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Shrubs  

How to plan - design - and plant a shrub border or shrub bed. 

The days of poor choice and unavailability of colourful shrubs has long gone.  In fact, I would argue that there has always been wide choice, but a choice not always taken advantage of! These days, with the surfeit of garden centres and nurseries -  pushed forwards in quality and display expertise by the superstores - there is a huge range of shrubs always available.

One of the biggest mistakes I see from amateur gardeners attempting their first - sometimes last - shrub borders, is the basic error of not allowing enough room for the shrub to develop into whatever it will! Basically, planting it in the wrong place.

One of the biggest mistakes I have seen - often repeated - by professional gardeners (and designers) is planting a shrub in the wrong place!

This often means the removal of a shrub, just when it is reaching its ultimate size - or having to remove many plants and shrubs that are nearby.

We are all prone to buying shrubs and other plants when we see them in flower - looking superb. Back at home, there needs to be a space for the new purchase. Often there is not so it is planted somewhere unsuitable. Somewhere  where it just cannot reach maturity.

Ixora - flowering shrubI myself did the same thing yesterday. Just could not resist the deep scarlet red flowers on the Ixora, so into the boot of the car it went. I do not have the problem of having to find room, for all of my gardening is done in containers. But of course, when I got home, there was not a spare container suitable. Another trip to the garden centre - and as you might have guessed - yet another plant into the boot of the car - but with two containers this time!

The lesson - which we all have to learn (some hope!) is to plan your shrub border BEFORE you go out and choose a few plants. You can of course find a few favourites - or 'must-haves' then plan a new border or bed around those particular shrub. The options for that are infinitesimal - so won't be discussed here!

There are some basic rules to be followed to ensure that you have a shrub border or bed that is going to stay the distance, and that a few years hence, you are not going to have to move a prized specimen that may well be lost in the transplanting. That's why I like container gardening!

Colour the year round.

When discussing shrubs, one of the most asked questions is "Can you give me twelve shrubs for my border, to ensure that I get flowers in every month of the year?"

Problem! Most shrubs - and certainly the most popular shrubs - rarely flower for more than a few weeks (if the weather is alright) Taking that through to a natural conclusion, you can see that it is possible that for eleven months - at least - most of the shrubs will not have flowers! In other words, we are going to have somewhere in the region of eleven shrubs with no colour at any given time of the year! However, with careful planning, the barren shrub bed can be avoided - even if there is not a huge show of flowers from January through 'till December.

Shrub Types.

If you think that a shrub is a shrub, then possibly this next section will help you think a little differently.

Deciduous Shrubs

  • Shrub Flower Colours: All shades imaginable from purest white through to darkest purple, taking in all shades of pink, red, yellow, orange, blue. Almost any shade that can be developed on a painter's palette can be found in a shrub of some type.

  • Shrub Foliage Colours: All shades of green ranging from lightest lime green through to rich velvety deep green. Together with these basic 'foil' colours of shrub foliage, you can have Reds in assortment, Purple or Copper shades, Silver, Grey, Yellow, Gold, Pink, White, Cream, and more!

    • Variegated foliage on shrubs is also an important feature and aspect to take into account, with edge variegations, spots, stripes, speckle, freckles, marbling, multi-colours and more!

    •  Foliage shape on Shrubs is also an important design factor, with huge leaves, small leaves, ferny leaves, textures of silk, fur and so so smooth. Palm-like, spear-like, heart shaped, round, fronds etc etc.

    • Seasonal foliage. Most will be aware of the spectacular Autumn - fall - foliage on many deciduous shrubs, but there are other seasons to be aware of if you are looking for foliage colour.  Most are at their best during the first few weeks of growth in the spring, but other will come into their own in the middle of summer.

    • Colours of Winter Stems. Winter can be a gorgeous time in the garden - even if viewed from the comfort of your lounge. The range of colours of stems is quite amazing, and will take you though the lightest of greens, yellows, oranges, reds and the darkest purple. To give the show they are capable of, then they  will need a little bit of attention at the right time of the year. There is much more to colour in the border than flowers or leaves.

  • Height and Spread of Shrubs. As above, many problems are caused by not knowing how tall your shrub will grow. How wide it will spread. Will it cover the ground or shoot up like a rocket! To make matters even worse (interesting) many shrubs within the same family, will have totally different habits of growth to their brother, sisters and close cousins! A Cotoneaster is not just a Cotoneaster! Some will hug the ground - just a few inches (cms) high. Other Cotoneasters will look down on them from heights of around 12ft or more.

  • Rate of Growth. Some shrubs grow quickly (very quickly) - left right up or down. Others will simply sit there for many years looking as thought they are still the same size as they were in the garden centre container! Some so slow, that they will be smothered by their vigorous relatives - never to see the light of day - on which they depend for life itself.

  • How Hardy a Shrub is, can depend upon where you live; what the winters are like; what the summers and spring are like also! It will also depend upon the type of soil: Dry in Winter; dry in Summer: Wet in Winter; soggy in Summer.

  • Soil Types for Shrubs. Acid soil; alkaline soil: Clay soil; sandy soil: Many shrubs are reasonably happy in most 'average' types of soil. Others will die on you - or at least be very sick, if you plant in the wrong soil.

  • Shape and Form of Shrubs. Just the pure shape and form of some shrubs, makes for specimen use. Not least the Japanese Maples. Shrubs are not simply green blobs with flowers on. They can be erect, droop, lend themselves to training in formal shapes. Others will have it their own way and be as formal or unruly as they were born to be. Look beyond the flowers and foliage. For instance the Mahonia japonica types - whilst ideal for their winter flower and glossy green foliage, have very distinctive growth habits, which are a features in their own right. Other shrubs will grow erect, then arch over at the top - even weep (out of habit not despair!)

  • Fragrance of Shrubs. Yes there are those that are grown for their sweet scented flowers, but others just need to be planted in a position where they get brushed upon walking by to let go of the deep aromatic scents of their foliage. Some have flowers so small and insignificant, and yet are worthy of including simply because of the amazing scent that those shy flowers emit. I have seen many visitors to gardens trying to trace the heavenly scent that wafts around from an Elaeagnus ebbingei in late October!

  • Sun or Shade? Some shrubs will thrive in heavy shade. Others will be happy - nay demand - that they can sunbathe all day. dappled shade beneath the light foliage of a Silver Birch tree will suit others down to the ground. Some will have problems - even though hardy - if they are situated where the early morning sun quickly thaws out the frosted flower buds in early spring. Camellias for instance, are notorious for this, yet altogether hardy in other respects.

Evergreen shrubs

By David Hughes - info@gardenseeker.com 


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