By Marty Ross
Shrubs give a garden depth and character -- and in the Midwest that’s important. Annual and perennial flowers and foliage are beautiful, of course. But through the challenges of every season, shrubs add substance and texture to flowerbeds and keep them looking lively.
Look beyond the usual suspects in the neighborhood. Native shrubs are among the toughest for our climate, and they’re great choices for low-maintenance gardens. Handsome beautyberry (Callicarpa americana), which supplies clusters of iridescent purple berries for birds in fall and winter, grows to about 5 feet tall and wide but is easy to prune.
Fothergilla’s white, bristly bottlebrush flowers are exceptionally showy in spring. The shrub grows slowly, needs little pruning, ignores pests, and turns heads in the fall, when the leaves put on a spectacular display of fiery colors.
Big blue- or pink-flowering hydrangeas (Hydrangea macrophylla), native to Asia, are old-fashioned, hardworking favorites in Midwestern gardens. New cultivars bloom reliably, even after tough winters. I love two natives: smooth hydrangea (H. arborescens), with white globes of bloom; and oakleaf hydrangea (H. quercifolia), which has enormous, richly textured leaves along with generous panicles of white flowers that fade slowly to russet pink. Oakleaf hydrangea’s rich, wine-red fall foliage lasts for weeks, and the shrub’s exfoliating bark appears interesting all winter long.
Smoke tree (Cotinus coggygria) is native to Europe but looks right at home with tall ornamental grasses and other native plants. Purple-leaf smoke tree is especially striking. The American smoke tree (C. obovatus) is a worthy specimen too, and hardy to Zone 4. It can be grown as a small tree or large shrub.
Slender deutzia (Deutzia gracilis) is another old-time favorite shrub, a native of Japan and hardy to Zone 5. Where it is not winter hardy, it makes a graceful container plant. Pretty, white flowers cover deutzia in spring. New cultivars have chartreuse foliage (‘Chardonnay Pearls’), pink flowers (‘Cherry Blossom’), and creamy-white variegated leaves (‘Creme Fraiche’).
Don’t forget the evergreen shrubs: Striking background plants for flower gardens through the summer, they also sparkle in the winter light. ‘Green Velvet’ is my favorite boxwood for the Midwest; ‘Chicagoland Green’ is another hardy and reliable cultivar. Both have naturally attractive, bushy habits, or shape them into a hedge or to suit your fancy. Naturally conical ‘Green Mountain’ makes a pretty punctuation point in a flowerbed or next to the front door.
Take a walk around your neighborhood -- or one of the Midwest’s great botanic gardens -- and study the shrubs in the flowerbeds and in the mixed borders with perennials and trees. Be inspired, then make a list, and find a spot to plant some in your own garden. The cooler days of late summer and fall are a great time to enliven your garden with shrubs.