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Choosing the right shrubs

by Timber Press on January 15, 2019

in Design, Gardening

Rosa ‘Jubilee Celebration’ is a wonderful English rose that blooms in midsummer and again in late summer, providing dead-heading, often called summer pruning, is carried out after the first flush of flowers. Feeding and watering are also essential.

Few gardeners are lucky enough to have perfect growing conditions: deep, well-drained, fertile soil that never dries out, a sheltered, sunny situation, and a mild climate with plenty of regular rainfall. We look enviously at gardens that come close, jealously admiring how well our favourite shrubs grow there.

In our garden, a favourite shrub, Cornus controversa ‘Variegata’, grows slowly. Every year it gains a branch and in the process loses at least one of its lower ones. At the foot of a slope it catches the cold, then the early morning sun. Late frosts can therefore cause foliage damage as frozen leaves are warmed by the early light. Our poor sandy soil is dry, so growth is never lush and vigorous. I know it is not the right plant for our garden, but that does not stop me from growing it. If it eventually turns up its roots and dies, I will undoubtedly plant another.

On a more positive note we have plenty of space, a large garden where the main restriction to the size of beds and borders is the time needed to create and maintain them. In a smaller garden we might need to be more selective, choosing shrubs of more modest proportions.

Most gardens, even small ones, have a variety of growing conditions. Variable amounts of shade, according to the time of day and the time of year. Areas where soil is moist or dry. The pH of the soil and the soil type may vary in different parts of the garden. Some areas of the garden may be more sheltered, others cold or exposed. Although most shrubs are adaptable plants that cope with a wide range of growing conditions, choosing the right plant for a particular situation needs some consideration. Choosing the wrong subject is rarely disastrous, but it can be disappointing.

Hamamelis ×intermedia ‘Jelena’ produces its ribbonpetalled blooms on bare branches in midwinter. The flowers are lightly fragrant but amazingly weather resistant. It also has the bonus of superb fall foliage colour as well as the winter flowers.

Desirable characteristics
Selecting for certain attributes is a way of focussing your planting choice. Of course the most familiar way of doing this is to choose plants for a specific colour scheme. However, the palette has to be appropriate to the setting and may be influenced by the growing conditions. For example, a pastel scheme of pinks, mauves, blues, and silver will be easy to put together for a sunny situation on dry soil but will be unlikely to succeed in shade. In contrast, green and white presents plenty of possibilities in a shady border, such as using green and white variegated evergreens with varying shades of plain green foliage.

Aromatic foliage and fragrant flowers are other important attributes that may influence some plant selections. Woody culinary herbs are attractive shrubs which are appealing not only for their ornamental value but also their use in the kitchen; the productive aspect of gardens has gained a lot of interest in recent years. Fragrant flowers always delight, whether stars of the summer or winter garden. Shrubs excel in the fragrance department at all times of the year from the daphnes which scent the winter garden to philadelphus, stars of summer fragrance.

Planting for wildlife has become a major priority for many gardeners. Shrubs that provide a valuable source of nectar and pollen or seed or fruits for wild birds can form the foundation of an entire planting scheme. Gardens are vital to the preservation of wildlife in urban and rural areas and ornamental shrubs are valuable food sources, helping to maintain continuity of supply. Although in some parts the emphasis is on native plants, most recognize the value of ornamentals in the provision of food throughout the year, particularly important with changing climate.

Alliums and nepeta add pastel colour to this sunny border in early summer with the light and uplifting foliage colour of Phlomis fruticosa and Euphorbia characias. The soft textures contrast with the strong lines of the phormium behind.

Planting for survival
Gardeners living in more rural locations may face an even more limiting factor in the selection of shrubs for their gardens: the threat of deer and rabbits. These can wreak havoc, especially on new plants. It is sometimes amazing how they will ignore an established shrub, but plant a new specimen of exactly the same thing and they will demolish it overnight.

Some shrubs are more resistant to attack than others; these are bound to influence the planting of those living in deer country, although recommendations are never definitive. The preferences of deer populations seem to vary and their tastes sometimes change, making life even more difficult. A few shrubs are certain targets: roses, evergreen euonymus, Viburnum tinus, and dogwoods, especially Cornus sanguinea, to name but a few. Clerodendrum trichotomum var. fargesii ‘Carnival’ is an attractive autumn-flowering shrub with variegated foliage. Deer and rabbits avoid this plant because the foliage smells of rubber when lightly crushed. But even if you choose more resistant subjects, protection of newly planted specimens is advised.

Cornus controversa ‘Variegata’, one of my favourite shrubs, is not ideal on our poor sandy soil. But I still attempt to grow it.

Personal preference
To some the analysis of growing conditions will seem restrictive and limiting, choosing for season of interest and desirable attributes more appealing. Personal preference will always play a very important part in plant selection, and so it should. Gardens are personal spaces, and there is no point choosing a shrub that you really do not like just because it will succeed in a specific situation. This is often an obstacle to those of us who specify and recommend plants for gardens.

I get frustrated when a client tells me that he or she only likes plants with small leaves, hates exotics, and dislikes yellow, or variegated foliage. But my frustration is unreasonable. Why should he or she like my recommendation just because I know it will grow there? After all, it is not my garden and I grow lots of unsuitable plants on my patch just because I like them.


Andy McIndoe is the former managing director of Hillier Nurseries and Garden Centers in Hampshire, England. As designer of the Hillier exhibit at the Chelsea Flower Show for more than two decades, he has upheld the company’s unprecedented record of 68 consecutive gold medals. He is now a freelance speaker, writer, and consultant.



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