Too often relegated to masking foundation walls, forming hedges or screens, or worse- used as random geometric ‘objets de vert’ placed about the lawn, shrubs are among the most misused and underutilized ornamental plants. And because only a small percentage of species are commonly used in home landscaping, many home gardeners dismiss shrubs as useful only as a backdrop for more dramatic flowering trees and perennials. Properly utilized, however, shrubs are a beautiful and a valuable addition to any landscape in their own right.
Shrubs look bestand perform bestwhen massed. Grouping several species of shrubs with similar cultural requirements in a single, well-mulched bed has several advantages. The shaded soil beneath the shrubs greatly reduces the need for supplemental watering; fallen leaves can be left in place adding to the mulch blanket; and mowing around one single large bed is much simpler than maneuvering around a number of individual plants.
When choosing shrubs, look beyond the monochrome junipers and yews that are as common as mashed potatoes–and about as exciting. Spice up your landscaping with shrubs that feature interesting color, shape, texture, blossom, and berries. Bright autumn color in leaf and berry are especially wonderful. Be bold in your use of these plants; their brilliance comes at a time when it’s most needed. One of my most successful plantings is a bed of orange-berried Pyracantha, red-leafed Barberry, crimson-berried Cotoneaster, and scarlet-leafed Euonymus alatus compacta ‘Burning Bush’ all set against a backdrop of Juniperis horizontalis ‘Wilton Carpet’. Far from looking garish, this bold splash of color arriving in late October and persisting past Christmas is most welcome.
The five listed here are tops for year ’round good looks, easy maintenance, and high pest- and disease-resistance.
- Barberry: Two of the best are Rosy Glow (Berberis thunbergi ‘Rosy Glow’) and Crimson Pygmy (B.t. ‘Crimson Pygmy’). Upright Rosy Glow will reach a mature height of 2′ to 4′; Crimson Pygmy forms low mounds of about 2′ in height. Both feature deep wine-red summer foliage that turns brilliant flame-red in autumn. Small, profuse, creamy flowers cover the bushes in late spring, followed by bright red fruit that persists well into winter. Low-growing, thorny, but manageable, barberries are excellent as hedge plants, windbreaks, and wildlife cover. No pests or diseases.
- Cotoneaster: Lots of cultivars to choose from. My picks are Lowfast (Cotoneaster dammeri ‘Lowfast’), Robusta (C. d. ‘Robusta), and Rockspray (C.d. thymifolius). All are vigorous, fast-growing plants that can be used to form a dense, evergreen groundcover replete with cream or pink-tinged blossoms in May and followed by bright, holly-like berries throughout the autumn and winter. Rockspray is a finer-leafed, dwarfed version, but equally vigorous and hardy. Japanese beetle susceptible, but can shrug off even heavy defoliation. No diseases.
- Viburnum: All cultivars of the huge Viburnum species are excellent landscape shrubs, with bold white spring flowers, brilliant autumn color, and winter berries that are very attractive to birds and wildlife. One of the best is Winterthur (V. nudum ‘Winterthur’) slow-growing to 6′; cream flowers in spring, followed by pink and blue berries and rich purple autumn foliage.
- Pyracantha: Because early introductions were prone to scab and fire blight, and could often be wildly erratic in habit, pyracantha has fallen from favor with most landscapers. New introductions are hardy, disease resistant, and have well-defined, easily maintained shapes. Back-of-border use only–all pyracantha have wicked thorns! Smothered in tiny, cream-and-pink spring blossoms, pyracantha leafs out with dark, shiny, semi-evergreen foliage followed by brilliant orange berries. Two new U.S. National Arboretum introductions are well worth a look: Pyracantha x ‘Pueblo,’ a broad, compact, spreading cultivar and Pyracantha x ‘Teton,’ a tall, but well-behaved columnar variety.
- Dogwood: Cornus alba, the Red Osier Dogwood and C. sericea. ‘Flaviramea,’ the Yellow-Twigged Dogwood, are two underused shrubs that really deserve better. Tough, vigorous, disease- and pest-resistant, these shrubs take second place behind their showy, tree-sized Cornus cousins in the springtime flower show, but really come into their own after leaf drop when their spectacular bark color stands out in fiery red and glowing gold against the stark late autumn background. And when it snows, these shrubs positively ignite! Excellent when used against a backdrop of dark yews or pines, or as a focal point in an expanse of snow-blanketed lawn.