Replacing a Landscape plant


Hello. Currently, we have a type of pine tree (can you identify the variety?) in our front yard (west-facing) landscape. It does not get much rain as it is mostly covered by the eavestrough and gets sunlight in the afternoon. It is a small space- maybe 1.5-2 m in length and 3/4 of a metre wide. Beside it is the exhaust valve for the dryer (which may be able to be turned away).

The plant is over 25 years old and we would like to remove it as the back side of it is dead and it has overgrown its location. We are looking for another plant that could be put there that won’t cause a mess as it is right next to the garage door entrance. Something that would look good with the front landscaping which has an umbrella tree, two other pines, some coral bells and a hosta. Any suggestions would be greatly appreciated! We know that living environment- low rain, afternoon sun, and not a lot of space makes the options limited. Preferrably- anything with some colour? We live in Toronto.


Hello and thankyou for involving Toronto Master Gardeners in your plant replacement and design plans.

Your current plant looks more like a dwarf Alberta Spruce than a pine, although it is challenging to identify trees from photos. Dwarf Alberta Spruce ( Picea glauca ‘Conica’) grows to a height of 3-4 metres ( 10-13 feet) so perhaps you have kept your tree well trimmed or it is not a spruce. Consider taking a few photos and a branch of your evergreen to your local nursery where someone may be able to identify it more precisely.

If your tree has worked well for you in difficult conditions for 25 years, you could just replace it with another. It would be a good idea to divert the dryer exhaust away from any plant you put in that location. As well, give it some nutrition and since most plants like moist soil, do water a new plant at least until it gets established. Conifers needles continue to respire all winter, so they appreciate being watered well in the days and weeks leading up to frost.

But if you are ready for something new, consider some of the following questions:

Function: What do you want to achieve? For example:

Privacy: Would you ever sit out on the porch as many people are now doing ? Would you want your tree/shrub to provide shade? Do you want to see and be seen? Or do you want your front door and porch to be hidden from the street? By putting window boxes planted with colourful annuals on your railing, you could get that colour you are seeking. Or do you want your new plant to fill in and soften that space? Your answers will help you decide between dense greenery such as you have ,or something looser or taller but sweeping , or perhaps even shorter. Your railings are well suited to support a climbing vine.

No mess: If you want an evergreen, you won’t want the berries and cones , which will limit your options, but deciduous plants have falling leaves to rake up.

Welcoming plant : Many people love to come home to a nice relaxing scented plant at the front door. Others don’t want the insects that might come with scents.

Overall character:
Form: What shape would complement your house? Round? Tall? Short? Upright and taller than what you have now but slimmer, possibly pyramidal? Weeping/ Pendulous? Sweeping? Shaggy for a relaxed look? Clipped for a formal look (this would take regular work)? Do you want a modern architectural look with symmetrical straight lines? Or do you want to soften the front of your house with volume or asymmetry? Do you want a ”statement plant”? Or just lovely greenery or a spot of colour?

Colour: What colours look best with your house? What colours will complement your other plantings? You mention coral bells and hosta but there is a wide variety of colour in these plants.

Winter interest: An evergreen has worked for you in the past, and they do have the advantage of year round colour and texture.

Horticultural considerations:
Conditions: Toronto is in Canadian Hardiness zone 6 , tending to zone 7(a) .But you may have a microclimate that is even warmer and dryer, given the hot afternoon sun that reflects off the white brick , the beach stones, the concrete brick surround and the sidewalk , the lack of water and the hot air dryer vent. Drought tolerant, sun loving plants are available, but your microclimate limits your choices. Ironically, sunscald is worse in winter because the sun is lower in the sky and reaches further into the plant. It will be important for anything you plant, to water well until freeze- up to build up resilience to winter sun, especially for the first year or two until it is established. Even plants that tolerate poor soil, enjoy the addition of some compost each spring.

Scale: Be aware of mature plant dimensions, i.e., both height and horizontal spread, so that your new plant does not outgrow the space. You do not want to have to prune severely to keep your hand railing clear, as this could result in distorting the plant shape, not to mention the unnecessary work. Keep in mind that as a general rule, roots take up the same space underground as does the foliage above ground, a consideration when planting so close to a house. Yet, shallow roots generally do not do well in dry heat so perhaps you might consider a native plant, as these generally, have deeper roots that let them thrive in local conditions with little or no maintenance at all. LEAF ( Local Enhancement and Appreciation of Forests at ) is a non-profit organization that teaches people about trees and shrubs. Their on-line guidelines and information about native trees and shrubs are excellent. Whatever you choose will probably be a dwarf variety or miniature evergreen.

