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From Scratch:Shrubs For The Small Garden
by Janet Davis
by Janet Davis


Janet Davis is a freelance garden writer and horticultural photographer whose stories and images have been featured in numerous publications. Magazines featuring her work include Canadian Gardening, Canadian Living, Gardening Life, President’s Choice Magazine, Chatelaine Gardens and, in the United States, Fine Gardening and Country Living Gardener.


November 7, 2010

If you think of your property as a blank canvas on which you "paint" your garden, trees are the broad, bold strokes that give it impact. Shrubs --and to a lesser extent, perennials -- are the finely etched lines and smudges of color that give it its depth and texture.

So when you're "painting" a garden, you need to think about using shrubs for different seasons and different reasons.

Seasons? That means ensuring that at least some of the shrubs you choose provide interest in more than one season, whether it's with berries, attractive bark, interesting shape or brilliant fall leaf color. It's easy to spend the entire landscaping budget on spring-flowering shrubs, but it's a long, barren spell from May to October once the gorgeous blossoms on that otherwise dull mock orange or forsythia wither and fall.

And different reasons? Well, there are some shrubs that are great "fillers" -- inexpensive enough to be spotted through the perennial border or used en masse to fill in problem areas and provide a sense of winter structure. The spring and summer spireas are excellent examples. Then there are the prima donnas that need to be the center of attention -- the big shrubs often recommended as "specimen plants", like beauty bush or witch hazel. And there are shrubs that excel at creating boundaries or hedges, like cedar and boxwood. Other reasons come to mind: knockout fragrance, ample flowers for cutting, foliage color, or perhaps simple hardiness in the face of brutal winters.

Here are just a few shrub ideas to get you started:

Old-Fashioned Favorites in Size "Small": In a small garden, you need to think carefully about the mature size of the shrubs you plant. A young tulip magnolia (Magnolia x soulangiana) that looks adorable in its 5-gallon pot will eventually reach 25 feet and attain a spread almost as wide -- not a good choice for a postage stamp-sized garden behind a new townhouse, for example, not when there are excellent small magnolias from which to choose. Consider some of the compact "Girl Series" hybrids introduced by the U.S. National Arboretum, e.g. 'Betty' with large reddish-purple flowers at 9 feet tall, or 'Susan' with flowers that look just like the tulip magnolia at 7 feet tall. At 8 feet, star magnolia 'Royal Star' (Magnolia stellata) is also quite compact and has abundant white blossoms with ribbon-like petals. (Can. Zone 5, U.S. Zone 4)

If you're nostalgic about growing an old-fashioned lilac but don't have room for the rangy height and spread of common lilac or the French hybrids, look for the Meyer lilac 'Palibin' (Syringa meyeri). This is an excellent shrub with small leaves that change color in fall and tight, sweet-scented mauve flower clusters in spring. Because it's naturally compact at about 5 feet but is easily sheared back right after the flowers fade, it's a great choice for a low hedge. (Can. and U.S. Zone 3)

Burning bush (Euonymus alatus) is a serviceable shrub that's very hardy, with brilliant red-pink fall color when grown in sun and interesting winged branches in winter. But the dwarf cultivar 'Compactus' has even brighter fall color and only grows about 4-5 feet tall, making it a good, dense hedge. (Can. and U.S. Zone 3)

Shrubs With Architectural Shape:

Some shrubs are naturally endowed with graceful branching patterns that are pleasing to look at in all seasons, but especially in winter when the absence of foliage lets you appreciate them fully. Place these where you can appreciate them from indoors, perhaps uplit with subtle low-voltage lighting.

An excellent example is doublefile viburnum (Viburnum plicatum tomentosum). This shrub grows 8-10 feet tall with a slightly larger spread, enhancing the horizontal effect of the branches which bear big masses of white flowers in May. Needs most soil and prefers full sun, but tolerates part shade. Recommended cultivars include 'Mariesii', 'Lanarth' and 'Shasta'. (Can. Zone 6, U.S. Zone 5).

Pagoda dogwood (Cornus alternifolia) acquired its name because of the evenly layered horizontal branches with a slight upturn at the end -- resembling a Japanese pagoda. Small, creamy-white, June flower clusters are followed by dark purple berries on brightly colored stalks. Autumn color is dull purple. Grows to 15-20 feet tall and 10-12 wide, so in a very small garden, pagoda dogwood can serve as a tree (Can. Zone 3b, U.S. Zone 3).

