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Versatile Shrubs

Whether your garden is a tiny subur­ban plot or several thousand square metres in extent, you can have year‑round interest and beauty by growing shrubs.

Shrubs are among the most versatile of garden plants. They serve as a rich background to other plants.

Shrubs are among the most versatile of garden plants. They serve as a rich background to other plants.

Planted in good soil, shrubs require little or no fer­tiliser, very little pruning and seldom any spraying against pests or diseases. They will reward you in many different ways — by providing colour in the garden each month of the year and sprays of leaves, flowers or berries for indoor arrangements; by sheltering your home from wind; by creating a screen to ensure privacy; by introduc­ing variety in form and foliage texture, and a perpendicular line or mass; and by hiding an ugly view or framing a good one.

You do not have to be a highly skilled gardener to make a charming shrub garden. You need to know something about the kind of cli­mate they prefer, their height and spread, the season of the year when they are at their best, any special characteristics of their foliage, whether they are deciduous or evergreen, what soil they like, and what situation they prefer — sun or shade. In coming weeks and months we will be adding Plant Profiles for many easy to grow shrubs that suit our southern hemisphere growing conditions.  The plant profiles will enable you to select the right shrubs for the right places in the garden.


If the garden is to be composed mainly of shrubs, it is advisable to plan care­fully before planting because, once planted, shrubs should not be moved. Transplanting at a later date may not kill them if it is carefully done, but it entails a good deal of unnecessary work and may slow down the growth of the shrubs for a time.

When making a plan, draw it to scale. On a large sheet of graph paper sketch the size of the plot and the loca­tion of the house on the plot, using one or more squares to represent 30 cm. Next, list the special features to be considered, such as — direction and strength of the prevailing winds against which it may be necessary to erect barriers; a fine view to be framed or ugly features you wish to hide in the distant landscape, or on your own or a neighbouring property (e.g. laundry area, garbage cans). Include on your plan a place for outdoor living, preferably near the kitchen, where it is easy to serve food. This may be a patio, an open terrace or a barbecue.

The plants selected should be drawn in to scale by making a circle indicating their spread. This is the only way to know what area the plants will cover, and it is worth doing carefully as it is far easier to use an eraser to make cor­rections on paper than to transplant shrubs later when they have grown too large,  (those of our readers who have the computer skill to do so, may want to do their plan digitally, it is a lot easier to do and adjust plant positioning etc as you go along). Generally your nurseryman will be able to indicate the height to which shrubs grow.  Our plant profiles as they are prepared and added to the site will also do so. Their spread is usually half to two-thirds their height, unless they are referred to as spreading shrubs, when it may be accepted that the spread is likely to be about the same as the height.

Plan the garden so that most of the shrubs are placed around or near the perimeter of the property, or else in groups — not scattered about singly within the lawn area. If the lawn is very large, one or more groups of shrubs in the lawn will serve to break the monotony of a large expanse of grass. Single shrubs planted here and there in a small lawn make it appear smaller and increase the amount of maintenance required, because the edge of the lawn around each shrub has to be trimmed; further­more, watering shrubs scattered over a wide area is more difficult than water­ing shrubs planted in groups. The only shrubs that should stand alone are those used as accent plants — to create a focal point.

Should a large area of the garden be open to the street, plant groups of shrubs to form a decorative shrubbery and provide privacy for certain points in the garden and home.

Before choosing any shrubs for your own garden, make a note of what is growing on neighbouring properties and use their planting scheme to your advantage. For instance, if your neigh­bour has tall deciduous shrubs in his garden where it adjoins yours, plant shorter evergreen ones on your side to liven up that area in winter and, if pos­sible, choose those that offer contrast in the colour of flowers or foliage. If he has a hedge of one kind of plant, you can have the fun of growing a wide range of plants in your garden against the background of his hedge.

When planning a border or group of shrubs, aim at having variety in form and colour, unity and balance.

Avoid having a single straight line of different shrubs of more or less the same height. Rather group the shrubs so that they form a curving border to the lawn by placing two or three shrubs of graded height one behind the other, with occasionally a single shrub of unusual shape as a contrast to adjacent plants. Make a point, also, of planting one kind of shrub, or a small group of the same ones, in more than one part of the garden. This occasional repetition of the same shrub or shrubs reduces the possibility of the layout looking spotty and restless, and makes the garden appear a unified whole.

Choose shrubs with foliage of differ­ent kinds and colours. Remember that good‑looking foliage all the year round is more important than beautiful flow­ers for only three or four weeks. A shrub with dark green leaves makes a pleasant foreground to a taller one with variegated leaves, and a shrub with wine‑coloured leaves shows up well next to one with grey foliage. Con­sider the foliage rather than the flowers when selecting your shrubs. It is not difficult to plan and plant so that it is the colour and texture of the foliage that make the garden attractive.

Future features will deal with climate, soil, watering, fertilising and planting. Watch the Shrubs section (category) on this site where we will continually be adding shrub profiles, including ideal growing conditions and dealing with anything that could be possibly go wrong.