Using Shrubs to Full Effect

Shrubs form the backbone of the planting design, their architectural forms and enduring interest playing an important role in setting the overall tone of the whole garden. Aside of a wide variety of shapes, sizes and silhouettes, they also make a huge contribution to the colour palette with their large range of flowers, foliage and fruits.

Long recognised as an integral part of any landscaping scheme to balance the changing features of herbaceous borders with their settled and established presence, the range of shrubs available today means that there is something for any plot, whatever its size or situation. Even so, there are some practical considerations to be taken into account when it comes to picking shrubs for your garden.

Choosing Your Shrubs

While their principal function is to provide structure, shape and framework, this is by no means all shrubs and bushes bring to garden design. Their colours, fragrances and ornamental qualities can make them valuable decorative features in their own right and, given their perennial natures, this inevitably means that they exert a strong influence on the wider planting scheme.

Since shrubs form a long-term part of the garden, it is important to match the plants you choose to the growing environment, not least because conditions can vary considerably, even within the smallest of gardens. Although this may rule out some shrubs, there will still be plenty that will be suitable. In wet soils, for instance, willow (Salix) or dogwood (Cornus) are ideal, while broom (Cytisus) and lavender (Lavandula) will suit more well-drained ground. The pH of the soil also affects the choice; ericaceous shrubs like rhododendrons and azaleas prefer acidic conditions, while plants such as Philadelphus and Hypericum will thrive in more alkaline surroundings.

It is also important to take into account a plant’s hardiness, tolerance to wind and salt along with its preference for sun or shade. While some plants – such as Cistus – become straggly without exposure to full sun, many others prefer slight shade, so it is vital to read those plant information labels carefully and plant accordingly.

Shrubs for Seasonal Interest

From the garden design point of view, seasonal interest can be a vital part of the selection process. While evergreen foliage offers a continuous display, many deciduous shrubs have more limited – though often more showy – impact. For an early display, the silver catkins against the purple bark of Salix hastata is hard to beat, while the pinkish white blooms of spring-flowering Daphne provide a perfect end to the season. The range of summer flowering shrubs is enormous, while autumn brings its own particular glories in the ripening berries and changing foliage of Cotoneaster, Berberis and Pyracantha.

Despite all of the growth throughout the rest of the year, it is perhaps in winter that shrubs provide their greatest contribution to the garden – with the bold textures and colour of evergreens injecting a note of interest and impact into an otherwise dormant landscape. Some – including Mahonia and Hamamelis – will even produce flowers in this quietest of times for the garden, making a very strong case for their inclusion in the whole planting scheme.

Whether you grow shrubs to provide a border on their own, for ground cover, in a mixed bed along with a variety of herbaceous plants or as single specimen features, there is no doubt that they provide a strong keynote for the planting and help set the tone of the whole garden. A good collection of these plants, well chosen for foliage, bark, berries and flowers will, with a little routine care and attention, repay their selection by providing a low maintenance display for many years – so pick wisely!