Shrubs are such a vital part of my garden designs that I can’t imagine a garden without them. A well-placed grouping of shrubs can be the perfect accent for a garden, but they quickly become a distraction when planted in the wrong place. Here are some dos and don’ts to help you make the most of these indispensable plants.
Avoid shrub slip-ups. Some common mistakes in choosing and planting shrubs include selecting shrubs that grow out of scale to the house, placing them too close to the foundation, “shrubbing up” the foundation so the house looks like it’s floating on a plant barge, combining shrubs that are too similar in appearance, and pruning shrubs with beautiful forms into unnatural shapes.
Size things up. Let the mature size be your guide when selecting shrubs. Sprawling, low-growing shrubs like junipers or creeping cotoneaster (Cotoneaster adpressus, Zones 4 to 7) can serve as ground covers. Compact, bushy shrubs like shrubby cinquefoil (Potentilla fruticosa, Zones 2 to 6) and dwarf forms of spirea mix beautifully into flower gardens or in the foreground of borders.
Cultivars that mature to about 2 to 4 feet tall, such as Goldilocks forsythia (Forsythia x intermedia ‘Courtacour’, Zones 5 to 8), look great without any pruning. Mid-size, rounded shrubs like various cultivars of boxwoods (Buxus spp.) and hollies (Ilex spp.) are attractive in groups or lined into hedgerows to accent an entry, define an area, or create privacy.
Taller shrubs, like rose of Sharon (Hibiscus syriacus, Zones 5 to 9) or lilacs (Syringa spp., Zones 2 to 7), look best away from the house or along a perimeter of the property where they can act as natural walls.
Match form and style. Use the outline or form of shrubs to help you define the style of your garden. Tall, upright shrubs that are shaped like a cone or pillar, such as ‘Sky Pencil’ Japanese holly (Ilex crenata ‘Sky Pencil’, Zones 6 to 8), create formality and emphasis in the garden. Try a pair to punctuate either side of a walkway or plant a series of upright shrubs at regular intervals in a border to create a sense of rhythm. Fountainlike shapes such as Van Houtte spirea (Spirea x vanhouttei, Zones 4 to 8) or varieties of flowering quince (Chaenomeles spp., Zones 4 to 8) create a casual and informal style, while cascading plants like winter jasmine (Jasminum nudiflorum, Zones 6 to 9) and some cultivars of Siberian pea shrub (such as Caragana arborescens ‘Pendula’, Zones 3 to 7) add a flowing, watery feel. Use a medley of shrub shapes to create design interest that goes much deeper than leaves and flowers.
Add a veil of privacy. Gardeners often plant shrubs as solid barriers that block all views in or out of an area. For a more gentle approach, arrange several types of shrubs to create a layered screen that gives the illusion of separation without creating a dense mass of foliage. This is effective where you want some seclusion, such as between the front yard and the street. If you have a low fence, pair it with taller shrubs with limbs that are open, such as an old-fashioned shrub rose or a mid-size Japanese crape myrtle (Lagerstroemia fauriei, Zones 6 to 9) along with dwarf, evergreen shrubs. The layers allow intriguing glimpses into the area, but still provide a sense of privacy.
Make things easy on yourself. If you’re looking for a low-maintenance alternative to a perennial border, choose flowering shrubs with colorful foliage. Think of the shrubs as perennials that don’t have be sprayed, fertilized monthly, divided, or staked.
Brightly colored foliage—such as the chartreuse foliage of Sunshine Blue caryopteris (Caryopteris incana ‘Jason’, Zones 6 to 8) or the variegated pink and green leaves of My Monet weigela (Weigela florida ‘Verweig’, Zones 4 to 9)—looks great all season long. The flowers are just icing on the cake. By mixing sizes, bloom times, and foliage colors, you can create a border that’s beautiful in all four seasons and requires little care.
P. Allen Smith (www.pallensmith.com) is a garden designer, host of two national TV programs, a regular guest on the “Today Show”, and author of P. Allen Smith’s Living in the Garden Home (Clarkson Potter, 2007) and other books in the Garden Home series.