When planning a landscape or garden there are two areas that often get most of the attention. These are tree planting and the planting of turf for a lawn. This is rather like decorating and taking care of just the ceiling and the floor but forgetting about the walls. What gives a garden much of its charm and appeal is what goes on around us, in human scale, in the first 10 feet from the ground. That is what we see most and what takes our immediate attention. It is the planting in that zone that sets out the spaces we move in and our directions of movement around the garden.
A lawn with a couple of trees is fine enough, but it isn’t really a garden, which has visual interest at eye-level and gives a dual sense of space and enclosure. That sense is achieved by variety and organization of the space. That variety comes from planting a range of interesting shrubs that will flower throughout the growing season. They should also include plants that are interesting in fall and winter – often through colorful berries or twigs.
The organization of the space comes by creating divisions – ‘rooms outside’ if you like – by placing hedges of different heights in strategic positions to separate function or visual areas of the garden. These can be evergreen or deciduous, and even flowering, depending on their purpose and your personal preferences.
Gardening with Shrubs
When gardeners talk about shrubs they are thinking of plants that are about the size of a person, plus or minus a few feet. They may be dwarf shrubs, just a foot or two of the ground, or large shrubs that could be 15 feet tall, but they have a human scale and proportion. They don’t inspire the awe of a towering tree, but they have a charm and appeal that we can immediately relate to. Shrubs differ from trees in having more than one main stem.
Some trees may, by nature or through training, have two or three main trunks coming from close to the ground although most will have a single straight trunk. Shrubs have many main stems and don’t normally have an obvious trunk, although it is sometimes possible to prune and train some of them to have a central stem and look tree-like, just as some small trees can look shrub-like. You can see from this that there is no hard-and-fast rule to separate trees from shrubs. The simple answer is that we usually call a shorter plant with several stems a ‘shrub’ and a taller plant with one or a few stems a ‘tree’.
Using Shrubs in the Garden
Shrubs have many uses in the garden. If the trees form the bones of your landscape, then shrubs are the muscle. They give structure and permanence. They form a backdrop to the open areas we use for play or entertaining. By playing with their different shapes, textures and leaf colors, we can create a vibrant flow of forms across the garden that will turn a walk outside into an adventure.
They also welcome visitors by forming the foundation planting that frames our house and ties it to the ground. Foundation planting is the shrubs that go around your house and it should be the next element, after turf and shade trees, which you develop on your property. Good foundation planting obscures defects and hides utilitarian features like meters and air-conditioning units. It softens the hard lines of a house, especially that sharp line where the walls suddenly drop to the ground. It frames the windows with foliage and blooms, as well as creating interesting shapes that link the built structure into the surrounding landscape.
Choosing Shrubs and Hedges for Your Garden
Once you have an idea of what kinds of shrubs you want to use, read our detailed descriptions of each plant. You will see that your choice is going to be influenced by:
Hardiness Zone: Some shrubs are more delicate than others and need warmer conditions to grow in. Most will thrive in the wide range of conditions found in the vast majority of American gardens.
Climate: Dry conditions can also affect your choices. Some plants need a regular supply of water, while others are very drought tolerant once established.
Soil Acidity: The acidity of your soil. Some plants, especially Azaleas and Camellias, do not enjoy lime in their soil. If you live in an alkaline area you may not be able to grow them easily in the garden, but they do make excellent plants for pots, where they can easily be grown in potting soil developed for acid-loving plants.
Make a note of these conditions in the different areas you want to plant, and use those notes when choosing your shrubs. You will see that most of the plants we carry are flexible in their needs, and grow in a wide range of conditions. Some are more particular, and these are often the most interesting, so focus on what you have, and plant accordingly. It can be frustrating trying to push the boundaries, when so many wonderful plants that are easy to grow in your conditions are just waiting for you.
Shrubs for Hedges and Clipped Features
From a strictly practical point of view, shrubs can be used to give privacy when we need it up to 6 to 10 feet or so. They can be massed together singly or in a variety of types to block an unattractive scene or to hide a fence. And of course they can be clipped into a hedge. Many of our Privacy Trees and Evergreen Trees are specially selected to be made into hedges and a browse of our selections in those areas will give many choices.
