If trees are the bones of a garden, then shrubs are the muscles. These bushy plants, evergreen or deciduous, ground-hugging or over our heads, provide the bulk and form that gives a garden its structure. By filling the spaces around the lawn, or framing your house, these versatile plants bring a variety of forms and colors to the garden, creating interest and changing moods with the seasons. So when choosing shrubs for your garden, their overall size and form is obviously one of the first considerations, but if well-chosen, shrubs can bring lots of seasonal interest to your garden too.
Since many shrubs have attractive and even spectacular flowers, this is one obvious way they can put a spark in your landscape, but there are other features to consider as well. Some shrubs produce attractive fruits – edible or not – after flowering. Others may have brilliant fall colors. Even in winter there are options to consider. Attractive bark coloring or an unusual form to the branching patterns, even twisting stems, can all make the garden lively and attractive at any season.
Some shrubs are worth growing just for one feature, while others can have several seasonal affects all rolled into one plant. The secret to creating a lively, interesting garden is to select a good variety of plants and pay attention to when they will flower or be interesting in other ways, so that you have a progression of color and interest throughout the seasons and a garden that is always rewarding.
Shrubs for Early Flowering
As the winter fades away we all crave some color in the garden, some sign of life and a promise of warmer days and sunshine. For this reason early-flowering shrubs – ones that will flower in early spring or even at the end of winter – are especially prized by knowledgeable gardeners – which we can all be. If you want to get the most from these early beauties, placing them in suitable spots is important. Since the weather may still be cold and even bleak it is not likely you will actually be out in the garden much, so put these plants where they can be seen from key windows of your house – the kitchen, living-room or bedrooms, for example. If that is not possible, then place them where they will be seen when coming or going, waving you goodbye in the morning, or greeting your return at the end of your day.
Perhaps the easiest early-flowering shrub that will bring welcome color to a still-sleeping garden is Forsythia. Its brilliant yellow flowers emerge at the first hint of warmer days and last several weeks. With newer varieties like the Show Off Forsythia staying much more compact than big older kinds, you can enjoy this plant even in the smallest garden. It will also flower well in zone 5, which is an added bonus for gardeners in cooler regions. For a larger garden, chose the Lynwood Gold Forsythia, which can reach nine feet and makes a perfect background shrub – making an early splash and then fading into the background behind later bloomers. If winter drags on and you just can’t wait any longer, cut a few of the sleeping branches from your Forsythia and put them in a vase in the house. In a few days you will be rewarded with rich golden flowers that are a beautiful promise of things to come.
In warmer areas it is possible to have flowers even before winter is truly over and the Okame Cherry Tree, although usually trained into a small tree, can also be grown as a large multi-stemmed shrub. As early as January in the south this beauty will be showing the first of its bright-pink blooms and since it is one of the few Cherry trees that does well in warm areas, it is a ‘must-have’ for southern gardeners. Even when grown further north it will be one of the very first plants blooming in your garden and a truly lovely plant it is.
Shrubs for Summer and Fall Flowering
It is pretty easy to have lots of flowers in your garden in spring. There are many choices, with Rhododendrons, Azaleas and Lilacs topping the list. When it comes to later in the season, the choices begin to shrink, but deliberately planting later-blooming plants is a great way to extend the season of interest in your garden. Some of these plants are also suitable for ‘difficult’ parts of the garden, so they can serve a dual purpose.
Hot, sunny and dry spots can often be a challenge, but intensive breeding in recent years has produced a host of new kinds of Crape Myrtles that are much smaller and fit well as flowering shrubs in even the smallest garden. The Dazzle series is a good place to start, as these all grow between three and five feet tall and the same across. Whether you choose the cherry-pink of the Cherry Dazzle Crape Myrtle or the rose-pink of the Strawberry Dazzle Crape Myrtle, these reliable plants will give you bloom from early-summer to the first frost and take lots of heat and drought too. For the smallest area, or even a container, choose the tiny-but-tough Pokomoke Crape Myrtle, growing just two feet tall, or for something different and a little taller, the Purple Magic Crape Myrtle will grow to around eight feet and will brighten your garden not only with its rich, dark-purple flowers, but also with bright-red new leaves that give spring interest too.
If you have shady places in your garden, then not only will Hydrangeas thrive, they will fill the garden with late blooms, from mid-summer right into fall. You can choose the traditional pinks and blues of the Perfection Double Delights Hydrangea or the Nikko Blue Hydrangea or go for the hardiness of the Panicle hydrangeas, these are all plants that are sure to please. For ease of growing and cold hardiness to minus 40 choose the Tardiva White Hydrangea or for more color, its cousin the Ruby Slippers Hydrangea, which has blooms of a gorgeous dusky rose. These will last even into winter and can also be cut and dried for winter decoration in your house.
Shrubs for Fall Color
One of the best times of year is fall and there are many shade trees that give a spectacular display of leaf colors at that time of year. There are shrubs too, that look gorgeous in fall and act as beautiful compliments to their larger neighbors. Top of the list is certainly the Fireball Burning Bush, which turns an unbelievable shade of deep pinkish red, exactly like a ball of glowing fire. This is one of the easiest shrubs to care for, since it is hardy to minus 30, grows in most soils and forms a neat mound four to eight feet tall, that can be easily clipped and even makes a great low hedge. Like most plants that color in the fall, the color is best on plants grown in the sun.
Perhaps more of a small tree, but easily grown as a large bush, is the Flame Amur Maple. Another hardy specimen – to a bone-chilling minus 50 degrees – this shrub will grow easily in any garden and it is a plant that deserves to be seen more in gardens.
When the cold weather sets in many people forget about the garden, which is a mistake, because there is still beauty to be had, even from the bare branches in your garden. The Red Twig Dogwood is a lovely shrub with beautiful bright-red winter twigs that show best on plants that are pruned hard every two or three years. This is a hardy shrub that will grow well in wet conditions. It makes a great water-side plant as well as growing happily in regular soil and brings a bright splash to the gloomy winter garden.
For another type of winter interest, grow a Corkscrew Willow. This novel plant can grow quite large, but like all willows it can be cut back as hard as you wish and it will re-sprout rapidly with its unique twisted and spiraling branches.These look very exotic in winter, either in the garden or cut, dried and placed in the house for a distinctly ‘oriental’ look.
Whatever plants you grow in your garden, choosing a range that will be interesting at different times of year makes a lot of sense, so that your garden will always have something special happening in it and something worthwhile to see. At the Tree Center we believe in using every plant to its best advantage and with so much to give, plants just love to be the center of attention, no matter what the season.