Shrubs

Shrubs are deciduous or evergreen woody plants and provide a variety of fragrant flowers, berries, autumn colour, foliage and coloured stems. In addition, they add shape and a basic structural framework to the garden and provide shelter and a food source for wildlife. They can be evergreen (retain leaves in winter) or deciduous (lose leaves in winter), although there are some that lose their leaves only in very cold weather (semi-evergreen).

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Quick facts

Group Shrubs
Planting time October and April
Height and spread From less than 45cm (18in) to more than 4m (12ft) height and spread.
Aspect sun, part shade or shade
Hardiness H7 (very hardy) to H1a (heated greenhouse - tropical)   
Difficulty Difficult to Easy

Choosing and planting shrubs

Shrubs vary substantially in shape, size and habit and come from a wide range of habitats and climatic conditions.

With an enormous range of shrubs, both deciduous, evergreen and semi-evergreen, offered by garden centres and nurseries it is possible to find ones to suit a wide range of sites. Selecting the right shrub for the right place and soil conditions and buying a good quality plant is important if the shrub is to thrive.

A shrubs native habitat indicates the growing conditions it requires in the garden. Most shrubs are usually reliable and easy to plant successfully but some from warmer climates suffer in winter and need the shelter of a wall or greenhouse and well-drained conditions. Others such as ericaceous (lime-hating) shrubs including rhododendrons and camellia thrive in a moist acid soil and should not be planted in dry, alkaline or limed soils.

Routine shrub maintenance

  • Feeding: Shrubs are not demanding and in most cases annual feeding with 50-100g per sq m (1½-3oz sq yd) of general-purpose fertiliser every late winter will suffice. Shrubs in containers need feeding from early spring until late summer
  • Mulching: Shrubs benefit from mulching to suppress weeds, provide nutrients, improve soil conditions and conserve moisture. Shrubs are usually mulched in late winter, after any fertiliser application, but can be mulched any time between autumn and late spring provided the ground is damp 
  • Watering: Although newly planted shrubs need careful watering, once established they usually need little water
  • Deadheading: Although all shrubs benefit if spent flowers are cut off, if time is limited the most benefit comes from deadheading Kalmia, lilac (Syringa) and rhododendrons
  • Container-grown shrubs: Need careful watering and feeding, and, every few years, repotting, either into a bigger pot or into the same pot after replacing 30 percent of roots and potting media
  • Reversion and sports: Remove reverted shoots promptly
  • Suckers: Remove any shoots arising from below graft level (e.g. with rhododendrons) or from the roots (e.g. with tree peonies)

Pruning and training

To keep shrubs healthy, productive and attractive as well as to restrict their size, shrubs often need pruning. This can cause gardeners concern but these simple guides should help:

Propagation

Many shrubs can be raised from cuttings; softwood, semi-ripe or hardwood. Others can be raised from seed.

Cultivar selection

Problems

Shrubs are usually very robust garden plants, but sometimes will start to decline for no apparent reason. This often starts with browning leaves but may indicate an underlying disease such as honey fungus, phytophthora root rot or verticillium wilt.

Yellow leaves (chlorosis) indicate a nutrient deficiency.

Newly planted trees have their own set of problems.

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