature sizes and shapes of the little green plants we buy, and select one that won’t outgrow its place.
Junipers have a lot going for them besides variability. Some species are native to the western U.S., and will survive on ambient rainfall. They’re not fussy about soil, either. They handle heat and freezing cold with aplomb; some even turn an interesting plum color in freezing weather. Female plants produce edible blue berries, appreciated by both chefs and wildlife. No wonder so many people plant them!
Less than two weeks ago, my husband and I moved into a brand new house. At this point, our yard consists of mud, with not even a single weed or blade of grass. I’m excited about starting from scratch and building an attractive, water-saving landscape that will welcome birds and people.
However, in spite of their many assets, we will not be planting junipers. You see, both my husband and I are intensely allergic to their pollen. Of course, that’s not the plants’ fault either.