Corkscrew hazel (Corylus avellana 'Contorta') The twisted, curly branches of this shrub or small tree, also known as Harry Lauder's Walking Stick, are spectacular under a fresh blanket of winter snow. Flower-arrangers who prize the branches for their contorted shapes forgive this little hazel its floppy, coarse summer leaves. Averages about 8 feet in height. (Can. Zone 5, U.S. Zone 4.)

Good Small Filler Shrubs:

Many of the spring- and summer-blooming spireas are undemanding, ultra-hardy filler shrubs for small gardens. Use them to lend structure to the perennial border, to screen utility areas (e.g. compost bin, air conditioner) and as soft, informal hedging. For early spring, I love 5-foot tall garland spirea (S. arguta 'Graciosa'), shown in our photo in front of a golden mock orange (see "Shrubs For a Touch of Gold", below).

Its cascading branches are blanketed in May-June with pure white flowers and its fine foliage turns yellow in fall. Like the ubiquitous, but much larger, bridalwreath spirea, garland spirea makes a lovely fountain-shaped hedge. Of the small, summer-blooming spireas with bright pink flowers, Spirea x bumalda 'Goldflame' is a choice cultivar that grows 3 feet tall with leaves that start out orange, then turn brilliant gold before turning orange again in fall. (Can. Zone

Smooth hydrangea (Hydrangea arborescens) is a carefree filler shrub for rich, moist, slightly acidic soil. Its big flowers start out green, then turn creamy-white in June, lighting up the partly shaded areas in which it flourishes. It reaches 4-5 feet height, and should be cut back and fertilized in early spring. (Can. Zone 2b, U.S. Zone 2)

Shubs with Interesting or Colored Bark:

In winter especially, colored or peeling bark is an asset. The dogwood clan contains many species with brilliant red new growth. Shearing the oldest growth back regularly in spring will guarantee continued production of the brightest young stems. Red-osier dogwood 'Cardinal' (Cornus stolonifera) is ultra-hardy and a great shrub for an area where it can sucker freely. Grows 6-8 feet tall, indeterminate width. The cultivar 'Flaviramea' has bright yellow stems looks stunning when grown alongside the red form. A related cultivar is 'White Gold', with the same golden stems but variegated leaves. The European Tatarian dogwood, Cornus alba, has a variegated form 'Elegantissima' that is lovely in shady areas, along with smooth hydrangea, above. Its new growth is not quite as vivid as red-osier dogwood, but it is not as invasive either. (Can. and U.S. Zone 2).

Double-flowered kerria (Kerria japonica) is a 6-8 foot tall shrub that flowers in considerable shade, its little yellow pom-pom blossoms appearing over a long period in June. It spreads by suckering and its bright apple-green stems are prominent in winter. Occasional winter die-back necessitates a round of spring pruning, otherwise, it's trouble-free and very good as a filler. (Can. Zone 5, U.S. Zone 4.)

Berried Treasures:

For very small gardens, the Saskatoon berry (Amelanchier alnifolia) is an excellent shrub. It grows about 8-9 feet tall with very early white blossoms and small, sweet fruit in mid-summer that is excellent for pies and a good alternative crop to blueberries in colder regions. As an ornamental, Saskatoon berry is stunning, especially when the leaves turn bright red-orange in autumn. (Can. and U.S. Zone 2). Downy serviceberry (Amelanchier canadensis) is another excellent three-season shrub, though larger (10-20 feet) and slightly less hardy than Saskatoon berry. (Can Zone 3b, U.S. Zone 3).

Hollies, both the evergreen and deciduous species, are especially valuable in the winter garden for their brilliant red berries. Note that all hollies are dioecious, meaning male and female flowers are borne on separate plants. Therefore, a male cultivar must be planted in proximity to one or more (up to 6) female plants within a 10-foot radius, in order to fertilize the flowers and produce berries. The hardiest evergreen holly is blue Meserve holly (Ilex x meserveae). Depending on the cultivar and the severity of the climate, it will reach between 5-15 feet in height and makes an excellent filler plant in the shady perennial border along with rhododendrons, ferns and hostas that also prefer morning sun. Good male cultivars include 'Blue Prince' and 'Blue Boy'; corresponding females include 'Blue Princess' and 'Blue Girl' and the newest gold-berried introduction, 'Golden Girl', which can be planted with 'Blue Prince'. Slightly hardier are the blue hollies 'China Girl' and 'China Boy'. (Can. Zone 5b, U.S. Zone 5.).

Growing about 6 feet tall, deciduous holly (Ilex verticillata) is useful for a sunny, damp area, producing brilliant winter berries similar to its evergreen cousin. It grows 6-9 feet high and almost as wide. Excellent cultivars are 'Winter Red' and 'Sparkleberry'. (Can. Zone 3b, U.S. Zone 3)

Two native shrubs for damp soil in full sun are the chokeberries. Both grow 6 feet tall with white spring flowers and brilliant autumn color. Black chokeberry (Aronia melanocarpa 'Autumn Magic') has black berries and leaves that turn fluorescent orange-red in fall. Red chokeberry (Aronia arbutifolia 'Brilliantissima') has red berries and rich-red fall color. (Can. Zone 4, U.S. Zone 4b).

There are numerous types of low cotoneasters with bright red berries that look wonderful at the edge of a walkway or patio or cascading over the edge of a pond, especially in winter. Since many are vigorous groundcovers, pruning is sometimes required to keep them in bounds. Included are cranberry cotoneaster (Cotoneaster apiculatus) which reaches about 3 feet tall with a slightly wider spread and rockspray cotoneaster (C. horizontalis) which is slightly shorter with a very large spread of 5-8 feet and an interesting herringbone pattern to the branches. (Can. Zone 5, U.S. Zone 4.) Then there's the much more prostrate creeping cotoneaster (C. adpressus 'Praecox'), about 18 inches tall with a 3-foot spread. (Can. Zone 3 U.S. Zone 3)

Shrubs with Perfumed Flowers:

In a small garden, fragrance can be a delightful reason for growing certain shrubs, especially if you situate them where the scent is trapped rather than wafting away on the wind. Or place them beside the sundeck or patio, under a window where you can enjoy the perfume up close, or flanking a walkway..

As a family, the assorted spring-flowering viburnums simply can't be beat for the spicy, clove-like scent of their blossoms. The first to bloom -- sometimes opening a few blossoms on a warm day in February or March -- is fragrant viburnum (V. farreri). It has small, light-pink flowers and grows 8-12 feet high and wide. A better choice for a small garden is its dwarf form 'Nanum', which grows 3-4 feet tall and as wide. Burkwood's viburnum (V. x burkwoodii) flowers next, in late April or early May in my garden. A rounded shrub to 10 feet tall and almost as wide, it's leaves are semi-evergreen and the flowers are smaller than some of its cousins but exquisitely scented and lovely to cut and bring into the house. (Canadian Zone 6, U.S. Zone 5.) Next is Koreanspice viburnum (V. carlesii), a small, but dense shrub about 6 feet tall and wide with rounded flower clusters bearing pink buds that open white and exude a very spicy scent. (Can. Zone 5b, U.S. Zone 4). Most fragrant of all are the big blossoms of the last scented viburnum to bloom, the fragrant snowball viburnum ( V. x carlcephalum) which can reach 10 feet tall and wide. In my garden, I've espaliered this shrub against a sundeck wall, encouraging it to grow up and flower at the level of a bench on the deck, where I can sit and inhale the scent in late May. Alas, the squirrels find it as enticing as I do -- eating the flower buds as they plump up in early spring and forcing me to tie bits of panti-hose loosely around them in an attempt to foil the rascally rodents. (Can. Zone 6, U.S. Zone 5.).

Azaleas hybridized from the native American swamp azalaea, Rhododendron viscosum have a delicious clove-like scent. In a fragrant corner of my garden, I grow the Viscosum hybrid 'Soir de Paris', with peach-orange blossoms in June. One of several azaleas named for famous perfumes (others include yellow 'Arpege' and pink 'Jolie Madame'.), it likes damper soil than most, because of its parentage. (Can. and U.S. Zone 4)

Shrubs for A Touch of Gold:

Bright gold or lime-green leaves can be an interesting contrast to dark green foliage, and make a good background to perennials with "hot" flower colors of red, orange and bright yellow.

Consider 'Dart's Gold' ninebark (Physocarpus opulifolius), a rugged, ultra-hardy little 3-foot tall shrub with creamy white June flowers and brilliant golden-yellow leaves in spring and early summer that turn darker green late in the season. (Canadian Zone 2b, U.S. Zone 2).

Golden mockorange (Philadelphus coronarius 'Aureus') is an old-fashioned favorite, and though its white blossoms are not as fragrant as other mockorange cultivars, its main appeal is the luminous color of the leaves. It grows about 8 feet tall and makes an excellent hedge. (Can. and U.S. Zone 3).

Of the elegant European cutleaf elders (Sambucus racemosa), 'Sutherland Golden' is a little hardier and retains its gold color better through the season than others. The leaves contrast beautifully with the abundant red berries it produces in late summer. It grows 8-10 feet tall and wide. (Can. and U.S. Zone 3).


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