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Choosing Shrubs for Your Garden

Shrubs have the advantage of providing year-round interest to a landscape. Find out how to choose a shrub that will beautify your garden and thrive.

Photo credit: Penn State Master Gardener Program

While annuals add color to the garden for the entire growing season, for a more permanent contribution to the landscape consider adding some new and/or underutilized shrubs to your garden. They can be found to fit nearly every garden situation, ranging in size from 18 inches to 12 feet or more. While annuals need to be re-planted every spring and perennials may require staking and/or division to maintain their health, shrubs require neither. Plant a shrub and watch it mark the seasons for decades. The garden year can begin and end with the wiry flowers of witch hazel, starting with Asian cultivars (Hamamelis x intermedia) that burst on the scene in dreary February to our native or American witch hazel (Hamamelis virginiana) that blooms in late fall. In the winter, evergreen shrubs may be the only bit of green gracing a smaller garden .

A garden comprised of a mix of well-chosen plants provides year round interest. A mass planting of one type of plant adds architectural strength to a design but it has its downside. A diverse planting featuring a mix of woody and herbaceous plants allows the garden to shrug off pest or disease challenges that can devastate a monoculture of a single species.

Annuals are herbaceous plants that produce flower or foliage color spanning the entire growing season. Perennials are herbaceous plants that die to the ground in the winter and re-emerge in spring. Most have a bloom time of around 4-6 weeks and include time honored favorites such as peonies (Paeonia) and hosta, as well as native species like certain goldenrod (Solidago spp.) and ferns. Woody plants found in many landscapes include large shade trees or smaller ornamental trees such as crabapple (Malus spp.) and magnolia. Shrubs are exceptionally useful woody plants that can add further diversity to the landscape. Most flowering shrubs bloom for around four weeks and many produce berries after blooming to create a second season of interest.

Whether you are into cut flowers like voluptuous hydrangeas, or lilacs (Syringa spp.) whose scent takes you back to your childhood, there are perfect shrubs for every garden. As for utility, shrubs can be chosen to stabilize a hillside, create a hedge, provide fruits for the table, absorb storm water or attract wildlife. The palette of native shrubs is vast, and renewed interest in native plants means that they are now commercially available. Perhaps the greatest attribute of shrubs is their carefree nature. They are a boon to the busy gardener or one whose joints are aging fast.

When introducing any plant to your garden, it pays to do your homework. Before jumping to buy that rhododendron with its pretty trusses of flowers ranging from white to deep purple, it is important to know that it will bake in full sun, can get up to 12 feet tall and that deer find it delicious. The dictum “right plant, right place” should be heeded. Consider the following elements when choosing a shrub.

  • Light: Full sun is 6+ hours per day; part sun is 4-6 hours of sun per day; part shade is 2-4 hours of sun per day; dappled shade is the area under a mature tree; full shade is 2 hours or less of sun. This timing is presumed to be a mid-summer observation. Be a realist. There are plants that will thrive with very little sunlight, but the range of choice is narrow.
  • Exposure: Windy, exposed sites can desiccate plants, especially broad-leaved evergreens. Siting them with a bit of protection afforded by existing vegetation, topography, or buildings can be helpful.
  • Soil Composition: Most of our soils are heavy on clay and shale. Clay soils drain more slowly and can set plants up for the most common reason for plant loss—poor drainage, which starves roots of oxygen. Compost is the single best clay-buster you can add to your beds.
  • Moisture: There are shrubs that thrive in dry conditions and those that can handle wet locations, even those that occasionally flood. If you cannot provide supplemental water to a planting, but sure to know if you have chosen a plant that can tolerate dry spells.

Get a soil test: Know if the native soil is acidic, neutral and alkaline and if there are any nutrient deficiencies present. Soil tests can be obtained at many nurseries or directly from Penn State. Penn State soil testing 

While forsythia and rhododendrons have their place, there are myriad shrub choices available at well-established nurseries. There are even a few “bad actors,”—plants sold because they’re easy to propagate and hard to kill, but that are becoming invasive in our woodlands and wild spaces. We suggest alternative choices for the likes of burning bush (Euonymus alatus) and barberries (Berberis spp.), two plants which are crowding out native species in our region.

If you are seeking to simplify the garden and lighten your load, shrubs should top your list. Future articles will feature less commonly planted, but excellent shrubs that can solve many landscaping challenges and enhance the garden.

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