Everyone loves a beautiful, large tree placed perfectly in the landscape or a vibrant, colorful perennial bed bordering the patio, but I feel that sometimes we overlook the shrubs. The shrubs may not be the shining stars of the landscape, but they certainly are part of the complete structure.
Landscape shrubs line our walkways and edge our beds. Tall shrubs will help blend tall trees and tall roof edges down into the beds and lawn. Shrubs may be overlooked, but they are the filler plants that bridge the gap between the very short and the very tall plants.
Shrubs come in a vast array of sizes, shapes, and colors, so they are a very versatile group of plants to work with. Shrubs can lead the eye from one lawn area to the next, and shrubs tie our foundations to the yard.
I would suggest that shrubs may just be the staple plant that holds all other plants together in our landscape and allows us to create smooth and flowing sightlines. This article will dive into a bit of shrub information and shrub planting techniques for gardeners of all types.
I will guide you through selecting the appropriate shrub species (various American native Shrubs), soil preparation (including enrichment), drainage, shrub bed preparation, transplanting, Irrigation, and handling/care.
Table of Contents
What is a Shrub
A shrub is a deciduous or evergreen woody plant that can range from inches in height to thirty feet or more in height. Shrubs are opposite to trees in that they specifically do not have one dominant stem; they will always have a few stems and will often have many stems.
Some shrubs are considered suckering shrubs which send up many new stems every year, while others start with a single stem and branch out from there. In between these two types, you will find everything under the sun. Some shrubs grow very slowly and require little pruning and maintenance, and others that grow like crazy and are hard to keep in check.
It is also important to note that shrubs, like other landscape plants, will vary in their performance and growth depending on how well suited they are for their environment.
For instance, here in Wisconsin, we see many boxwood hedges that are maybe one or two feet tall and pretty much stay that size with little to no pruning, while in other parts of the world, you can find boxwood hedges that are six feet tall. In tropical zones, plants like hibiscus are hacked back with hedge shears and machetes because they grow so vigorously, while here at home, we are lucky if we can even get them to survive the summer.
How to Choose your Shrubs
When choosing shrubs for your site, don’t press your luck. Always choose plants that will do well in your climate zone. Check out this interactive zone map to help you decide what zone you live in.
These native shrubs will be much easier to grow and will already be naturally resistant to your local pests. Pressing your luck and planting a shrub that is not recommended for your zone is simply asking for trouble.
Sure, if you are a very avid gardener who looks forward to caring for and protecting your shrubs from the elements, go ahead and give it a try. But, if you are like the rest of us who just want to plant a shrub that will thrive and grow without a lot of input from us, then choose a native one and save yourself some headaches and extra work.
Some Favorite, Easy to Grow Versatile Shrubs
- Roses – There are many types of roses, and some are very delicate and difficult to grow. All roses love the sun, so only plant them if they can get plenty of sunlight. I have them listed here because some are very easy to grow. Some of the nearly wild roses, such as the Virginia Rose and the Caroline Rose, are rated for zones 3-9, so they will do well in almost all areas of the United States. I’ve got a few of these on my property, and I can tell you that they grow very well with no input from me whatsoever. There are other roses that are relatively hardy, such as the Floribunda, which is considered hardy in zones 5-9. I can tell you from experience that I live in zone 5, and these roses do reasonably well here, but they do better if planted in a very protected area and shielded from the bitter winter cold.
- Bush Honeysuckle – The common bush Honeysuckle thrives in zones 3-7 and does well in almost any sunlight level, so it is a very easy to grow shrub.
- Hydrangea – This is another plant that has many varieties, some much tougher than others. The Smooth, Panicle, and Climbing Hydrangea all seem easy to grow and thrive in zones 4-7. These plants like to have partial sun, so the North side of the house or under some larger trees are often good choices. I like these plants for their great blooms and ease of care.
- Viburnum – Viburnum are a group of shrubs with great diversity and beautiful blooms and fall color. There are varieties that grow in zones 4-7, and they will thrive in almost any soil and in almost any light conditions.
- Dogwood – This is another group of shrubs with great diversity and can grow almost anywhere. These come in different stem and leaf colors and grow in zones 3-7.
- Spirea – These plants are loved for their many varieties and ease of maintenance. They grow well in zones 4-8 and can take quite a bit of abuse and varying conditions.