Cedars (‘Cedrus’) look great and are soft to the touch, a consideration next to a railing or where hands carrying grocery bags might brush it .But they need lots of water so other soft touch evergreens would be preferable.

False Cypress ( ‘Chamaecyparis‘) is an evergreen with compact and dwarf varieties but requires medium moisture. Columnar ones such as ‘Erecta’ are tall and narrow. ‘Gracilis’ is pyramidal and grows to 7 or 8 feet tall. ‘Nana Gracilis’ grows slowly to 4 feet. ‘Golden Mop’ is low growing(2’) but sprawling (4’), likes sun and could train up your wall. It is considered low maintenance.

Arborvitae (Arborvitae occidentalis) comes in pyramidal, round, and weeping shapes and are good if you want a tall vertical evergreen. Dwarf varieties include ‘Woodwardii’ or globe arborvitae (round and very slowly growing to 8 feet but easily kept as low as 3 feet. They need medium moist soil.

Yews (Taxus) are often thought of as shade plants but many like sun. The needles feel soft rather than prickly ,a nice feature near a handrail and walkway. Growth habits vary widely from short and rounded to tall and columnar. ‘Densa’ grows to about 4 feet but can spread. No other evergreen responds to sheering so well as a yew, so you could experiment with a relaxed look and later (but not too much later), clip it more geometrically if you find that you want something more dense and formal looking. These also need medium moisture levels. It would be remiss not to mention that the seeds which protrude from the berries are toxic. Yew berries add a pop of red each fall and do not make much of a mess when they fall.

Barberry (‘Berberis’ ) is easy to grow in most soils and is drought and smog tolerant but is thorny.

Junipers (‘Juniperus communis’)are good sun loving, space-saving evergreens for small gardens. They are hardy, aromatic, and drought resistant. In fact, they like being dry and rarely need feeding. This group may be your best bet although they can be prickly, and some have berries (poisonous if you eat them in large quantities) that look great but might be too messy for your requirements. There is a lot of variety in shape , foliage texture and colour. You would probably want an upright juniper. Consider, for example, Chinese Juniper (Juniperus chinensis) ‘Fairview’ , and J. virginiana ‘Manhattan Blue’. J.chinensus x pfizeriana ‘Pfitzeriana Compacta’ is a dwarf form that grows about 4 ‘ tall with equal spread.
Medora Juniper ( Juniperus scopulorum ‘Medora’), sometimes called “Colorado Redcedar”, reaches about 10 feet with a 3 foot spread. It is drought tolerant, narrowly upright, a columnar pyramid shape with soft textured needle- like powder blue foliage all year long and has blue berries . Said to be excellent for difficult garden situations , it is also quite low maintenance. It grows at a slow rate and under ideal conditions can be expected to live for 70 years or more. It is also a native North American plant and tolerates the urban environment.

Russian sage (‘Perovskia atriplicifolia’) loves heat and sun,is drought tolerant, grows to about 5 feet tall with 4 foot spread, has a loose growth habit ,a lovely scent and gives a very attractive long lasting pop of purplish blue . However ,bees like it too.

Vines and Grasses:
A nice modern look now is to plant vines below the level of your brick surround to fill up that entire enclosure resulting in a nice green oasis with no weeding to do because the weeds have been crowded out. Your brick surround is tall enough to accommodate Virginia Creeper (‘Parthenocissus quinquefolia ‘) which grows quickly and loves sun. Though it can be invasive (so we don’t normally recommend it ), in your garden it would be well contained and could even be trained up the brick to soften the whole front . A reasonably priced option with wonderful fall colour and the added bonus that it is a native plant with shallow roots ..a consideration when planting close to a house.

Would you consider planting ornamental grasses ? Some of them can look fabulous all winter . Some are invasive but yours would be well contained. Many grasses need water so enquire about a drought tolerant one.

As for coordinating with the rest of your landscaping (and house), there may be apps that will do this electronically now, but another option is to take a photo of your garden , then physically lay on top of the photo, an image of the plant under consideration. Many things like focal points , texture variety , colour variety can be assessed this way. Remember, if you like the effect, it is a good design decision. Of course, scale cannot be determined in this way so be sure to try to imagine size of the plant at maturity (both height and spread) and how that will fit into your overall scheme. Coral bells and hosta are low to the ground so should not affect the overall scale, but your pine trees and umbrella tree have more presence and you will want your new plant to complement them. Do try the photograph technique!

Thankyou for contacting us . There is a lot to consider but take your time.Your current plant is still allright if not thriving , the nurseries will soon be fully open after Covid and hopefully, well stocked .You can visit them in person or on-line and have fun learning about your own preferences.

June 28, 2021