What Are Shrubs?

Shrubs are the stalwarts of a perennial border, the heroes of hedges, and can work alone as individual specimens or in mixed planting schemes in a range of settings. They are woody-stemmed perennial plants, which can be either deciduous or evergreen. And can vary hugely in shape, size and appearance.

Shrubs, sometimes also known as bushes, are shorter than trees, typically under 6-10m tall, and have multiple stems rather than a single trunk. Shrubs that are under around 2m tall are sometimes referred to as sub-shrubs, though these are usually lumped into the same category. One thing to note is that certain low-growing trees can be shrub-like in form, so there can be a little blurring of the lines between these two categories.

Shrubs are sometimes included in growing areas containing a number of them. These are known as shrubberies. Though there has been some snobbery over the idea of garden shrubberies in recent years, they can be useful and interesting ideas to consider for a garden. They are low maintenance and easy to care for, and can require a lot less work than many other plants when you choose the right ones for the right places.

Shrubs can be an excellent choice for planting below trees, in borders of the garden, or in a forest garden or similar perennial polyculture planting scheme. They can also work well at the back or towards the back of a herbaceous border. A number of shrubs are wall shrubs that can be planted up against a wall or fence. Some shrubs can also work well as individual specimen plants, and many can be grown relatively easily in containers.

Many shrubs are grown for ornamental reasons. But there are also plenty that serve practical purposes in a garden, including fruit bushes, nitrogen fixers, and shrubs to attract beneficial wildlife to the space.

Popular Shrubs Grown In The UK

A great many shrubs are grown in UK gardens. Here are some of the most popular options:

How To Care For Shrubs

Shrubs generally require reasonably little care. But the first step in caring for a shrub is choosing a location suitable for the type you have chosen. A shrub will only thrive if it is grown in a place suited to its environmental needs.

There are shrubs for pretty much anywhere, but you do have to match up conditions in your garden with the needs of the specific species you are considering before making your choices. Choose the right shrubs for the right places and they should delight you for years to come.

When choosing shrubs, the first thing to consider is where you wish to grow them, and why. Once you have these details to hand you should find it a lot easier to narrow down your choices and find the right shrubs for you.

Once you have chosen the right shrubs for the location, and to meet your needs and wishes, the primary task will be to prune them. Pruning shrubs correctly is key to keeping them in good health. It is important to understand the pruning requirements for the particular shrub or shrubs you have chosen.

Other than pruning them, most shrubs will require little other care. Though they may need some water or feeding in certain situations, especially during establishment, and during particularly dry periods. Care requirements can differ considerably depending on which shrubs you have chosen to grow. Remember, additional watering may be required for shrubs in containers, or in the rain shadow of a wall. Shrubs in containers may benefit from feeding, though with most shrubs grown in the ground, feeding will not be necessary.

When you should plant shrubs depends on whether they are evergreen or deciduous. Evergreen shrubs should typically be planted in October or April. Deciduous shrubs can be planted any time from autumn to late winter.

If you are growing shrubs in containers, these can be planted at any time during the growing season. However, it is generally best to avoid planting in hot or dry weather, as this can increase stress on the plant.

When planting out shrubs in their growing positions, it is a good idea to enrich the soil with plenty of organic matter before planting. Be careful to think about plant spacing, as shrubs typically need to be given enough room in order to look their best, and can suffer when overcrowded. If you are creating a hedge, specific spacing requirements should be taken into account.

Be sure to mulch well around the base of your shrubs with an organic mulch. This will help retain moisture and protect and improve the soil. It can also aid in weed suppression. Just make sure that the mulch does not touch the stems around the base of the shrub, as this can cause them to rot.

When To Prune Shrubs

Most shrubs can be lightly pruned to preserve shape and keep them in check. But it is important to understand that different shrubs have different pruning requirements. And should be pruned at different times of the year and to differing degrees.

A number of shrubs fall into RHS pruning group 1, and need little to no pruning. This includes, for example, evergreen shrubs such as holly (Ilex) and bay (Laurus), and deciduous shrubs like Cornus kousa, magnolia and lilac. Typically, many plants in this group are pruned in late winter or early spring. Though some, like magnolias, are best pruned later in summer, to reduce risk of dieback, and flowering shrubs like lilac should be pruned immediately after flowering.

Most evergreen shrubs fall into pruning groups 8, 9 or 10. Early flowering evergreen shrubs (pruning group 8) include Berberis, Ceanothus, Daphne and Rhododendron… Light pruning can be carried out after flowering, if at all. Late flowering shrubs (Escallonia, Hebe etc..)  fall into group 9, and should typically be pruned in mid to late spring. They too need little pruning. Other evergreen shrubs are in pruning group 10, and are usually pruned immediately after flowering where flowering is on the previous year’s growth.

