Thinking about Shrubs – Part Two – Top Criteria for Selecting Shrubs for Gardens

Summer flowering shrubHow do you choose the shrubs you grow in your gardens? Most gardeners, like me, read books and become inspired to try out something new. Many more visit the garden centre in spring and choose something attractive that appeals to them; we are all guilty of this. Either way, we all end up walking around the garden, plant in hand, looking for a spot to plant it.

Random mixture of shrubsActually there is nothing wrong with this process and in many ways it copies what actually happens in nature. Nobody has design an endemic flora, it has arisen through a series of random events and accidents and been selected for by the available growing conditions; some plants stay and thrive, others don’t.

Shrub forms and foliage colourThe more I design planting schemes the more I come to the conclusion that control and logic are negative influences that stifle the potential of evocative planting. Current trends in matrix planting in which plants are set out to evoke the spontaneity of nature all too often end up looking like printed wallpaper; repetition without variety. What is needed is an element of chaos to bring freedom and life to our planting designs.

Viburnum plicatum repeated in a garden designFlower colour is perhaps the greatest enemy to good planting design as it catches our attention all too easily. Of course it is important and needs handling sensitively, but it should be seen as a secondary criteria when selection shrubs for our designs. Unfortunately it is the flowers on plants we see in the garden centre that first catches our eye, but it should be the form and texture of a plant that we first consider and not its transitory flower effect. However, the exceptions to this will be those shrubs flowering at the times of the year when we desperately want their floral offerings such as autumn, winter and early spring.

Scale and sociability are two further criteria that should lead our choices of shrubs; will they fit the space we have available or can we plant them in groups to fill up areas in our designs?

Formal ordered plantingPhysical characteristics are not the only ones that should be leading our choices of shrubs to use in our gardens. Associations and their ability to alter the dimensions of the spaces they are used in should also be thought about. Fine foliage and arching habit can evoke a relaxed informal mood whereas dark, dense plants with solid characteristics can suggest control, order and purpose. Whichever we choose, it will be their relationship  and juxtaposition with their surroundings plus any adjacent buildings that will trigger any specific associations.

Willows near a streamWhatever criteria we eventually choose to follow the one thing that will be important is to remain true to the idea and follow it through. Our tendency to plant one of many different types of shrubs to create the longest succession of highlights is the biggest mistake that we can make, but unfortunately this is the route we all too easily follow.

I could go on, but in my next post I will try to get down to specifics and start talking about actually using shrubs in garden design and especially in relation to other types of garden plants (i.e. perennials).

A very interesting post worth reading about manipulating shrubs in order to combine them with perennials was written a while back by Nancy Ondra in her excellent Hayefield Blog – Cut back Shrubs. I am still trying to draw my own conclusions on what she says.

Other posts in this series that might interest you:

Thinking About Shrubs – Part One – An Introduction

Thinking About Shrubs – Part Three – Design

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