The Garden Management System
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Low Maintenance Shrubs
Centre of the City, Toronto, July/August 2005

To help give the angular edges of your garden a softer, more curvy and natural appearance, shrubs are an excellent choice. By placing shrubs along your fence, for example, you can vary that 50 foot length of straight, boring fence, add some colour, and give your border plants a living backdrop. And if you make smart selections, you can reduce your garden workload at the same time.

With foliage ranging from lime-green to maroon to almost silver, shrubs can provide colour contrast, even without their blooms. Golden ninebark, for example, and as the name suggests, has golden leaves that appear mid- to late spring. Those who buy this shrub do so for the foliage. The fact that it produces delicate tufts of pale pink flowers mid-summer is a bonus. It dies back in winter, though, so don’t make this your centerpiece. Instead, perhaps consider the dogwood varieties, with deep red-hued branches often hung with left-over berries, long after their variegated foliage has fallen.

Beside your ninebark, consider one of the many varieties of weigela, or the purple sandcherry. Providing a pretty deep maroon backdrop in your garden, this shrub gives you bouncy little pink flowers in May and lovely foliage through the season. Let it grow wild, for a freer, more natural look, or keep it tidy and tight, depending on your taste and available time.

Boxwood’s appearance works in contrast to the sandcherry, with tiny, tight foliage that holds its shape with a simple trim in spring and fall. These reliable shrubs are tough, slow-growing, and make excellent foundation plants. Mix it with other slow-growers like holly for year-round interest across the house-front. Shrubs that don’t lose their leaves work especially well to add focus to your front entrance, along a path, or to surround a bed in the centre of the lawn.

Many euonymus also keep their leaves through the winter. Choices abound in variety and colour, from the boring to the exotic, and from climbers to plump little shrubs no larger than a perennial. Euonymus alatus (Burning Bush) drops its leaves, but before it does, they turn fiery red, in apology for doing so.

If flowering shrubs are more to your liking, you must check out the stunning viburnum plicatum tomentosum. Depending on the cultivar you select, they grow 4-12 feet tall, horizontal branches laden with stunning flower clusters of large sterile florets surrounding small fertile flowers,. That description is woefully inadequate in describing the beauty of this bloom and the grace of this remarkably undemanding plant.

Azalea Northern Lights gives you almost more flower than plant, at the end of May. The blooms wilt quickly at the slightest hint of drought, though, and are a bit messy to clean up once they fade. In contrast to the soft form of the azalea, prickly Japanese quince has stunning little red flowers that appear before foliage on established shrubs. Looking great from mid-spring, is the reliable forsythia. If it has been a particularly nasty winter, you may not get the recognizable yellow flower but it will green-up nicely.

Spirea, too, is very recognizable, and comes in a variety of shapes and colours, from giants 10 feet tall and wide, to little 3-foot miniatures. Flowers are usually white or pink, formed on draping boughs or tight branches, depending on the cultivar. Foliage colour varies from yellow to lime green to deep green.

When buying your shrubs, as with perennial or annual plants, you need to consider the amount of light and the type of soil that are available for the plant. Read the plant tags. Remember that some shrubs will take a few years to reach the height you desire, so a mix of fast- and slow-growing plants may be best.

You should also consider location – if the shrub will be very exposed, it may need protection. Consider the shape you need for a spot. Shrubs can be tall or short, wide or narrow. They can have a multi-stemmed base or a single trunk, and grow naturally into a ball shape, a cone, or in a layered-look with horizontal branching.

While many shrubs are said to be low-maintenance, that depends on your definition. If you want to stick it in the ground and ignore it ever after, it will probably live, but not likely live up to its potential. A little trimming of lower branches early on will ensure that the bottom of the shrub stays bushy, which is what you want to keep the ground covered, keep the plant healthy, and keep those weeds at bay. Pruning a little each year will ensure that your shrubs don’t get too thin and lanky, and will give you a much better showing.

And once you’ve got those shrubs nicely planted, consider some contrasting perennials to surround them. Oh yes, you can go on forever, like this.

Helen Kirkup
HMK Consultants
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Also by Helen Kirkup:
The Kirkups: Pioneers & Travellers
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