Q: We are planning a simple landscape for our school’s playground. It is enclosed by a four foot high chain-link fence and we want to hide the “institutional” look. The site is pretty bright, under the shade of tall pine trees. What would you plant?
A: My first recommendation is what ^not^ to plant. Never plant Chinese holly (the one with the needle-point leaves) where school children can reach them. Speaking from personal experience, you will have no end of trouble policing the natural inclination of kids to torment each other with spiny leaves. I also recommend against plants from which long “switches” can be broken. Trust me. With the Gateway, ITBS, COGAT and CRT tests troubling their brains, children should not have to worry about pint-sized pests grabbing ammunition willy-nilly from the school yard.
Junipers are tough but would do better in full sunshine. Red tip photinia is out of the question. I am bored by the commonplace Japanese hollies and ligustrum, though they are easy to find and care for. How can we expect kids to be creative when we surround them with bland?
You want shrubs that can thrive in the heat and take care of themselves. My candidates include any of the several loropetalum varieties (bright pink flowers in March), anise (leaves smell like licorice) and fragrant osmanthus (sweet perfume in October). Oakleaf hydrangea has big white flowers in May and nice red leaves in fall. I am very partial to chastetree due to the lavender flower spikes that adorn it in August. You could try an ornamental grass like miscanthus but someone (probably you) will have to chop off the brown leaves every February.
This isn’t the greatest time to plant shrubs since summer drought is not far off. If you simply must plant now, devise a soaker hose system that can remain in place under the shrub mulch throughout the summer. You’ll need to give the plants a good soaking (one hour at least) every three days for three weeks after planting. In late June you can cut back the regimen to one deep watering per week.
I know that planting and maintaining a school landscape is a thankless task. Volunteers, though, are the soul of a community and you are to be commended for setting an example for others to follow.