How to use Shrubs in the Garden

The term shrub is applied to those plants whose aboveground growth is woody and enduring but whose stature does not qualify them as trees. You may draw the line pretty much where you choose, but our definition says that a tree has a distinct trunk and is more than 12ft tall. Any other woody plant is, by default, a shrub (excluding woody vines of course). Sadly, shrubs are often selected by default as well. On a bright spring morning, the eager gardener arrives at his neighborhood nursery to find the entryway choked with imported Rhododendrons ablaze in premature color. An hour later, he finds himself struggling with three sodden burlap balls while trying to figure out what to do with $90 worth of Rhodos. The result is predictably disappointing and will, if the plants survive, produce an increasing reproach for years to come. It is, then, the first principle of shrubmanship to recognize that shrubs are vigorous and long-lived plants, difficult to move and practically impossible to “shape” to the wrong location once established. By implication, their selection and location must be undertaken with care and foresight, referring to reliable references and, when possible, viewing established plantings with the same healthy curiosity you took to the first meeting with your spouse’s parents.

This cautious approach should not, however, deter one from enjoying a wide variety of shrubs with great success. There are sizes and shapes and colors to suit every taste and situation, with literally thousands of species and varieties in widespread use. Like perennials, shrubs offer diverse sorts of blooms and varying foliage effects, but they present these features on the generally more prominent scale provided by their woody skeletons. That, however, is just the start of the fun, for many shrubs provide rich fragrance, or some splendid autumn color, or handsome fruit, or attractive twigs, and other decorations for the winter scene. While it is certainly true that the majority of flowering shrubs bloom between the first of April and the first of July, it’s a mistake to dismiss their value at other times of the year.

The best way to select shrubs for your garden is properly to understand their use. Start with the premise that shrubs are generally transitional plants in a landscape. By that, we mean that they are not large-scale design elements such as houses, trees, and ponds, nor are they always small enough to be blended in large numbers within the spaces defined by the major elements. In fact, this intermediate status makes them the ideal way of relating the larger and smaller elements, bridging, if you will, the difference in scale between a Peony and a portico. Because of their many ornamental qualities, shrubs can be effectively used in ways that range from the passive evergreen hedge to the joyous crescendo of an Azalea border in May. But they are most effective when their situation makes use of their scale while showing off their virtues. In decorators’ terms, they are the lacquer screen, the bookshelves, and the end tables of the room, always in keeping but not always the key element.

A shrub will, of course, remain where you put it for a good many years and will be increasing its size for a goodly portion of that time. Obviously, you must be satisfied that a permanent presence will be welcome in that spot. Does its mature size conflict with traffic patterns, sight lines, or adjoining plantings? Will its bloom, form, foliage, or cultural requirements complement the other elements that share the space in question? Does it, in short, belong in this location? More often than not, your instincts will be correct if you have paid attention to the facts. Remember that you should begin by selecting a plant whose basic qualities are pleasing to your taste, regardless of the situation. Having done this, the odds are heavily in your favor.

The process of combining shrubs is no more complicated than planning your outfit for the day. Working with components you like, it is possible to create combinations of color and form that express your taste while enhancing the entire space. Match the foliage of a golden Caryopteris with the deep hues of a dark-leaved Sambucus, combine the deep red flowers of a Weigela with the glossy foliage of surrounding Ilex (Holly), or blend the arching boughs of the purple-leaf Weigela with neat clumps of Rhododendron yakushimanum.

Christopher Lloyd, a gifted British gardener, produced marvelous effects by introducing shrubs into the perennial border, enlarging the scale and diversity of the planting while extending its performance. Your motives can be as simple as the perfume of Lilacs at your bedroom window or as complicated as the partitioning of a large expanse into a series of smaller spaces. If you approach the project with intelligence, making sure of your dimensions and selecting your plants with care, shrubs will enrich your property in ways that their ephemeral herbaceous cousins can never do. If, on the other hand, you elect simply to line up the Japanese Yews along your foundation, you will find no encouragement here.

Now to basics. With rare exceptions, shrubs prefer to be planted in moderately rich, well-drained soil in a site that receives at least a half-day of full sun. This rule applies to evergreen and deciduous varieties alike. In circumstances where one is planting a small specimen of a variety that will eventually grow large, it is desirable to supplement the ultimate design with additional plants and bulbs to fill the space. This sound advice is usually perceived as a sales pitch by the nurseryman, but it is true, for the scarce commodity in making a garden is time, not money. Once properly planted, the care of shrubs is generally minimal. Flowering varieties will generally produce more bloom if they are deadheaded (removing spent flowers before they form seed, which also eliminates fruit formation), and many varieties will profit from regular pruning that complements their natural habit by removing unbalanced, awkward, or weak growth. The timing of pruning should be planned to enhance bloom. Early blooming shrubs should be pruned immediately after flowering while late bloomers want attention in late winter. Do not be intimidated by the technical mumbo jumbo offered by experts about pruning. Use common sense, work slowly, and approach the plant as a whole rather than doing one section at a time. If you check your work frequently from a distance, and remember that a branch is easier to take off than to put on, you won’t get in trouble. The same sort of temperance applies to fertilizing, which is better underdone than overdone.
A word is required about the plants we offer, since they do not reflect the mainstream of commercial horticulture. With limited resources and a cold climate, we have chosen to focus on those varieties that have exceptional garden value but which are not widely available in the trade. It’s a highly personal selection with no pretension to completeness or balance, but every variety offered is an old friend of ours whose virtues we can attest without qualification. Because UPS does not offer a discount for the shipment of soil, we have a bias toward those species that are happy when shipped bareroot (the major exception being ericaceous plants such as Rhododendrons, Azaleas, and Heathers), and the realities of mail order require that we keep our salable grade to something less than landscape size. Within those constraints, we have assembled a delightful group of aristocrats who are anxious to make your acquaintance.