By Irene Virag
As I mature as a gardener, I appreciate shrubs more and more. Or maybe the shrubs and I are settling in together.
This is not to undervalue annuals and perennials, but they come and go. Of course I love them too, but even the hardiest perennials fade with the cold. Shrubs are permanent structures. Deciduous shrubs entertain us through winter with colorful berries flashing through the snow, or bare branches turning into glittering wands. And when the world plays dead, what is more heartwarming than an evergreen?
How then do I love them? Let me count the ways.
Shrubs are plants for all reasons, as well as seasons. They can camouflage the compost pile, create a barrier from the street, act as a windbreak, grow into a living fence, frame a view, or direct traffic, as well as the eye, along a pathway.
When you’re selecting a shrub, think about its versatility, as well as its virtues. If you’re going to use it as a screen, consider arborvitae or yews. Or if you’re enclosing an area—say a rose garden or a vegetable parterre—boxwood is an excellent choice. A towering holly hedge serves as a backdrop for the roses that grow on the side of my driveway.
And shrubs have been my saviors when it comes to my foundation planting.
When we moved into our home 21 years ago, the giant rhododendrons along the foundation screened the house from view, but they also turned the picture window in my living room into a joke. We could barely see anything through the mass of green branches. So we dug up the rhododendrons and replanted them around the periphery of our property. Now the big bushes provide privacy from the street—and an evergreen backdrop for my daylilies.
We replaced the rhododendrons with smaller, slow-growing cultivars of azaleas and andromedas. And an absolutely gorgeous Sambucus Black Lace softens an awkward angle of the house’s facade, filling it with filigreed burgundy foliage and lacy, pink springtime flowers. Other shrubs that can transform foundations include spirea and Virginia sweetspire (Itea), with its dangling bottlebrush-like creamy flowers and blazing autumn foliage.
Shrubs don’t have to take supporting roles. They can star in their own right. As a focal point I offer a blue rose of Sharon (Hibiscus syriacus) that has become a showstopper down by my pool and draws all eyes to the shimmering freshwater pond beyond it.
And there’s the mugo pine by my mailbox. It was an overgrown blob that I was ready to dump. But then my husband and I hired a “shrub whisperer” named Mike Neokleous, who revealed its graceful limbs and lovingly pruned it into an evergreen work of art.
Shrubs can take solo roles or dazzle en masse: hydrangeas, for instance; or shrub roses, such as Knock Out; or buddleia; or weigela. Buddleia, as you know, is ambrosia for butterflies, and it’s hard to go wrong with hydrangeas. As a child I didn’t even know their proper name—even though I saw mostly pink ones in my childhood environs, I called them “snowball bushes.” Now I’ve been entranced for years by a hydrangea in my garden that’s a mélange of blue, purple, and pink flowers.
And it is impossible for me to talk about shrubs without mentioning lilacs, whose gentle and fleeting beauty and soft scent are the essence of spring.
Finally, if you’re looking for a pick-me-up in winter, try redtwig or yellowtwig dogwoods. They’re both good for the soul.
Whatever the case, treasure your shrubs. I’m settling in with mine and I couldn’t be happier.
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