When it comes to deciduous shrubs, these can be in different pruning groups depending on when they flower. Early flowering shrubs are typically in pruning groups 2,3 or 5. They are pruned after flowering (from late winter to spring or early summer depending on the variety. But the degree to which these are pruned depends on the type we are talking about. Deciduous shrubs that flower from mid-summer onwards are best pruned in spring and fall into pruning group 6.

Of course, there are many variations and exceptions when it comes to pruning, and pruning requirements will be different for shrubs used as part of a hedge or wild hedgerow, or for mature shrubs that require renovation. So always bear the use and location of the shrub in mind, as well as the general guidelines.

What Conditions Should You Avoid?

While most shrubs like an open and relatively sunny position, there are also plenty of shrubs for partial and even deep shade. You’ll find shrubs that are suitable for all soil types, soil pH levels and conditions. The key and most important consideration is matching your choices with the place where they are to grow, and environmental characteristics of the site. It is also important to think about how and why the shrubs are being used. Simply put, avoid putting the wrong shrubs in the wrong places.

Frequently Asked Questions

Which Shrubs Flower In May?

Choose the right shrubs for your garden, and you can enjoy year-round visual interest, and blooms over much of the year. Here are some of the most beautiful options for shrubs which flower and look at their best in May:

  • Berberis – should usually be in flower still this month, with plenty of brilliant orange or yellow blooms.
  • Crataegus – Hawthorn is often called May flower.
  • Rhododendron – these come into flower from April and flower throughout May.
  • Cornus spp. – a number of flowering dogwoods are in flower this month.
  • Deutzia – many Deutzia flower abundantly in May.
  • Lilac – beautiful and fragrant blooms usually arrive this month for their fleeting season.
  • Spiraea – frothy white blooms attract plenty of pollinators this month.
  • Viburnum (various spp) – bloom time depends on variety.

There are also plenty of great shrubs for June, which include:

  • Roses – some bloom in May but many come into their own from June onwards.
  • Philadelphus – Mock Orange has a delightful scent as well as winning flowers.
  • Hebe – many hebe cultivars will bloom this month.

Which Shrubs Look Good All Year Round?

There are plenty of shrubs that can look good all year round. But here are some good options for year-round interest:

  • Ribes (flowering currants) – spring blooms, berries, then autumnal foliage
  • Viburnum opulus (Guelder rose) – great for wildlife, late spring and early summer blooms, red berries, then leaves that turn vivid red before falling.
  • Berberis darwinii – vibrant blooms and berries, evergreen.
  • Corylopsis glabrescens (fragrant winter hazel) – pendulous flowers in early spring, lush and green in summer, before autumn foliage turns fiery hues.
  • Hydrangea macrophylla
  • Daphne odora ‘Aureomarginata’
  • Skimmia japonica
  • Euonymous forunei ‘Emerald Gaiety’
  • Hypericum ‘Hidcote’ (St John’s Wort)

Note: for the best results, it is generally best to make sure you create borders with ¼ to 1/3 evergreen plants, so that the structure and visual appeal is maintained year-round. Then play around with shrubs of different sizes, and other plants, to create interest from flowers, fruits, autumn foliage, and even interesting bare stems in winter.

Can A Climbing Rose Be Grown As A Shrub?

When choosing a rose for your garden, it is important to understand that there are a huge range of different roses with different growth habits. While you can technically prune a climbing rose to a more bush-like shape, it will not thrive. It is important to allow it to follow its natural growth habit and remain as a climbing plant.

There are a range of shrub-type roses, climbing roses, or rambling roses, and it is important to choose the right one for each situation and to understand how that particular rose likes to grow. If you want to grow a rose to tie into a support structure, for a trellis, arch, obelisk or gazebo, for example, then you will typically select a climber or rambling rose to tie into your supports.

Climbers have more structured and less vigorous growth habits, flower on growth produced in the current year, and have fewer but typically larger blooms. Some are repeat flowering. Rambling roses are more vigorous and typically flower abundantly in June-July. Though there are some repeat flowerers. These flower on the previous year’s growth. Some shrub roses can be trained to create small climbers. But usually have more bushy or open growth habits.

Make sure you think about all the characteristics of the rose varieties you are considering before you make your choice – including its growth habit and form as well as its flowers and any fragrance, and the conditions it needs to thrive.

How Can You Make Shrubs Grow Taller?

If you are trying to establish a new hedge, for example, you may wish to achieve the desired height as soon as possible. How quickly and how tall shrubs will grow will of course depend on which particular shrubs you are using.

First of all, make sure that you know how tall the shrubs you have chosen will grow. Some smaller shrubs may remain relatively compact, while others would naturally grow much larger than you need, and will have to be pruned regularly to keep them in check.