- Arborvitae – These shrubs come in various sizes, but all have the same evergreen foliage. These plants grow very well in zones 2-7, but they need the sun and are a favorite of hungry deer in the winter months. The deer will rarely kill them, but they will thoroughly prune them up as high as they can reach.
- Juniper – The juniper is another hardy evergreen shrub that comes in many shapes, from ground-hugging creepers to tall and slender trees. Their colors range from blue-gray to dark green, and these plants can tolerate many soil types but prefer the sun. They thrive in zones 3-9, so they can do well in most parts of the US. The foliage is a bit prickly, making them deer resistant and a bit human resistant.
- Serviceberry – This is a popular front yard shrub that is larger than most and can grow to 25 feet tall. The bark is grey, and it blooms white. These plants do well in zones 4-9 and are a great tall shrub to use to bridge the height gap between some of your shorter shrubs and your tall trees.
- Barberry – The Barberry is one of my least favorite plants, but not because it is hard to grow; it grows quite well in zones 4-8 and has long been chosen as a great red-colored shrub to plant when you want to make sure no one is walking through your yard. These small shrubs are jam-packed with very sharp thorns that easily get stuck in your hands and can remain for days if you are the lucky landscaper who is hired to prune or plant them. Pretty and hardy, but good luck working with them.
- Bayberry – Not to be confused with the thorny barberry, these shrubs are great to work with, hardy in zones 3-9, and can tolerate almost any harsh conditions that you can throw at them. They have excellent fall color and berries that the birds love.
- Yew – The Yew is a medium-sized evergreen shrub that has long been a staple of the landscape and does well in zones 4-8. One of my favorite characteristics of the Yew is that it can be grown in partial shade, unlike other evergreens.
- Witchhazel – This is another versatile medium-sized shrub that can be grown in the sun or partial shade and will thrive in zones 3-8.
- Chokecherry – This is another excellent shrub that is versatile and very wildlife-friendly. The mid-sized shrub is hardy in zones 2-7 and loves the sun.
- Lilac – The common Lilac has long been a favorite of homeowners and landscapers. This shrub has beautiful blooms, a fantastic aroma, and thrives in zones 3-7. This plant is very easy to grow and transplant and provides excellent bird cover.
If you stick to this list or shrubs with similar hardiness traits, you really can’t go wrong throughout most of the United States. Of course, if you are in an extreme climate zone, you will need to search harder for great shrubs for your yard.
Three Ways to Get Shrubs
- Container Grown – These shrubs are planted in the same pots they are sold in, so the roots do not get cut in the planting process. This is a significant advantage, but you can only get smaller plants that are container grown. Be aware that if plants stay n these containers too long, they can become root-bound, so avoid plants that appear to have very hard, distorted pots because this is an indication of a plant whose roots have severely overgrown the pot.
- Ball-and-Burlapped – B&B shrubs are plants that have been grown in the field of a nursery and dug out and wrapped with burlap and twine. These plants had had their roots cut when dug out of the ground, so they will have a recovery period when they will require more care than once they have re-established their roots. Oftentimes, soil is piled over the top of the roots of these plants, so be sure to clean off the top of the root mass before finishing planting.
- Self-Transplanted – Many shrubs are fairly small and easy to transplant on your own, so don’t be afraid to transplant these from a friend’s house who has too many plants or from a part of your yard where they have grown too thickly. The key to successfully transplanting any plant is to have a sharp shovel and dig a deep trench around the plant, cutting as few roots as possible while still being able to work with the root mass. Dig deeply, and don’t try to pry the shrub out until you are sure that you have cut the roots. Planting the shrub as soon as possible after it is dug out is important, so I would recommend digging the hole before digging out the shrub.
How to Minimize Damage
One of the biggest challenges when transplanting shrubs is the same no matter what type of plant we are transplanting. We need to take care to minimize the damage that we do when we handle the plants. Any leaf or root damage that we cause will only make it that much harder on the plant. Remember, this poor plant just had its roots chopped and is heading to a new home. Let’s be a bit gentle with it.
- Don’t transplant in the open wind. Most plants will not do well in wind speeds over about 40 mph, so never put them in the bed of your truck and head down the freeway. The leaves will be destroyed, and the plants will likely die. Always cover the plants or drive very slowly.
