Gardening: Avoid Mistakes When Choosing Shrubs for Landscaping
Sitting in the seat of the host of three question-and-answer gardening talk shows for almost 45 years, I have answered many shrub-related questions.
They are categorized, and the proper choice of the best shrubs for various needs is one of the most critical. I see several mistakes that keep popping up, and thought this would be a good time to share them so you can take them into account when planning your winter and spring landscaping improvements.
Errors in the selection of shrubs
Here are the mistakes I see gardeners making when choosing shrubs for their landscapes.
- Failure to check height and width when ripe. Your goal should be to find plants that will grow to the size you need, and then stick with them at minimum regular pruning. If you need a shrub to fill a 3-foot-high space, it doesn’t make sense to put an 8-foot plant there and then prune it repeatedly to keep it within limits. This is how we end up with crepe topped myrtles knocking in eaves or red tipped photinias blocking all windows on their side of the house.
- Emphasize too much the importance of flowering. The reason I point this out is that most flowering shrubs bloom two or three weeks a year. Most types are less than good looking the rest of the year. Besides, most of our most showy flowering shrubs are deciduous, which means they go leafless for four or five months each winter. They appear best when viewed from a distance, preferably against a dark, solid background.
- Disregard the texture and form of growth of each type and their impact on the entire landscape. It’s subtle, like the textures of fabrics, but it’s just as important. The size, shape and area of the leaves all come into the picture. Smaller leaves with smooth surfaces usually feature finer textures for a more calming look to their parts of the garden. The rounded and arched growth shapes do the same. Vase-shaped and erect shrubs look much more spectacular, so their use should be much more carefully planned.
- Excessive use of very variegated shrubs. We used to see this with Goldspot euonymus. Now we see it with Sunshine ligustrum. These plants distract from the home, just as a luminescent yellow photo frame would draw attention to itself rather than the image around it. We need to show restraint.
- Buy for long rows, formerly known as “foundation plantings”. Friends, this is a term that came about 100 years ago when houses were built on top of blocks with crawl spaces to allow access to utilities under floors. We used these linear plantings, usually pruned, to hide the running gear of our homes.
Since World War II, however, our homes have been built on concrete slabs that bring things closer to the ground. We don’t have unsightly foundations that need to be hidden. It is far better to plant shrubs in clusters and groups – in curves that look more natural.
- Do not ask if the shrub has serious or even fatal defects. Red-tipped photinias have the fungal leaf spot of Entomosporium. Now Indian hawthorns are also dying of it. Wax myrtles do not like our alkaline soils and low humidity. Loropetalums run out of steam after five or ten years. The new unusual arborvitae and cypress trees are convincing, but they give it up after a few years. And so, the list goes on – made up of plants that won’t last very long here. Let your nursery professional take charge of your decision. As if every plant you buy is perfectly suited to our soils and climate.
- Do not consider how good the shrub will look when combined with other shrubs next to it. Interior designers and team sports coaches have taught us that. It’s not so much about how much we love the individual pieces or the players. It’s about how well they combine in their surroundings to complete the big picture.
- Try to use too many different types of shrubs in our landscapes. Successful landscapers tell us that the most attractive home gardens on medium-sized lots usually contain no more than seven or eight species.
- Do not do sufficient bed planning and preparation before planting. Beds end up being the wrong size or shape. The soil was not improved by the addition of organic matter. This is especially important with small shrubs and ground covers, as well as special shrubs that require acidic soils. This list includes azaleas, loropetalums, and gardenias, among others.
- The shrub beds must be sized according to their environment. Two-story homes need beds that extend 6 to 10 or 12 feet from the house. Single story homes can have beds 5 to 8 or 10 feet wide. Arrange them in long, soft curves for a more natural look.
I use a flexible garden hose on a hot sunny day to set up my beds. I spray with a glyphosate herbicide only while the weeds and grasses are green and growing to remove all existing vegetation. Glyphosates are not active in the soil, so they leave no residue to damage shrubs when you plant them. But spraying should be done before the first frost turns the grasses brown.
You can hear Neil Sperry on KLIF 570AM on Saturday afternoons from 1 p.m. to 3 p.m. and on WBAP 820 p.m. on Sunday mornings from 8 a.m. to 10 a.m. Join him at www.neilsperry.com and follow him on Facebook.