The model for using shrubs in European gardens has hardly changed in decades, maybe even centuries. It seems to stem from a time when gardens were considerably larger than is currently the case and a period in which new plants including shrubs were being discovered around the world and being gathered for use in Western gardens.
In the nineteenth century the shrubbery became the place to gather together one’s burgeoning collection of exotics and more recently to return as an escape from the toil of maintaining nineteenth century herbaceous borders. My parents garden in the 1960s was typical of many with banks of shrubs, especially roses, but also conifers and heathers, surrounding an open lawn. Maintenance was simple and manageable but the effect was incredibly dull, especially in winter.
As a reaction to this, the mixed border arose with its backbone of shrubs fronted by drifts of flowering perennials, annuals and bulbs. The result was much more exciting, but maintaining it was complex and probably more difficult than the older herbaceous borders.
Today’s gardens tend to be more relaxed, seeking in one way or another a connection with nature; lawns have been replaced with meadows and perennials emulate wild flowers. However, what shrubs we do use are still placed in the background to serve as boundaries or screens.
Now is the time to bring shrubs forward and give them a more prominent and meaningful role in our garden designs. Naturally not all shrubs are going to play along with this new game, but there are many that can. Large, haystack shaped shrubs are not for domestic gardens; they take up too much room, shade everything nearby and rob precious water and nutrients from their neighbourhoods. In fact, I recently trawled through the new edition of Michael Dirr’s excellent book on shrubs only to realise that some ninety percent of the most desirable species are far too large for the average european garden.
Shrubs always seem to grow larger than we expect and the more I study pruning techniques the more I realise that to think you can control them in order to conform to you fantasies is doomed to failure. Pruning can improve form and impact of a shrub in the garden landscape, but will not, in the long run, prevent any shrub achieving its natural size.
So with all of this in mind where does this leave us? Well, tall, upright and arching shrubs that can be interplanted with lower growing perennials are the ones that are leading my new interest in mixed border plantings. Some of the larger shrubs can still find a place, but far fewer than we currently tend to plant, and in many smaller landscapes function as tree alternatives.
I am starting to plant stately shrubs such as graceful doublefile viburnums (Viburnum plicatum), dogwoods (Cornus kousa) and witch hazels(Hamamilis sp.) as the dominant elements in discrete planting units I call “shrub features” surrounded by perennials as part of much larger planting designs. The tall upright shrub forms I can imagine being repeated throughout wider planting areas and more open growers, even taller growing ones can start to stand in the foreground and help frame views into the distant landscape. In each case the natural scale and form of the shrub leading to its eventual use.
I recently saw a new planting in the recently restored gardens surrounding The Rijksmuseum in Amsterdam which helped reinforce some of my thinking. The restoration follows the original nineteenth century plans, but with contemporary planting ideas. For me the most successful element is the simplest; an area of raised beds contain nothing more than widely spaced shrubs ( some species of prunus apparently ) rising above a ground covering layer of liriope with ferns growing in the immediate shade cast by the shrubs. This simple design when mature will be a spectacle of blossom in spring, calm and simply green throughout summer and in autumn carpeted with the blue flower spikes of the liriope. How different this all is from a typical mixed border or tired shrubbery.
Earlier posts that might interest you: