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Midwest Gardening: Putting Shrubs to Work

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Shrubs are essential elements in Midwestern gardens. They contribute blooms, colorful berries, structure, fall color, and shelter and sustenance for the birds.

house with witch hazel and boxwoods
boxwood balls in brick porch

By Marty Ross

Shrubs are some of the hardest-working plants in any garden, and in the past few years the selection of beautiful hardy shrubs for the Midwest has grown tremendously. Gardeners are finding great new ways to use them.

Evergreens always are in style. Boxwoods are among my favorites, and many excellent varieties thrive in Midwestern gardens. ‘Green Velvet’ is one of the best. ‘Green Mountain’ and ‘Chicagoland Green’ are two other especially hardy cultivars, each with an attractive natural shape. Kristopher Dabner, a garden designer and owner of The Greensman in Kansas City, designed a lively boxwood garden for a client, with clipped boxwood globes in spaces set into the bricks on her front porch.

lilacs in bloom

Lilacs are old-time favorites in sunny Midwestern gardens. They grow vigorously and make a graceful privacy hedge—plus the neighbors on both sides can pick fragrant flowers for bouquets in spring. My favorite way to grow them is a mixed border with other shrubs and small trees. Try lilacs (including dwarf Korean lilacs such as ‘Miss Kim’ and reblooming Bloomerang) with viburnums, hollies, and hydrangeas.

beautybush flowers

If you’re gardening for the birds, plant lots of shrubs: They’re instant habitat plants. Birds look for insects among the twigs and build their nests in larger shrubs. The tall canes of beautybush (Kolkwitzia amabilis), covered with light-pink blooms in early summer, shelter birds year-round.

holly with berries

Birds love the berries and shelter provided by evergreen and deciduous viburnums and hollies. New plantings of shrubs such as these naturally increase the bird population in your backyard. ‘Winter Red’ is my favorite deciduous holly. After it drops its leaves in fall, the bright-red berries last for months, until the birds have eaten the last one. Arrowwood viburnum (V. dentatum) and cranberry bush viburnum (V. trilobum) are hardy, beautiful natives, and great choices for a bird garden. While there are many worthy arrowwood viburnum cultivars, I do have a favorite cranberry bush viburnum: ‘Redwing’.

fall color - witch hazel

Shrubs with showy fall foliage can rival the flash of Midwestern maples, and they bring the glorious autumnal display down to your own level. Oakleaf hydrangea’s large leaves turn deep crimson and hold their color until early winter. That’s when you suddenly notice that only the strikingly pretty peeling stems remain, casting beautiful shadows on the snow. The spectacular reds, yellows, and golds of witch hazels’ fall foliage stops traffic on my block. They’re like the flickering flames of a harvest bonfire. The air is getting crisp, but witch hazels give the garden a warm glow long into fall.

What ideas have you come up with for growing shrubs?

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