Importance of Shrubs in the Garden


Shrubs have a very important part to play in any well-planned garden — not only for providing a long-term background for numerous other plants, but also for their display of flowers and, in some cases, attractive foliage and fruits. The old idea of confining shrubs to their own border has long since gone.

buddleia davidiiIt is possible to have shrubs in flower throughout the year, even in the depths of winter, when blooms are particularly welcome to brighten up the garden at an otherwise dismal time. The flowers of some shrubs are fragrant, and some are attractive to wildlife — the one most liked by butterflies and bees is buddleia, well known by its common name of ‘butterfly bush’. Shrubs can also be used to provide a windbreak, or as a screen for privacy.

The choice available is enormous. Not so long ago they were usually sold as ‘bare-root’ or, in the case of evergreens, with their roots ‘balled’ (this is where the soil and roots are left intact, and tightly wrapped with sacking). In both cases planting was restricted to the autumn or early spring. Today, most shrubs are container-grown. This has the advantage that they can be planted at any time other than in frosty, very wet or extremely dry conditions.

Container-grown plants are available from garden centres and nurseries. Many large garden centres, however, limit their range to the more popular kinds. Nurseries that specialize in shrubs will stock the well-known favourites, but also rare subjects that are seldom seen for sale.

Shrubs are also sold pre-packed, which can be seen in retail outlets such as supermarkets. These are bare-rooted stock plants, the roots of which are surrounded by moist peat; it is certainly a cheaper way of buying them. Care must be taken with these, as warm conditions in shops can lead to the plants putting on growth prematurely. These should also be planted in suitable conditions outdoors, from autumn through to spring.

When you buy plants do not be misled by colourful labels; take time to check whether a particular subject is suitable for you. There are many important points to consider. First, there is the question of soil type. While many shrubs will grow in a wide range of conditions, others require a soil that has a greater acidic value. If you live in an alkaline (chalky soil) area and wish to grow subjects such as rhododendrons, choose compact varieties, plant them in a container of ericaceous compost (suitable for acid-loving plants), and water them with collected rainwater.

Then there is the eventual size of the plant; there is nothing worse than finding that something is planted in the wrong place because it has rapidly outgrown its allocated area, and you have to cut it back or dig it out.

Also there you should consider the ‘hardiness’ of the shrub. It is always advisable to study the label and, if necessary, ask advice or look it up in an appropriate reference book before making your purchase.

There are numerous dwarf shrubs that are splendid subjects for the rock garden. These will vary in height and variety. Allow plenty of space so that they can be left undisturbed to grow into attractive specimen plants.

Shrubs have many other attributes, too. Colourful berries, fascinating stems and ornamental bark are found on many. Some are at their best in the depths of winter, and among these are the dogwoods. One that certainly catches the eye on a bright winter’s day is Corpus stolonifera ‘Sibirica’ with its glowing red stems; it looks wonderful when accompanied by at least one of the winter-flowering heathers. By way of contrast, do not overlook the green-stemmed Corpus alba ‘Flaviramea’, or the ornamental brambles that are grown for their silver-white branches. One of the best is Rubus cockburnianus.

Rosa rugosa 'Alba'The rose is very well known among shrubs, ranging from the neat, compact hybrid teas, to the free-flowering floribundas and the increasingly popular forms of ‘English rose’. These are just three of the groups available: there are legions of varieties with a constant supply of newcomers swelling the ranks.

Those whose gardens are on acid soil can grow some of the most flamboyant shrubs of all — the Rhododendron, with its trusses of brilliantly

coloured or pastel blooms (these now include shrubs that at one time were listed as azaleas). There are numerous other shrubs that require similar soil conditions, such as forms of Pieris with their bright red young foliage, followed by loose sprays of bell-shaped ‘lily of the valley’ like blooms. A shrub that is not as popular as it deserves is Corylopsis; this produces tiny tassels of fragrant yellow flowers before the foliage. Its position should be chosen with care; a lightly shaded and sheltered spot is required as the blooms can be damaged by frost.

Among the most useful subjects for a winter garden are the heathers. Many flower in the depths of winter and are seemingly unaffected by all that the weather can throw at them. Look out for those in the Erica cornea and Erica x darleyensis groups. Both are lime-tolerant, which makes them ideal for a wide variety of gardens.

Erica cornea grows to around 25cm (10in) and flowers from early winter through to spring. Making a choice is not easy as there are so many. Two well-known and proven forms are ‘Springwood White’ and the deep red ‘Vivellii’.

Varieties of Erica x darleyensis start to bloom in mid-autumn and also go on through the most difficult time of the year. They grow taller, in most cases reaching 45cm (18 in). Look for ‘Darley Dale’, a rich pink, and ‘Molton Silver’ with white flowers. By choosing carefully it is possible to have heathers in bloom throughout the year.

Each year gardeners are introduced to a new array of shrubs; do not be afraid to try any you fancy. In order to avoid disappointment, always remember the basic rules: check soil type, and check on the eventual height and spread (before buying), and follow the planting procedures. Thereafter, furnishing your garden with healthy shrubs dripping with colourful flowers or berries, is as easy as ABC.

A note about seasons:

For the benefit of readers in both hemispheres, seasons — rather than months — are referred to throughout this site. The following table shows the approximate month for each season:





Early Winter

January Early Summer
Mid-winter February Mid-summer
Late winter March Late summer
Early spring April Early autumn
Mid-spring May Mid-autumn
Late spring June Late autumn
Early summer July Early winter
Mid-summer August Mid-winter
Late summer September Late winter
Early autumn October Early spring
Mid-autumn November Mid-spring
Late autumn December Late spring

19. May 2011 by Dave Pinkney
Categories: Planting Shrubs and Trees, Plants & Trees | Tags: , , | Comments Off on Importance of Shrubs in the Garden


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