Shrubs play an integral role in landscape design due to their appearance and functionality. These diverse plants lend color, protection, and privacy to your home and yard. However, these practical plants can be a distraction when misplaced or malnourished. If you are unsure how to landscape with shrubs, consider this your guide to maximizing your shrubs’ impact.
Here we will discuss tips on selecting, planting, and maintaining your shrubs. Plus, some “cutting hedge” advice on shrub removal and answers to some frequently asked questions about shrubs and hedges.
What are shrubs? Are bushes and shrubs the same thing? What’s a hedge, and what value do shrubs add to landscaping? If you are new to landscape design, you can overthink and overlook the value of shrubbery in your yard. Here are some basics before we begin:
A shrub is a small to medium-sized perennial plant under 15 feet tall. Shrubs can be deciduous (a plant that loses its leaves in winter) or evergreen. Despite varying interpretations, the terms ‘shrub’ and ‘bush’ both mean the same thing and are used interchangeably. Hedges are shrubs grown close together to create boundaries or walls in landscape design.
How to landscape with shrubs
Shrubs come in many different textures, colors, and sizes, and it can be challenging to know where to begin. Thankfully, this plethora of options means the proper selection for your yard is out there. Here are a few pointers to help get you started.
Know your USDA hardiness zone
Understanding your local climate and hardiness zone helps you choose the right plants to survive your winters and thrive during other parts of the year. Purchasing plants outside your zone will only lead to disappointment and wasted money.
Plan your color story
Whether your tastes lie in crisp monochromatic evergreens or colorful flowering shrubs, your color story can dramatically alter your home’s appearance. Planting evergreen shrubs with other blooming varieties is a tasteful way to shift the focus around your yard. Understanding how to use color theory in your landscape is a valuable skill that pays off year-round.
Another way in which shrubs draw attention is by changing colors throughout the seasons. In the fall, many flowering shrubs turn red, orange, or golden yellow, adding four-season interest to your landscape. Don’t underestimate the impact a holly can provide with its dark green leaves and bright red berries.
Examples of flowering shrubs
- Lily of the valley bush (accommodates shade)
Examples of shrubs with color-changing foliage
- Witch hazel
- Forest Rouge Blackhaw Viburnum
- Goldflame Spirea
Arrange your shrubs for maximum impact
The placement of your shrubs can highlight or hinder your home’s architectural detail. Think of your bushes as a picture frame, guiding the eye toward your front door or showcasing your flowerbeds.
Would rows of dwarf boxwoods leading to your double doors create the stately appearance you’ve been looking for? Would your outdoor seating area benefit from a backdrop of multi-colored hydrangeas? The right shrub can disguise that unsightly utility box or air conditioning unit.
Account for the shrub’s mature size
Avoid overcrowding when planning your layout. Your young shrubs may be small now, but they’ll soon grow to their mature heights. You won’t want to plant a shrub that may one day obstruct views from every angle. For a visually appealing landscape, imagine a tiered design, with plant height increasing as you approach the house’s foundation. Arranging your shrubs this way allows the plants to be appropriately displayed and receive adequate sunlight.
To keep things interesting, integrate a variety of shrubs into your landscape. Use shrubs to create interesting combinations of size, texture, color, and leaf shape. However, too much variety creates a chaotic and overwhelming scene. You’ll want to showcase selections that integrate naturally together and complement your architecture.
Mixing hedges is popular among homeowners looking to shake up the monotonous look of basic hedges. By arranging evergreens and deciduous shrubs, you’ll create a privacy screen border that stands out. Most shrubs in these hedges appear at least twice but not more than four times. This mixture creates a cohesive feel without appearing monotonous or random.
Deciduous shrubs for a mixed hedge
Evergreen shrubs for a mixed hedge
- Soap bush
Plant bushes that suit your home and personal style. Since plants in nature tend to grow in groups, planting your bushes in clusters will give your landscape a sensible, organic feel. Remember that couplings of odd numbers are more aesthetically pleasing in the world of design. So a group of three shrubs will please the eye more than two or four. Larger specimens over six feet tall can stand alone.
For a more natural look, cluster shrubs of the same species. In nature, you wouldn’t find many extreme varieties living closely together, so a yard overfilled with variety will feel unnecessarily chaotic.
Use shrubs to lower energy costs
As a bonus, the shade from your shrubs can keep your air conditioners cool and prevent them from overheating—the ideal distance between the bushes and your AC unit is two feet. Planting your shrubs too close to the unit will limit airflow and increase the burden on your machine.