Secondly, make sure the perfect environmental conditions for the particular shrubs you have chosen are being met. Any problems, such as too much shade, water issues, too much wind exposure or trying to grow them in soil that is unsuitable could all restrict growth.

Make sure you have prepared the growing area well, and added organic matter in the form of a mulch around the base of the plants. This will protect the soil, conserve moisture, suppress weeds and add fertility to help the plants grow strong. Water well and deeply throughout the growing season, being sure to think about the needs of the specific plants.

In certain cases, it may be helpful to add mycorrhizal fungi at planting to help shrubs/ trees establish strongly. If shrubs fail to grow as you expected, poor or degraded soil could be to blame. Take steps to improve the soil with plenty of organic matter and perhaps micro-organisms and they should eventually thrive.

Remember, some shrubs will be slower growing, and you may simply need to just be patient. Some shrubs, however, will respond well to light pruning to encourage new growth in the spring and again in mid-summer. Removing no more than an inch or so over the whole plant should encourage the shrub or your hedge to grow taller and denser.

How Can You Remove Shrub Stumps?

Digging up shrub stumps by hand can be challenging, but is usually best if you do not want vigorous plants to regrow. Try to take some time and remove as much of the woody material as you can. Use a reciprocating saw to cut off any wood above ground, and remove the soil around the roots and cut through any large roots too. Then you may be able to use levers to pull up heavy stumps out of the soil and remove them.

With particularly stubborn stumps, it can be helpful to drill some holes in the top of it. Water will gather in these holes and this should make it begin to rot and break down. Add mulch over and around the stump if it will remain in place to slowly break down.

In an organic garden, do not be tempted to try chemical interventions. They are hugely polluting, horrible for wildlife, and can lead to problems growing anything in the same spot in future. In any case, these are not always effective.

In certain cases, where the stump will not regrow, you could consider leaving it in place and creating a stump garden feature.

What Causes Shrubs To Turn Brown?

There are a number of different reasons why both evergreen and deciduous shrubs may turn brown, or develop brown patches. Here are the most common causes:

  • A lack of water is often the issue. Mild water shortages can cause brown leaf margins or some brown leaves. Extreme droughts can cause much more browning and drying winds can exacerbate the problem (on one side of a hedge, for example).
  • Unusually high temperatures in summer or drastic and sudden temperature changes.
  • Frost damage from winter cold.
  • Pests (insect infestations etc..)
  • Plant diseases (mildews, wilts, blights, cankers etc..)

How Often Should You Water Shrubs After Planting?

How often you should water shrubs after planting will depend to a large degree on which shrubs you have planted and where they are grown. Remember, plants typically need more water in summer, when it is warmer and brighter, and less over the winter months. However, newly planted shrubs should typically be watered deeply every couple of weeks or so for the first couple of years, and perhaps more frequently in dry areas, during droughts, or when growing in containers.

What Are The Best Shrubs For Privacy?

A well-designed garden can be an extension to our homes, somewhere to spend a great deal of time. But when we spend a lot of our lives outdoors, privacy is important. No one likes to feel overlooked. Growing a privacy screen can be a great way to solve this problem.

When you think about shrubs for privacy, it is likely that you will think first of typical evergreen hedging plants that provide a dense screen – such as privet, bay, conifers, holly, photinia, oleaster, cotoneaster, or escallonia, for example. But it is important to recognise that you can think outside the box, and almost any shrubs can be combined to create mixed hedgerows that offer greater biodiversity and are great for wildlife while still providing the degree of privacy you need. If you get the plant combinations right, you can combine privacy with other functions. Shrubs for privacy can also, for example, potentially provide edible yields.

Be sure to consider how:

  • High and how wide you need the privacy screen to be.
  • Quickly the privacy screen needs to grow.
  • Dense the hedge/ hedgerow/ border needs to be. (Do you want a partial screen, or do you want to completely eliminate gaps for prying eyes?)
  • Essential it is that the privacy screen provides a dense screen year-round. (You may really only need full cover in summer, when you use certain parts of your garden, for example.)

When choosing plants for your edible privacy screen, you should also think about the edible yields (and other yields) it can provide, and how useful/ pleasing these will be for you and your household. Remember that you can also create a planting scheme including trees, herbaceous perennials, and climbers (trained on trellis or fence) in addition to using a wide range of shrubs.

What Are the Best Shrubs for Shade?

If you are dealing with a north or east-facing border, the area in shade beneath trees, or another shady spot, shrubs can certainly be very helpful in helping you create a beautiful shade garden.

Some of the best shrubs for shade include:

  • Berberis
  • Box
  • Chaenomeles
  • Daphnes
  • Enkianthus
  • Euonymous
  • Elaeagnus x ebbingei
  • Gaultheria procumbens
  • Hydrangeas
  • Ilex
  • Mahonia
  • Pieris
  • Sarcococca
  • Skimmias
  • Viburnums
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