Most gardening books, articles or magazines that talk about garden design will start with discussing “the bones” of the garden. By this they mean the larger plants that give structure and form as a background to the perennials, annuals and vines that bring the color into our plantings. Trees, of course, fit in the “bones” category, but in my mind, the most important plants that make up the backstory of the garden are the shrubs.
Shrubs come in all shapes, sizes and colors and there is one for every taste and garden size. Some can tower over the garden and get as large as trees. Think about the rhododendron that were so beautiful everywhere in Tillamook County this past spring. Others are much smaller and can fit in the front of a border.
Evergreen shrubs, deciduous shrubs, tall ones and short ones, skinny ones and chubby ones, ones that bloom and ones that don’t. So many choices…so little garden space!
So before we go shrub shopping, we need to be aware of how tall and how wide we want the shrub to be at maturity. We will want to know how much sun it will get, how acidic the soil is where it will be placed, whether or not it flowers and when, and the watering needs. Really, those are the basics of plant shopping anyway, so nothing new here.
One of my favorite shrubs that does well in Tillamook gardens is the smoke bush (Cotinus coggygria) ‘Royal Purple.’ It gets to about three feet in six years and by twelve years it is only about 6 feet tall with a 5 foot span. The leaves are a reddish-purple but the best thing is the feathery pink blossoms that create an aura around the plant in the summer. The blossoms are panicles (loose branching inflorescent clusters of flowers) which give the illusion of pink-purple smoke at the tips of the branches. My description isn’t very good but if you have ever seen one in bloom, you won’t easily forget it. (Photo is from The Big Plant Nursery in the UK, with thanks!)
A much smaller shrub but one still worth having is the Daphne ordora ‘Aureo-marginata’. This particular daphne is one of the most fragrant in the spring so place it along a path or near a patio where you can enjoy the scent as you pass by. In its 6th year it will be only about 3 feet high and wide and won’t grow much after that, reaching only 4 feet by 5 feet in ten years. This is an evergreen plant with pale pink flowers each spring that fade to white. As is typical with daphnes, they like well-drained soil that does not dry out. Great in our coastal climate. Isn’t crazy about salted winds, though, so do provide some shelter.
Heathers (Callunas) also do well on the coast, as do their cousins the heaths (Ericas). The heaths bloom in the late winter and early spring while the heathers bloom in late summer and into the fall. Heaths are a little less cold-hardy than heathers but both seem to do well here. Heathers have a flat, scaler-like leaf while heaths have leaves that are more needle-like. Both make nicely rounded shrubs that add color to your garden.
In Tillamook County, we generally have a mild enough climate to see the size of our shrubs – and perennials – grow half again as much as they are listed on the labels. While this is a benefit to a healthy shrub, it can also make choosing that perfect shrub a challenge. A plant is said to be mature at 10 years of age.
As an example, I have a lovely doublefile Viburnum (Viburnum plicatum) in my garden. (The “doublefile” refers to the twin blossoms that “march” down the sides of each branch.) The books say it will get to 8 feet but mine is soaring at 12 feet. Over the years, it has been pruned to become more of a tree than a shrub. It would have been a shame to prune it down to size had it been planted in the way of the power lines. Luckily, it is where it can grow as tall as it likes. Since this shrub came with the house and we have been here almost 18 years, I feel certain it has reached its mature size.
A really good reference for the heights and widths of all sorts of plants is “The Plant Growth Planner: 200 Illustrated Charts for Shrubs, Trees, Climbers and Perennials” by Caroline Boisset. Published by Prentice Hall in 1992, you may have to do a bit of internet searching to find a copy that is reasonably priced. Amazon has one for $120 (!) but other locations may have better prices. I have had mine since 1996 and paid $15 for it, but it is a book I have found myself using a lot over the last 23 years.
Mid-summer is not the best time to plant shrubs, but it is a good time to research the local nurseries, get some ideas, explore some plants on the internet, make a plan and be ready to put those shrubs in the ground this fall.