Sitting in the host’s seat of three Q&A gardening talk shows for almost 45 years, I’ve taken a lot of questions relating to shrubs.
They sort into categories, and proper choice of the best shrubs for various needs is one of the most critical. I see several errors that keep popping up, and I thought this might be a good time to share them so that you could factor them in as you plan your winter and spring landscaping improvements.
Fallacies in shrub selection
Here are mistakes I see gardeners making as they choose shrubs for their landscapes.
- Failure to check mature height, width. Your goal should be to find plants that grow to the size you need and then stay there with minimal regular pruning. If you need a shrub to fill a space that’s 3 feet high, it makes no sense to put an 8-foot plant in that spot, then prune it repeatedly to keep it in bounds. That’s how we end up with topped crape myrtles that are banging into the eaves or redtip photinias that are blocking all the windows on their sides of the house.
- Over-stress the importance of flowering. The reason I’m pointing this out is because most flowering shrubs are in bloom two or three weeks out of the year. Most types are less than beautiful the rest of the year. For that matter, most of our showiest flowering shrubs are deciduous, which means they have no leaves for four or five months each winter. They show up better when viewed from afar, preferably against a dark and plain background.
- Fail to consider each type’s texture and growth form and their impact on the overall landscape. This is subtle, like the textures of fabrics, but it’s just as important. Leaf size, shape and surface all enter the picture. Smaller leaves with smooth surfaces generally present finer textures for a more soothing look to their parts of the garden. Rounded and arching growth forms do the same. Vase-shaped and upright shrubs are much more dramatic, so their use must be much more carefully planned.
- Over-use of highly variegated shrubs. We used to see this with Goldspot euonymus. Now we’re seeing it with Sunshine ligustrum. These plants draw attention away from the house just like a luminescent yellow picture frame would call attention to itself instead of to the picture it’s surrounding. We have to show restraint.
- Buy for long rows, formerly known as “foundation plantings.” Friends, that’s a term that came about 100 years ago when houses were built atop blocks with crawl spaces to allow access to utilities beneath the floors. We used those linear, usually trimmed plantings to conceal the undercarriages of our dwellings.
Since World War II, however, our houses have been built on concrete slabs that bring things down closer to the ground. We don’t have unsightly foundations that have to be hidden. It’s far better to plant shrubs in clusters and groupings – in curved sweeps that look more natural.
- Fail to ask if the shrub has any serious, even fatal flaws. Redtip photinias have Entomosporium fungal leaf spot. Now Indian hawthorns are dying from it, too. Wax myrtles don’t like our alkaline soils and low humidity. Loropetalums run out of steam after five or 10 years. The unusual new arborvitae and cypresses are compelling, but they give it up after a few years. And so, the list grows– made up of plants that just won’t hold up for very long here. Let your nursery professional own in your decision. As if each plant that you’re buying is perfectly suited to our soils and our climate.
- Don’t consider how well the shrub will look when combined with other shrubs alongside it. Interior decorators and coaches in team sports have taught us this. It’s not so much about how much we like individual pieces or players. It’s about how well they combine in their surroundings to complete the whole picture.
- Try to use too many different types of shrubs in our landscapes. Successful landscapers tell us that the most attractive home gardens on average-sized lots usually don’t have more than seven or eight species.
- Don’t do sufficient bed planning and preparation prior to planting. Beds end up being inadequately sized or inappropriately shaped. Soil hasn’t been improved by the addition of organic matter. That’s especially important with small shrubs and groundcovers, also with specialty shrubs that require acidic soils. That list includes azaleas, loropetalums and gardenias, among many others.
- Shrub beds need to be sized in proportion with their surroundings. Two-story houses need beds that extend out 6 to 10 or 12 feet from the house. One-story houses can have beds 5 to 8 or 10 feet wide. Lay them out in long, gentle curves for a more natural look.
I use a supple garden hose on a sunny, warm day to configure my beds. I spray with a glyphosate-only herbicide while the weeds and grasses are green and growing to eliminate all existing vegetation. Glyphosates are not active in the soil, so they do not leave residue to damage the shrubs when you plant them. But the spraying must be done before the first frost turns grasses brown.
This story was originally published November 5, 2021 5:30 AM.