Many of our Shrubs are also great hedging plants. A hedge can be informal, which is easy to plant. Just choose an upright, rather dense-growing plant, plant a row close together and let them grow. When most people think ‘hedge’ they see in their mind’s eye something neatly trimmed and flat, like a green wall around the garden. These kinds of formal hedges do take some upkeep, but the result is worthwhile, since it creates a strong structure and gives an elegant appearance to your garden.
The choice between formal and informal is entirely yours, but it will set the tone and the overall look of your garden. Besides their beauty, hedges have a practical purpose in giving you privacy screening and they also make a perfect background for flowering shrubs and trees. With hedges, you can divide your garden into different zones and create outdoor rooms for different activities, like vegetable growing, entertaining or children’s play.
Hedges don’t have to be tall; in fact, centuries ago the idea of using short hedges to divide an area into parts was all the fashion among gardeners. Each divided section was filled originally with gravels of different colors. Although later they were filled with flowers, they are still often called after their French name of parterre, which means ‘divided earth’. The plants of choice for this were Boxwood Shrubs and today we still use these small, evergreen shrubs with their tiny leaves to make low hedges that can be just a foot tall to perhaps more.
Boxwood hedges can outline a drive or walkway. They can edge a flower bed or the planting around your house. This use of clipped edgings is associated with a ‘formal’ style of gardening, using mostly straight lines and crisp corners. This style is a great way to bring a period accent to an older house and is very much an historic and appropriate feature for such homes. With imagination it will look perfect in the garden of the most modern home too, because these straight lines or curves reflect the geometry of any home’s architecture.
English Boxwood is the variety usually chosen for small hedges, as it can easily be kept just a foot tall. Use it for those classic edgings to beds, where it puts a frame around any planting arrangement, and makes it much more meaningful and interesting. For larger hedges that you want to be up to 5 feet tall, American Boxwood is the ideal choice. The name is a little confusing, since this is the same species as English Boxwood. It is simply an older form that grows taller, and one that was brought to the colonies by Englishmen wanting to reproduce their English gardens. Both English and American Boxwood can be clipped into balls, columns, pyramids, cones and other garden features in a range of sizes, that add interest, variety and historical flare to your garden.
Few gardeners realize how interesting mature boxwood shrubs are if they are not clipped. As well as being used for clipped hedges and other features, these plants can also be grown as individual specimens with little or no clipping. The grow into cloud-like irregular mounds, each one a little different, and they fit well into informal spaces. Left to grow unclipped, American Boxwood will reach 5 to 8 feet tall in time, and 4 feet or more across. English Boxwood will be smaller, perhaps 3 feet tall in time, making it ideal for smaller gardens or smaller spaces. Not seen enough, unclipped boxwoods make great elements in a foundation planting and being evergreen, they also bring a strong sense of permanence to your landscaping.
If you love the look, but thought it wasn’t possible, then check these varieties out. Other hardy forms are derived from the Korean boxwood, such as Green Mountain Boxwood, or Franklin’s Gem. With these hardier types now available, more gardeners than ever before can enjoy boxwood hedges. If more color appeals to you, then you can’t go past the flashy cream and green of the variegated Boxwood. This makes a dramatic hedge, as well as a clipped or unclipped specimen.
Another group of evergreen shrubs suitable for hedges and screens are the Cherry Laurels. With their large, glossy leaves they make a handsome backdrop in any garden. Plus, their ability to thrive in deep shade makes them indispensable if you have large trees shading parts of your garden. Their dense and bushy growth means that trimming is optional – they form a solid screen quite naturally.
Older varieties can become large, but varieties like the English Cherry Laurel grow just 4 to 6 feet tall, and the Otto Luyken Cherry Laurel no more than 10 feet. If you do need a taller screen, then opt for the popular Skip Cherry Laurel, which can grow close to 20 feet if left untrimmed.
For toughness in an evergreen screen, nothing beats the various Privets. These plants will grow in conditions where other plants fail, and they can be pruned as much as needed to fit them into any area. Left untrimmed, with enough room to thrive, they make reliable, durable and interesting background plants for screening unsightly views or breaking strong winds. If you want to ‘plant and forget’, then these plants are your first choice.
Types of Shrubs
Gardeners recognize several basic types of shrubs, and from a landscaping point of view, the chief difference is between those that keep their leaves all year round – evergreens – and those that lose them in winter – deciduous shrubs. Often the term broad-leaf evergreen is used to distinguish flowering evergreens from those that produce cones – most correctly called conifers, but often simply called evergreens. The balance between these types has a big effect on the overall look and appeal of your garden, particularly with the passing of the seasons.