- Don’t leave them under the tarp too long. Plants under a tarp on a hot, sunny day can die really quickly. Once you get to your destination, untarp them immediately.
- If at all possible, use a plant tarp to minimize transplant damage.
- Taller shrubs will need to be laid down for transport, but they should be stood up as soon as possible. Plants are constantly adjusting to their surroundings, so leaving them on their side not only heats the root balls in the sun but also forces the plant to start trying to grow back toward its natural vertical state.
- Don’t let the shrub dry out too much. Dry roots can die and take the shrub with them. Allowing a plant in a black plastic pot to sit in the sun and bake is not a good start. Keep the roots cool and moist.
- Be sure to choose a shrub with a firm root mass to be sure that you are starting with a healthy plant. Plants that are wobbling around in the pot or roots ball will not do as well when planted.
- Don’t pry on the shrub’s stems, which could cause roots to twist and crack.
- Be careful not to cut or scar branches, stems, and leaves while planting. Any damage you do will need to be healed, making the transplant harder on the shrub.
- Don’t drop the shrub. Shrubs can be heavy, and I’ve seen people unloading shrubs from a truck and just dropping them on the ground, which can break roots.
- Don’t leave roots exposed to the open air. Get the roots backfilled with soil and watered thoroughly as quickly as possible.
- If you are transplanting your own shrub, use a sharp shovel. Clean cuts are easier for a plant to heal.
- Prune off any broken branches, but otherwise, don’t prune the plant while transplanting. Shaping can wit until it is nicely established in its new home.
Shrub Planting Techniques
The site and ground in which you are planting your new shrub will have much influence on its lifespan and growth. Be sure to choose a spot in your yard that will suit its needs. Find out if your new plant likes sun or shade and find out how wet it likes to be. These are probably the two most significant considerations after ensuring it will survive in your zone.
Next, consider your ground. Once you have chosen a spot for your shrub, consider the ground where it will be planted. Is it hard and compacted, soft and friable, or hard and rocky?
If the ground you are planting into isn’t nice and soft and dark in color, it probably needs some amendment. Consider where these shrubs would grow naturally. Out in nature, these shrubs would likely be growing in a woodland setting or possibly a field of other plants.
The ground surrounding many of our homes, especially if yours is in a subdivision and recently built, is often severely compacted by vehicles and construction equipment, so it will likely need amendment.
Checking for Soil Compaction & Drainage
How can you tell if your soil needs amending? Well, common sense will tell us that soft, easily tillable soils that are black in color must be pretty good to plant into. If you were a plant trying to spread your roots, you would want the soil to be relatively soft, full of nutrition, and containing enough moisture. Typically, soil with 50% pore spaces and 50% solid soil is good for proper plant growth.
Here is a good test to see how compacted and dense your soil is.
- Dig a hole of 12×12×12 inches depth, width, and length and fill it with water.
- If the water drains in less than 2-3 hours, the soil has excellent drainage
- If the water drains in less than 12 hours, the soil has good drainage.
- If it takes longer than 12 hours for the water to soak into your hole, you’ve got some pretty dense ground, and you will want to be sure to consider this when planting.
If your ground at home is soft and black like the forest floor and drains well, you can likely plant right into it with no amendment whatsoever. Keep in mind that a bit of well-aged, natural compost is always welcome for any new plant and will only help.
Never use fresh manure or compost as it can burn roots if not aged nicely.
On the other hand, if your ground is light brown and fairly stiff, you will want to do a bit of amendment. How you amend the soil to prepare it for your new plant is up to you, and you have a few different choices.
Soil Amendment Options
Sure, you could till your entire yard to a depth of about twelve inches, mix in some well-aged compost, and then till it again. This would make your entire yard ready to plant just about anything, but who has the time or energy for this.
For those of us who are on a schedule or just don’t want to work that hard, here are some of the ways that the pros do it.
Raised Bed Preparation
Sometimes, rather than till and amend a bunch of hard soil, and if it fits into the landscape design, landscapers will build a raised bed to plant into. This allows for plenty of soft black topsoil for the shrubs to thrive, provides adequate drainage, and you don’t need to till a bunch of hard soil.
