Shrubs are a major element in just about any landscape design, but knowing how they fit into the overall garden scheme and having knowledge of shrubs beyond the handful of traditional go-to’s is key. In this post, we’re going to take a closer look at the wonderful world of shrubs and how to break out of the “same-old, same-old” shrub selection rut.
It’s important to remember that every landscape design can be broken down into five essential layers that can help you plan your work and make better decisions about what to plant and where. The shrub niche is number three in the layering system and it’s a large one. It spans a broad height range that enables you to expand your shrub pallet beyond the usual rhododendrons, azaleas, and boxwoods that we see so often in a typical residential landscape. However, because there are so many choices that can be made, it can be a little overwhelming.
When you’re choosing shrubs, think first about the plant’s function in your landscape before you choose for aesthetics. For example, if you need something to provide year-round coverage, that’s where you start your selection process. If your goal is to create a pop of color, that’s something else entirely. And if you’re intent on using only native species, that will help you narrow down your focus even more.
Once you’ve determined functionality, you’re ready to begin narrowing your choices down even more based on your knowledge of what will work best in your environment, not just on what you see walking through the nursery.
Whenever choosing to purchase a shrub that’s new to you, consider researching it beyond the nursery tag. An excellent way to do that is to check with your local land grant university or a botanical garden in your planting zone. Many of them have useful online resources. I regularly use the Missouri Botanical Garden online plant finder. They post more accurate, in-depth information about the plant’s features, benefits, and problems. This is important because the information on those little tags attached to shrubs can be misleading. It’s well worth doing a little digging on your own and taking the time to understand the information you find.
Ask questions. For example, is a particular shrub prunable? This can be important because many shrubs will outgrow the area in which they’re planted. Take Spirea, for example: this shrub can be pruned vigorously and rebound nicely even when trimmed by a novice. However, a Viburnum will not accept major pruning by an untrained hand very well and can become easily deformed. Any shrub that is labeled “useful as a hedge” is prunable. A little bit of knowledge like that can go a long way.
Syringa meyeri 'Palibin'
Every designer has their preferred plant palette. While that’s totally okay, I think it’s also important to stretch a little bit. It’s really interesting to me how so many new landscapes sport the same “go-to” standard shrubs over and over again when there are so many interesting options available.
You know the ones I’m talking about: boxwoods and yews for evergreens… rhododendrons and azaleas for flowering shrubs that hold their leaves through winter… hydrangeas and roses for “wow factor” flowers.
Don’t get me wrong, I use them all, yet there are so many other shrubs from which to choose that also offer beautiful textures, flowers, fragrances, and even berries. Why not consider some of these lesser-known varieties for that spot in your landscape that needs a boost?
Deutzia gracilis 'Nikko'
Seasonal color pop - some of my top faves for flowers and fragrance:
Native species (Northeast region) - Our local Land Grant school is the University of Massachusetts, which publishes a New England List of Native Shrubs. Some other research sites include the National Wildlife Federation (beta) to select shrubs by area, and the Audubon Society to pick plants that attract different types of birds.
I’ve provided a number of resource links in this post to help you learn more about shrub choices and selection. There are certainly a number of other resources you can find online and in your community. I strongly encourage you to spend a little time getting more familiar with shrubs and their potential so you can make the best, informed decision for your landscape.
Whatever you do, don’t worry about making a mistake. That comes with the territory as you try different things. Remember, if you follow the layering system and employ structural considerations in your shrub selection, it’s going to take about three years for your shrubs to settle in (acclimation) and stabilize (establishment) in your particular landscape environment. That means you won’t know for a while if a specific shrub is in a good place or if it needs to be moved. Planting shrubs is an exercise in eco-balancing – finding a plant that fits well in the place where you want it without needing extraordinary care to help it stay there. Mistakes may be made but I guarantee there will be fewer mistakes if you do the research that I’m suggesting.
Accept that any garden and planting is a living work-in-progress. There are always constraints that have to be accommodated, such as space, light or water limitations along with many other considerations. We are almost always working with finite space in the residential landscape. You simply won’t find plants that “fit” perfectly which is one of the reasons why pruning is so important. You should learn how to do it well yourself or hire a professional to do it for you.
If you’re able to make good, informed decisions about shrubs before you even purchase them and definitely before you plant them, you’ll enjoy a beautiful garden year-round that will minimize maintenance needs and maximize pleasure and satisfaction. If you would like to learn about plant selection beyond shrubs, consider downloading the ebook "Demystify Your Landscape: Picking Plants."