These plants, like many trees, lose their leaves in the winter. Because of this, deciduous shrubs create very different garden atmospheres with the seasons. During the winter season we notice the form of their branches. These can often be twisted and picturesque, and we also notice their bark, perhaps in interesting colors and rough or smooth textures. These subtle effects give interest to the winter garden.
In spring these plants will burst into leaf and often into flower as well. Many deciduous shrubs flower early in the year, perhaps even before the leaves come out, or shortly after those fresh, perfect spring leaves appear. Gardeners particularly value those shrubs that hold back from the main spring and early summer display, and give us color in summer and even into fall, when flowers on other shrubs are absent.
The right choices of late-flowering shrubs, such as Hydrangeas – like the Endless Summer Hydrangea, or for colder regions the Annabelle Hydrangea – will give flowers from mid-summer right into fall, and these plants will look great for weeks and weeks of every year.
Some shrubs can do even more. They flower more-or-less continuously from spring to frost and are perhaps the greatest value of all. Some of the roses fall into that category, especially the incredible Knockout Roses, which not only flower all season, but are tough, hardy and resistant to the diseases that make problems for so many rose bushes.
You can choose the Red Knockout Rose, the Sunny Knockout Rose or the Double Pink Knockout Rose and be sure to have a great color parade in your garden all season long. Whichever ones you grow, they are sure to be winners in any garden and this is a group of roses that really can’t be beaten. If you have found roses difficult, then these diseases-resistant are hardy plants will change your mind.
Color is not just from flowers – it comes from leaves and branches too. In modern gardens we use many more plants with colored leaves than in the past. This is firstly because new varieties of plants are available, secondly because gardens are smaller, and each plant needs to bring more, and thirdly because tastes have changed, and people simply want more color and less green in the garden. Always happy to satisfy a need, at the Tree Center we have chosen to highlight shrubs with colorful foliage. It might be one of the beautiful Barberry Bushes, which come in many colors.
Red forms include the Crimson Pygmy Barberry and the Rose Glow Barberry. The Orange Rocket Barberry is, as you might guess, spectacularly orange from spring to fall. Among the golden forms, Barberry Aurea Nana is a wonderful golden dwarf form, while the Lime Glow Barberry is a fashionable shade of limey yellow. Used as specimens or planted in groups, these colorful shrubs bring a whole new dimension to your garden.
Other sources of color include the Variegated Boxwood, with cream and green leaves, and Variegated Privet, but for really spectacular color you cannot pass by the Royal Purple Smoke Tree. This large shrub makes an amazing lawn specimen, or something special to fill an empty corner. Not only is it beautiful in its purple robes all summer, it is topped off by a unique cloud of pinkish seed structures, that hovers over it like a calm cloud of colorful smoke. You will be amazed. For a smaller shrub that also has purple foliage, check out the Purple Leaf Sandcherry – a reliable and hardy plant with attractive spring blossoms as a bonus.
Just like some trees, not all shrubs lose their leaves in winter. Some continue to be lush and green all year round, which makes them especially valuable in creating a sense of permanence in your garden. Only if you live in the coldest areas will it be difficult to grow a large number of evergreen shrubs, and for most gardeners these will be reliable plants that charm all year long. While some evergreen shrubs, like the Boxwood Shrubs described earlier, are grown for their soft, dense all-year-long foliage, many of the evergreen shrubs have spectacular flowers and bring a lot of color to the garden.
There are so many evergreen flowering shrubs to choose from it is hard to know where to start. So let’s start with something really special, and go from there.
Few gardeners would deny the beauty of Azalea Shrubs. Azaleas belong to the plant group Rhododendron. This is an enormous group with over 1,000 wild species that have been worked with for hundreds of years by plant breeders. As a result of their dedication, today there are around 28,000 different varieties (or cultivars to give them their correct name). Some of these plants are deciduous, some are evergreen. Some are less than a foot tall; others can be 20 or 30 feet tall and others even taller. They all have relatively large flowers in almost every color except true blue.
