Dos and donts for using shrubs in your landscape

One of the first mistakes I made as a gardener was planting beds in which everything was pretty much the same size. Now I know that if you want any depth to your garden, you need a mix of plants in all shapes and sizes.

Shrubs play a crucial role in any good garden design. But it’s easy to make mistakes when placing them in your yard. Here are some tips for choosing shrubs and finding the right spot for them so they’ll look their best.

I like to do some research before going to shop for shrubs because I find the rows and rows of specimens a little overwhelming. But it’s also just fine to do your choosing when you get to the garden center. One of the most important things you’ll want to do, though, is look at the plant tag to see how tall and wide that cute shrub you like will be when it matures. Boxwood (Buxus spp.), for example, is a great evergreen shrub is you want a formal hedge. But since most varieties don’t get very tall, they’re not a great choice for privacy if you plan to do a lot of backyard tanning or, well, drinking. (Our fence is just wire so every time we’re outside having a glass of wine I wonder if people are thinking, “Oh my! That’s the third night they’ve been drinking this week.”

Lilacs make a good privacy screen. But most varieties get very tall so you want to make sure you plant them a fair distance from your house, maybe along the perimeter of your yard. Otherwise, you’ll wind up with this huge shrub looming out of proportion to everything around it.

Since shrubs will, with any luck, be around far longer than other plants in your yard, you want to choose those that best complement the style of your garden. Do you want something narrow and formal looking like a Hick’s yew (Taxus x media ‘Hicksii’)?  Or would you rather have a shrub that’s more casual like one of several varieties of spirea? Or maybe you’d like an old favorite like shrub roses or a Golden Mockorange (Philadelphus coronarius ‘Aureus’)?

Tall shrubs, such as the stunning Golden Spirit Smokebush can be used as accents in your overall landscape. Or you can use them to punctuate a certain spot, like either side of a walkway. If you do this, though, just be sure to calculate how wide they’ll get. I walk by houses all the time where two shrubs on either side of the front walk have grown so closely together that people must have to cut across the lawn to get to the door. Nice.

If you’re looking for some good taller shrub ideas, Amur maples have intense fall color, grow fast and are tolerant of most soils as well as partial shade. Dogwoods are always dependable and can be found in a variety of shapes and sizes. The pagoda dogwood, for example, can be shrub or treelike and has a horizontal branching pattern that has sort of a Japanese garden feel to it. Red-twig dogwood (Cornus sericea) is a native shrub with stems that turn bright red during the winter.

Smaller shrubs, those under 4 feet, can look a little bit marooned if placed in an open area. Make them part of a bed filled with perennials and annuals. Or, if you’ve got a big space to fill, try planting them in groups of three to five. Japanese spirea (Spirea japonica) is a good choice for groupings. So is dwarf false cypress, particularly “Vintage Gold” and “Golden Mops,” which, as their names suggest, have beautiful yellow-gold foliage.

Whatever you do, don’t fall into the trap of surrounding your home’s foundation with shrubs so it looks as if your house is floating on a big green raft. One or two accents shrubs can be nice, though. And when you plant near the foundation, place shrubs 2 to 3 feet out from the eaves of your house. That way, they won’t be so likely to be crushed by falling snow and icicles.

But let’s get back to buying good shrubs for just a minute. Once you’ve figured out that a shrub you like will be the right height and width for a particular spot, you want to make sure you’ve got the sunlight it requires. So check the tag for that information, too. Like perennials, if you put shrubs in low-light spots when they require full sun, you’re never going to get a very good plant out of the deal. It just won’t get what it
needs to thrive.

Always check a shrub’s trunk and branches for nicks and cuts. Those will just be pathways for disease down the road. I’ve said this before, and I know it sounds weird, but before you buy a shrub, slide it out of its container so you can see the roots. You want to see a good amount of roots in the soil, but not so many that they’re a tangled mess that’s twined around the bottom of the container. Put plants like that back. Root-bound plants, even when you take the time to untangle them, can have a very hard time establishing themselves in the ground once they’re planted.

One last thing, even though most of us rush out and buy plants in the spring, fall is a great time to plant shrubs. Plant them early enough so they have a few weeks to get established before winter, but not so early that they have to suffer the heat and drought of summer. As an added bonus, shrubs are often available at good sale prices in the fall.

Meleah Maynard is a Master Gardener and freelance writer, living in Linden Hills. If you’ve got a gardening question you’d like her to address in her column, you can e-mail it to [email protected].