The Dirt

I’m trying to restrain myself and not go mad over the shrubbery. This is the year I’m redoing my garden, and shrubs are essential to the plan. But which ones?

Euonymus by any other name: Whether you call it winged, dwarf or burning, this Euonymus alatus will provide brilliant color come fall. Photo by Cinthia Milner

Every shrub I see, I want — and I see them absolutely everywhere. Fothergilla (a great four-season shrub) at the soccer fields, ‘Annabelle’ hydrangeas (totally Southern) lining hotel driveways, and Euonymus (that name is impossible) of every cultivar, shape and size in so many Asheville parking lots.

My flower-bed plants are perennials, biennials or annuals—some short-lived (three to four years), some going on 20 years now. And, of course, there are the very short-lived annuals that get tossed on the compost pile after the first frost. None are overly expensive, costing about as much as a seed packet or small plant, and all are relatively easy to transplant should their circumstances change (such as encroaching shade). This makes it easier to scrap them if they don’t work out. I can afford to take risks here and there and not worry too much about the results.

But shrubs are another matter. They’re expensive (especially the larger ones), they live longer, and they don’t transplant easily: Once a shrub is established, it’s sort of like trying to move a tree. This forces the gardener to plan. As a former urban planner, I’ve come to hate that word — which is why I have to restrain myself. So it’s important that I buy thoughtfully (another concept I rebel against).

With all this in mind, I forced myself to make a list of questions to consider before purchasing. Perhaps they’ll help you, too.

Shrubs are great for a garden primarily because they take up more space, which cuts down on weeding. But they can also add bloom, fragrance and architectural interest; be fall-fruiting; and even serve as barriers for the dogs (an automatic improvement in neighborly relations, since you’ll stop yelling at the dogs to get out of the garden).

That points toward a number of questions to ponder. First, do you want evergreen or deciduous shrubs? Evergreens will provide color in winter; the hollies are good for this. Deciduous shrubs will drop their leaves in winter, but they can compesate with brilliant fall color. Think burning bush (Euonymus alatus) or smooth sumac (Rhus glabra).

Next, do you want shrubs purely for ornamental reasons, or could you use a privacy screen? Maybe a barrier for the nasty dog that lives next door or the cat that thinks your flower bed is her litter box? Shrubs can be ornamental while also serving a practical purpose. Again, lots of the hollies would be suitable, but many of the boxwoods would too. The latter are dense enough to prevent small animals from traveling back and forth, and many of the hollies have spines (thorns, in layman’s terms). Some trees — beeches and hemlocks, for instance — can also be pruned to shrub size, providing a screen throughout most of the year.

Another key question is, how big a plant do you really need? My forsythias habitually take over the front porch in summer and have to be pruned back several times; I should have given them more room to begin with. Be sure to consider the shrub’s eventual size before you plant: In a small yard, one big shrub can be the garden’s focal point.

Do you want blooms? And what about fragrance? I don’t think a garden is complete without lilacs, whose sweet aroma is indescribable, but they can get fairly large. My own is up to 15 feet tall with as much as a 10-foot spread. The ‘Meyer’ lilac — more compact and rounded, with just as many blooms and wonderful fragrance —might be a better choice for a small garden.

What about shade or sun? Azaleas do need some shade, but overly shaded hydrangeas won’t produce those large, mop-head flowers.

And last, do you mind if the shrub has lots of baby shrubs? Burning bush, for example, re-seeds like mad and can become invasive. You won’t mind if you have a big area you want to turn screaming red each fall. But if not, a better choice might be Virginia sweetspire. It colonizes and boasts a beautiful fall color, but it won’t take over your yard.

This may seem like a lot of questions just to get a shrub, but take it from a woman who has impulse issues where the garden is concerned: When it comes to shrubbery, a little planning goes a long way.
Cinthia Milner lives in Leicester.
Shrubs are great for a garden primarily because they take up more space, which cuts down on weeding, but they can also add bloom, fragrance and architectural interest.

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