Order some black plant starter topsoil or black organic or whatever they call it in your area and have it dumped near your planting area. Spread 6-12 inches of this new black soil into the area where you want your raised bed, use your shovel and rake to smooth and shape it to look nice, and then plant into it. Now top it with a light coat of mulch and water the entire area thoroughly.
Sometimes a raised bed just won’t fit your yard, or maybe you are just planting one shrub. In this case, you will want to simply amend the hole you are planting into.
Start by digging a hole about a foot wider than your root ball in all directions and a bit more shallow than your root ball is tall. Most shrubs that are balled and burlapped have soil piled on top of the roots, so we would rather start with it a bit high. If you are transplanting your own or a container-grown plant with the roots at the surface, you can dig the hole at the same depth as the top of the roots.
How deeply you dig your hole will also depend on how well your soil drained in the above soil drainage test and how wet your plants like to be. If you have loose soil with much gravel, plant with the top of the roots even with the adjoining ground.
If your soil doesn’t drain so well, always plant a bit higher than the surrounding soil and blend it in. This way, the plant’s roots have rooms to grow and spread, and the plant won’t drown every time it rains.
Plant roots not only take in water and nutrients, but they also need oxygen to survive, so leaving them in a hole full of water for long periods of time will cause plant death. The majority of landscape plants I see dead have died from being planted too deeply in poorly drained soil.
Planting a bit high is always a good idea unless your ground is really sandy or gravel-like or if you are planting a semi-aquatic plant that just loves to be wet.
As you dig your hole, pile the excavations around the edge of the hole and don’t walk on them. Walking on your excavations will only make your job harder. Once the hole is dug, place the shrub in the center and make sure that it is at the correct height and straight.
Now, mix some of your excavations with some well-aged compost and backfill the plant. This will provide some nice fertile and light soil for the plant to grow into. If your excavated soil is in tight clumps, break it up while mixing it in with the compost.
Create a small dike around the plant hole using the excavated soil and then water the plant until all of the soil and compost mix is thoroughly soaked. Now, check for any sinkholes and fill them with more friable soil until the entire hole is full of nice wet friable soil with no sinkholes. Leaving sinkholes open is inviting air down to the roots, which will cause root death.
Once the plant is well watered, cover the area with a thin layer of mulch. You will want to keep your eye on the weather and check the soil with your finger now and then to see if it is still moist. There is no need to water if it is, but if your finger comes out dry, give the plant some water. You will want to monitor the plant for the first year or so unless you get some droughts in the second year, in which case you may want to check it.
A Word on Mulching
Adding compost and, or mulch over the soil is a great way to keep the roots cool and help to keep down unwanted weeds. This can be done annually, for sure if each layer is thin. Use common sense and look to nature for guidance. In the forest, the leaves and sticks fall and decay every year, and this natural process keeps the soil soft and nutrient-rich. If you treat your plants the same way, they will be very happy and healthy.
While often well intentioned, the landscape industry has gotten a bit off track. Many professional landscapers will encourage clients to have all of the leaves and twigs removed from their yard each fall and then encourage them to mulch all of the planting beds each spring.
While this is a great way to keep the cash flowing into the landscapers’ pockets, it isn’t the best for your yard or plants.
You would be best off simply allowing your leaves to remain in all of the planting beds so that they can decompose naturally. If you do this, you will have little need for mulch. When you apply leaves or mulch to your plants, be sure that you don’t pile mulch or debris right at the plant’s stem. Thick mulch at the stem will encourage animals to burrow in and chew on the trunk and will also hold moisture against the trunk, which can cause the bark to rot.
Should You Stake Your New Shrub?
If you are planting taller shrubs, you may wonder if you should stake them. I typically don’t stake any shrubs or trees unless they are very loose in the ball and they wobble around. Some landscapers will stake every tree they plant to ensure they never need to return due to trees or shrubs leaning. Staking a tree is an unnatural thing. Trees and shrubs left unstaked will better adapt to their environments and develop a stronger root system. Let the plants grow the way nature does.
Trees are often harder to plant, and perennials seem to take a lot of maintenance. Some of my favorite plants are shrubs. They are easy to plant, easy to maintain, and with the incredible variety of shrubs available, you can really liven up the look of your yard.
Go out and plant some shrubs this weekend and see how much fun it can be.