Why Plant Shrubs

By George Graine, Fairfax Master Gardener
“All gardening is landscape painting.” Horace Walpole in :On Modern Gardening” (1780)

When landscape designers say something like “Shrubs are a part of the bones of a garden,” what does that really mean and is that some kind of mystique jargon? Not really, because “Garden-pedia” defines shrub as a woody plant, smaller than a tree, with several stems or branches arising near the base or at ground level — also sometimes called a bush. An interesting garden question one might ask is: Are shrubs like the middle child in a family of trees and flowers? To those who garden they will probably answer with a resounding NO! A new book called “Shrubs: Discover the Perfect Plant for Every Place in Your Garden” by Andy McIndoe (Timber Press, 2018) provides positive proof that shrubs can indeed provide the glue that holds a landscape together… like bones.

Shrubs book coverMany books on shrubs are heavy on the three S’s: sun, shade, soil (pH, the degree of acidity and alkalinity); however, there are many other important conditions that gardeners face. Aside from USDA plant hardiness zones (noted for every plant described in the book), soil is the primary factor for attaining good shrub health and continued survival. Note that over time soil will change its characteristics. Space does not permit further explanation. Suffice to say it is a good idea to have a quality soil test (e.g., by VA Tech soils lab) taken about once every three years. This test will determine what you need to do (perhaps alter the pH and advise on nutrient uptake) in order to enhance your soil for a specific planting area.

The abundant points and emphasis made in “Shrubs” are specific and provide good reasons for why to plant, what to plant and where to plant shrubs. Unlike other shrub books this one is not designed as an alphabetical encyclopedia. “Shrubs” is a reasonably complete read as indicated in the book sub-title. Starting with the last chapter first, this is the piece de resistance because here is where you will read about the author’s abundant choices for shrubs with desirable characteristics. A beautiful color photo accompanies each plant description, and often the plants included exhibit architectural and dramatic effects for impact, screening and shelter for wildlife. There are also numerous pages on long-blooming shrubs and those with fragrant flowers. This chapter ends with a reminder about deer and rabbit resistant shrubs, and it is important to understand how to cope with this problem.

The author starts his shrub book explaining how to choose the “right” shrub, planting and care. Many gardeners are familiar with the mantra of right plant — right place and perhaps this should be expanded to include right purpose or function. An extensive and critical section describes how to have success with your shrub plantings. This information goes beyond the three S’s noted earlier. As an example, your challenge may be wet or compacted soil. Another problem occurs when you move into a new house, and need to deal with the OMG “new construction” soil. And of course, we have natural elements of hot and dry conditions including the possibility of a long drought. Not to be forgotten is a hard winter when snow, frigid temperatures and high winds occur. Virginia is a four-season state, so you need to expect the unexpected, that is, a variety of many conditions. The point of recognizing these natural occurrences will help to determine the ideal plants for your landscape. Nothing seems to be a sure thing due to the capricious nature of weather. We need to accept as a fact that we mortals are not in control because our seasons are truly unpredictable. In fact, the seasons can become erratic and even extreme.

Recall what happened to your landscape in 2017 and 2018, and this makes the point. Could some of the problems have been prevented? Sure, but in some situations you might have fought a losing battle when you consider the deluge of rain during 2018. Therefore, it is important to recognize that shrubs must deal with the challenges of nature and at times you need to “intervene” in order for your plants to survive. A word of caution is in order regarding plant tags because they often have limited information. In this regard, consider doing your own internet search before you buy plants. Of course, you can ignore some cultural admonitions, and perhaps you may be successful (lucky?) if you are into “horticultural experimentation.” Perhaps heeding the warning to plant in a protected area is actually good advice.

The third chapter has a lot of unique information that is not often discussed; however, it is important for landscape strategy. If you have noticed the abundance of townhouse development, then you can rightly surmise how restricted the available area is for planting anything. Likewise, the footprint of many new houses leaves minimal space for planting shrubs, trees, flowers, vegetables etc. All is not lost and do not despair, if this is your situation. Consider containers, especially those with architectural interest. In addition to the ubiquitous flower arrangements, there are many miniature and dwarf conifers as well as small-sized shrubs that are suitable for a constrained planting area. “Shrubs” is especially helpful for solving the problems associated with narrow areas, steep slopes and banks. If you have less growing room, then you might consider popular upright plant alternatives. Look for a plant tag that includes the word “fastigiated.” This is a clue meaning the growth habit where branches are erect and parallel to the trunk and central leader of the plant. Another way to accommodate a limited space is to grow plants on a wall, fence or trellis. If you are lucky, you may find a garden center that carries espalier plants that have been trained to grow flat against a support. This man-made manipulation makes an interesting architectural display.

In summary, shrubs are hard-working plants in your landscape. By comparison to other plant families, shrubs are not fussy. Many other plants are short-lived and at times unreliable. Shrubs will put on a good show for many years depending on your own preferences. Giving thought and planning, there is a shrub for every season and location. This applies to size, texture, color and other considerations that are important to you. Therefore, consider shrubs as a long-term plant because most shrubs will survive for many years and at the same time provide you with enjoyment. As a final comment, the author writes “Always consider foliage first and flowers second. Leaves last far longer and are the fabric of a planting scheme; flowers are fragile embroidery.” And now you know WHY PLANT SHRUBS. They will make a difference in your landscape.