The sizes of the leaves vary a great deal and the name Rhododendrons is often used by gardeners when talking about those that have larger leaves that are also often smooth and shiny. The flowers are large too, and big trusses of colorful flowers garland the ends of every branch. A great asset if you have deciduous trees, they thrive in moderate shade and make spring a season of brilliance and beauty. Choose Lemon Ice or Lemon Dream for soft, clear colors, or the vibrant red of Nova Zembla and Hellikki. A new variety – the Everred Rhododendron – is a foliage color breakthrough, with red leaves that add interest when the flowers are gone.
The name Azalea is used to describe the ones with smallish leaves, often soft and slightly hairy. There are many azaleas to choose from, but the group called Encore Azaleas are without doubt the top choice. These plants are such an improvement on older forms that at the Tree Center we have decided to devote our azalea collection entirely to these amazing plants, and here’s why. Flowers in the garden in spring is an easy thing to achieve, because most plants bloom at that exciting season. Azaleas bloom then as well, and make a spectacular addition to the general garden celebration of the end of winter.
After that they sit in the ground growing, but looking, frankly, a bit boring. That is why, when a plant breeder called Buddy Lee noticed an azalea in his collection blooming in summer he took notice. After years of work with that rare plant he produced the Encore Azalea series. These plants have flowers to match any normal azalea, but they continue to bloom through summer and into the fall as well. No longer are azaleas ‘two-week wonders’ – instead they are plants that bloom month after month, bringing color to those months when it is relatively hard to find in the garden.
Another very special group are the Camellias. These carry large flowers that can be 6 inches across, with many petals. Their colors range from pure white to deep red, with all possible shades of pink in between. Some have flowers that are partly white and partly pink in random patterns. They may be neat and ‘formal’ with perfectly arranged petals, or loose and care-free, sometimes showing a center of bright yellow stamens.
One of the most valuable features of Camellias in the garden is that they will flower even before winter has gone. As the days lengthen in the new year they burst into bloom long before other spring flowering plants. Some varieties can’t even wait for spring and burst into bloom in mid-winter. Camellias are surprisingly hardy. Almost all will thrive in zone 7 and a number grow well throughout zone 6. Since they will also grow well right down into zone 9, this means that throughout the West and from most of Kansas and Ohio southwards, Camellias are great choices for your garden.
They are upright, evergreen shrubs that despite their exotic blooms can grow as much as a foot a year and reach 10 or 20 feet in height. The leaves are rich green, glossy and 3 or 4 inches long. These are versatile shrubs that will grow naturally into dense plants. They can also be controlled by pruning and even clipped into a hedge.
A less well-known group of evergreen shrubs are the Osmanthus, also known as Tea Olives. These shade-tolerant, plants produce fragrant blooms in fall, perfuming the whole garden. The Fragrant Tea Olive itself can become a small tree up to 15 feet tall, but if that is too large for your garden, choose the Gulftide Osmanthus, that only reaches 5 to 6 feet in height. For brightness in the shade, the Goshiki Osmanthus stands out – literally – with its mottled green and white leaves.
Using Vines as Shrubs
Since they are certainly not trees, the various climbing and twining plants can also be thought of as a type of shrub and that is where we at the Tree Center have chosen to place them. Vines decided long ago that making your own stems was just too much work and slowed them down from the more important jobs of growing and flowering. They chose instead to lean on their neighbors to reach the sun. Some have special leaves to climb with, like the Boston Ivy, but most simply twine around any convenient support and race to the top.
Perhaps the most spectacular vines are the Wisteria Vines, the most well-known of which came from China and Japan many years ago. They brought their gorgeous rich-blue hanging panicles of flowers with them, which make a glorious show every spring in all but the coldest areas.
They literally smother the bare stems with bloom to form a continuous mound of blossom. They will naturally climb up into a large tree but in the garden they are the perfect choice to cover an strong arbor or fence. They are especially beautiful on an arbor as the hanging blooms can be seen to their best effect. With some careful pruning when young they can even be turned into true, self-supporting shrubs or small trees and have an exotic, twisted character that is perfect to give an oriental flavor to your landscape.
For today’s smaller gardens the traditional Chinese wisterias are just too big. If you have a smaller garden, don’t give up the idea of growing this fabulous plant, as an almost forgotten American species has come to the rescue. This plant, and its special forms, like the Amethyst Falls Wisteria or the Blue Moon Wisteria, is more manageable, and yet just as beautiful. It still grows strongly, but it reaches a more modest size, making these plants ideal in a smaller space. Not only that, they also bloom through the summer as well, looking elegant and graceful with clusters of blooms set against the ferny green leaves, instead of hanging from bare branches, as they do in spring.
