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3 Plants That Struggle in Western Winters
(What NOT to Plant in Your Colorado Landscape)

by | Updated: Oct 28, 2022

What not to plant in Colorado: 3 trees and shrubs that struggle in Colorado winters

No one wants to end up with extra garden chores and sad-looking plants

But that’s what can happen if you accidentally pick plants that are known to struggle in Colorado landscapes — particularly during winter.

So, in this tip, you’ll get the scoop on 3 popular plants to AVOID planting in Colorado and similar western states. These plants can be high maintenance here. (Do you remember the TV show, “What Not to Wear?” Think of this article as: “What Not to Plant.”)

These 3 plants are very popular in other parts of the country, but they don’t like our winters. They tend to struggle in our:

  • Dry climate
  • Drying winter winds
  • Intense winter sun
  • Big temperature swings (from above freezing, to below freezing like a kindergarten seesaw)

You’ll probably see these plants at your garden center, so use this article to be a smarter shopper. Let’s dig in!

Boxwoods

Boxwoods are decorative shrubs.

They grow well in regions of the country with milder winters. It’s hard to open a garden magazine without seeing a lush, eastern garden that’s lined with boxwoods.

Boxwoods are examples of what not to plant in Colorado because they struggle in our winters.

Boxwoods are evergreen.

When they’re planted in a place where they’re happy, they typically stay green through the entire winter. I like to think of evergreen plants as staying “forever green.”

It also means they don’t go dormant (into hibernation mode), so it’s important to keep them regularly watered through the winter.

Want to learn more about winter watering? Colorado Springs Utilities and Colorado State University both have excellent tips.

Unfortunately, in western states like Colorado and Utah, boxwoods can be temperamental

During the winter, boxwood leaves have a tendency to dry out — often turning brown or orange.

Boxwoods that get afternoon sun are more vulnerable to winter burn, like these west facing boxwood shrubs.

You also may see translucent yellow leaves (like the leaves below in the upper left).

Western-facing boxwoods turning a brown color from winter burn.

You may hear this called “winter burn,” and it isn’t a pretty look.

When you see boxwoods at the garden center, they’re going to look lush, green and super cute. But save yourself the headaches and skip them!

“But I have my heart set on boxwoods!” In this case, head to a locally-owned garden center. Ask whether they carry types of boxwoods that have a better track record in states like Colorado and Utah.

You may have more luck if you plant boxwoods in sheltered places in your yard that face east, northeast or north.

And just know they’re likely going to need more work and water to keep them looking good.

Manhattan Euonymus
(pronounced: yoo-on-uh-muhs)

These plants are like super-sized boxwoods. When they’re green, they look good.

Manhattan euonymus can get winter burn, making them plants to avoid in Colorado.

But this is another shrub that can struggle in Colorado winters

You may be wondering, “Okay, so what does winter damage look like on a Manhattan euonymus?”

The leaves on your Manhattan euonymus will turn yellow. The may become brittle and dried out. The leaves will start dropping off.

As the dead leaves slowly fall off, it’s like bad New Year’s Eve confetti. You may find yourself raking up these leaves for months … and months … and months.

(I’m speaking from personal experience here. I used to have Manhattan euonymus in my yard.)

With good watering, you should get buds for new leaves when temperatures warm up, but it takes time.

When these shrubs get winter burn, they don’t look good for much of the year.

Manhattan Euonymous with winter damage known as winter burn or sun scald

If you want shrubs that stay consistently green through our yo-yo temperature swings during winter, this isn’t it. 🙂

Add Manhattan euonymus to your “What NOT to plant in Colorado and similar western states” list.

Arborvitaes
(pronounced: arbor-vie-tees)

Arborvitaes are trees and shrubs that are often used as hedges.

Arborvitaes struggle in our dry western winters and hard freezes.

They’re a popular landscape plant in humid regions of the country.

They grow quickly, and they’re evergreen. Again, this means typically stay green over the winter. They don’t go dormant.

But arborvitaes are another plant to avoid in Colorado landscapes

Arborvitaes like a lot of moisture, so they may struggle if you aren’t great about winter watering.

Not to mention, our drying winter winds and our harsh freezes can be brutal for them. You may see them turn brown — almost like a rust color.

Close up of arborvitae with winter burn

Some years, your arborvitaes may do fine and make it through the winter without an issue.

Other years?

Not so much.

Row of brown arborvitae trees with winter burn

If you want to save yourself some headaches (and avoid the expense of replacing dead plants), skip arborvitaes in your Colorado landscape.

So, does this mean you CAN’T plant any of these shrubs and trees?

Friends, the beauty of gardening is you can try planting (almost) anything.

You may be able to find a protected location in your yard where these plants are less vulnerable to winter damage.

But if you’re planning your landscape in Colorado, Utah or a similar western state, growing plants that are better adapted to our winters will take less effort!

Related tips that may interest you:

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Hey there, I'm Ann

I’m a Certified Colorado Gardener, published western garden writer and dog mama. I help flower gardeners in the intermountain west skip the “Why didn’t anyone tell me that phase?”, so they can get pretty results faster. More about Ann >>

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