Shrubs (also called bushes) are anything woody that is smaller than a tree, and which develop multiple stems from near the base itself. Shrubs also have soft wood, which thickens over time, but never of any appreciable size as compared to a tree trunk. If you do not want the commitment of planting trees, shrubs can be an alternative, and a very good one at that.
The number of shrubby species and their forms is simply too varied to go into detail here. However, shrubs are always a semi-permanent to permanent feature of the landscape of any garden, requiring not much of maintenance, and therefore, are great additions to your garden; many are long lived species as well.
What should you look out for when choosing a suitable shrub for your garden?
Compatibility with Local Conditions
Make sure that your shrubs can thrive in your climatic zone, and that they have no problems with your soil, and overall garden environment. Don’t choose a shrub that is not meant to grow optimally for your climate zone, and then “hope” that it somehow still grows. It won’t, and the result will be a lot of wasted time and energy. If you are in the US, check out this Plant Hardiness Zone Map.
Color or Visual Effect
How would the shrub fit in with your overall garden look? Shrubs meant for the garden often have colorful flowers and/or leaves. Bright yellow greens of Euonymus japonicus (variegated), or Genista racemosa, or solid greens of Holly (Ilex aquifolium), Capparis spinosa, and Carrisa macrocarpa? Or how about the reds of Prunus cistena or the blues of Bluebeard (Caryopteris cladonensis)? Plan on combining different colors to achieve the most optimal visual effect.
Size and Growth Rate
Remember to only choose a shrub that will not overgrow the space that you intended for it. You don’t want to plant something for your fence that will eventually grow into a small tree (and break your fence).
Also, take into account the growth rate of the shrub. You might want to consider planting two different types of shrubs with different growth rates side by side, as they can accentuate each other simply by developing at different speeds and having different lifespans.
Form and Leaf Texture
Shrubs have different forms, from those with incessantly “multi-stems”, to hedge-like, to more conventional treelet types. Plus, their leaves reflect their diversity, from needle-like, to hairy, to the large fans of the subtropical/tropical species. Plan on planting different shrubs together to accentuate and complement each other’s form and leaf texture, be they large or small, rough or fine textured. As mentioned, you might also consider shrubs with red leaves like the Red Robin (Photinia spp) for better visual effect.
It may not cross your mind to choose shrubs for health benefits, but some shrubs can be planted for their aroma-therapeutic effect, and thankfully, there are many species that have aromatic foliage and flowers. Shrubs like Laurel (Laurus nobilis), Japanese Skimmia (Skimmia japonica), Rocky Mountain Juniper (Juniperus scopulorum), and Common Myrtle (Myrtus communis), are but four types of shrubs with aromatic leaves and/or flowers (due to having essential oils that are fragrant). A shrub’s holistic benefits need to be taken into account as well. Imagine walking through a garden filled with fragrance at every corner!
In summary, choosing suitable shrubs for your garden is not as simple as it seems. The main thing is to ask yourself, how the shrub can thrive within the framework of your plans (and your garden). If it checks all the boxes for you, only then proceed with planting them. The benefits of planting shrubs are long term, and accrue over time – but they are well worth it.
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