If you enjoy growing plants that are useful as well as beautiful then you might want to grow Hops Plants, which will make it possible to brew your own beer with your own special line of hops, or simply stuff a pillow to help you sleep. Hops are also attractive fast-growing vines to cover trellis panels or a boring fence.
Shrubs for Shaping Your Garden
As well as having interesting features, shrubs are an important way to give form to the planting in your garden. Use their shapes – rounded, upright, ground-hugging, and so on, to make an interesting arrangement of forms. Mostly this is done with easy-care plants, so that our limited time can be given to more ‘special’ specimens. These plants are the backbone of the garden, and a wide variety of shrubs are used.
The various Spirea Shrubs are typical of these core plants. They come in a wide variety of sizes, and they are very cold-hardy and low-maintenance too. Some popular ones include the Goldmound Spirea, which is just that – a mound of golden foliage, dotted in summer with contrasting clusters of pink flowers. Little Princess is a favorite low-growing spirea ideal for planting along the front of beds, or along the edges of paths.
If you garden in warmer areas, then Nandina, also called Sacred Bamboo, is an easy-care plant that thrives in sun or shade, and brings color with its foliage, which is vibrant red through fall and winter. Some, like the Moon Bay Nandina, are also highlighted with red foliage in spring, while others, such as the Fire Power Nandina, have contrasting lime-green spring foliage. That color is very fashionable, and stands out well in shaded areas.
Lilacs as Shrubs
The Lilacs are too well known to need describing to gardeners and non-gardeners alike, but these plants have come a long way since those big purple shrubs that grew at your grandmother’s. The perfume has remained, but they are often smaller now, and bushes like the Bridal Memories Lilac only grow to perhaps 10 feet tall. That makes it ideal for background planting, or for filling a corner of the garden with pure-white beauty each year in early summer.
For something even smaller, the Miss Kim Lilac has smaller flowers, but is always smothered in them every year – so densely the leaves are almost hidden. It usually stays around 5 feet tall, and forms a mound to the ground that can be clipped after flowering to keep it even neater.
If you have damp areas – or even if you don’t – the Dogwood Shrubs are perfect for planting along a stream or by a pond, as well as in the general garden. They are mostly grown for their outstanding winter twigs, in vibrant shades of red or yellow. If you want more summer color too, then choose the Variegated Red Twig Dogwood, with white edges on the leaves. If you need something small, then the Arctic Fire Dogwood has the same vibrant red twigs on a smaller bush, reaching only 4 feet in height.
Speaking of red, a favorite standby foundation shrub is the Dwarf Burning Bush, one of the Euonymus. Hardy to minus 40, it forms a rounded shrub 6 feet tall, or a few feet more if never trimmed. Every fall it lights up like a beacon, blazing away in the garden to mark the end of another growing season.
So different that only a botanist would see why they should be related, the Emerald N’Gold Euonymus is, as the name suggests, a shrub with leaves that are emerald green in the center, with a thick gold margin around them. This colorful shrub grows just a foot or two tall, and spreads across the ground slowly, even climbing walls several feet up. It is an ideal choice for shady spots, since it thrives in areas that never receive any direct sunlight at all.
For basic structure and a big splash in early spring, you can’t pass by Forsythia. A long-time garden favorite, the brilliant yellow blooms on bare twigs appear as soon as the snow has mostly gone. Lynwood Gold is a variety that is particularly hardy, and its flowers buds survive the coldest winters.
Other Basic Shrubs
Other valuable basic shrubs for every garden include the Mock Orange, the Ninebark, the Serviceberry and, for shady corners, the Oregon Grape Holly. In warmer areas the Wax Myrtle is a lovely evergreen shrub or small tree with fragrant leaves and berries, that thrives right down to the beach – perfect for coastal homes.
Make Your Garden Unique with Our Shrubs and Hedges!
It’s important to grow something different in your garden, to make it truly ‘yours’. Unique plants like the Button Bush are big favorites with butterflies, and how can we forget the Butterfly Bushes, loved by children because they are magnets for every butterfly in your neighborhood. Another unique shrub is Itea Little Henry, with white ‘bottle-brush’ flowers clusters in summer.