Remove misplaced shrubs
If you inherit misplaced shrubs or your shrub has died, you’ll need to remove it. Your ideal shrub removal method will depend on the size of the shrub you are removing.
You can trim the outer leaves for smaller shrubs until you can see the interior stem using an electric hedge trimmer. For larger shrubs, you can use a chainsaw to sever the stem.
- Using a shovel, dig a trench around the root ball deep enough to sever the roots.
- Chop up the roots using a hatchet or mattock. You can use the beveled end to dig through the dirt and get underneath the root ball.
- Remove the shrub from the hole.
- Shake dirt out of the shrub and fill the hole with topsoil.
Benefits of shrubbery
Shrubs offer protection from the elements: Bushes of all sizes can affect the environment by creating a windshield and offering shade. You can protect smaller plants from the elements by incorporating shrubs into your landscape.
Shrubs lower utility costs: Other plants aren’t the only ones positively affected by having shrubs around. Your wallet will benefit too. Shrubs can lower utility costs by keeping the sun off your home and acting as a wind barrier. Strategic landscaping can save you money year-round.
Shrubs increase soil stability: Shrubs have complex fibrous root systems that hold soil in place. During heavy rains, these roots absorb water, decreasing flooding and runoff. Shrubs are great for erosion control and can help stabilize slopes. Plus, the plant’s foliage decreases the wind, resulting in less soil lost in the breeze.
Shrubs elevate the air quality: Plants are nature’s air purifiers. Shrubs filter the air by photosynthesis, converting carbon dioxide into breathable oxygen. You can decrease your carbon footprint by planting trees, shrubs, flowers, and grass.
Shrubs create habitats for local wildlife: Songbirds, butterflies, and grasshoppers are common cohabitants of residential shrubs. Shrubbery that produces berries is often frequented by wildlife for food and shelter.
Native shrubs save money and the planet: Consider native shrubs for a low-maintenance landscape naturally adapted to your climate, geography, and soil. Endemic plants save money by rarely needing fertilizers, pesticides, or excess water to survive. Ask your favorite garden supply store about local shrubs, or consider joining your local plant society to learn more about these eco-friendly shrubs.
How to plant shrubs
Once you have figured out your placement, it’s time to plant. Remember to place your plants where they’ll receive adequate sunlight, soil, and moisture.
How to plant shrubs:
- Clear away any rocks, mulch, or debris.
- Dig a hole twice the size of the current container (depth and width).
- Remove the plant from the container by knocking the sides until it comes loose, or you may cut the plastic.
- Place the root ball in the hole. The height of the root ball should be just above the surrounding earth.
- Rotate the plant until you are satisfied with its appearance.
- Lift the shrub from the hole and relax the roots with your fingers; this helps the plant acclimate quickly to its new home. Place the root ball back into the hole after gently teasing the roots.
- Backfill the hole with the dirt you excavated while digging the hole.
Many shrubs grow as wide as they grow tall. Plants that grow between 5 and 10 feet tall should be planted 7 to 8 feet apart. A shrub that grows 2 to 5 feet tall may require spacing of about 3 feet.
Fall is the ideal time to plant shrubs. Fall planting allows the plant to acclimate to the environment without the stress of summer heat. Plus, fall is when plants are soaking up nutrients from their surroundings in anticipation of winter.
Maintaining your shrubs
Once your shrubs are in the ground, the focus shifts to maintenance. Different shrubs have different needs, but here are some helpful guidelines.
Adding mulch helps hold moisture around your bushes. A thick layer (about 3 inches) of tree bark, pine needles, or straw reduces evaporation around your plants, which means less water is wasted. Plus, the mulch keeps the roots cool, which promotes healthy growth.
Remember to water your shrubs frequently and immediately after planting. Established shrubs typically need one inch of water per week, while newly planted shrubs require several inches of water per week. Specific water requirements will depend on the type of shrub you’ve planted, but in general, it’s best not to let the soil dry out. If your shrub is responding poorly, you may be overwatering.
Here is a helpful shrub watering schedule for your newly planted shrubs:
- Water shrubs daily for the first 1 to 2 weeks after planting.
- 3 to 12 weeks after planting, water shrubs every 2 to 3 days.
- Water shrubs weekly after 12 weeks.
Water until the moisture reaches six inches into the soil. It takes about one inch of surface water to reach a depth of six inches. If you are watering your shrubs with sprinklers, place a tin can near your shrubs. The soil moisture reaches six inches when the can has one inch of water.
Once you get the hang of how much water your shrubs need, consider switching to drip irrigation hoses.
You can add fertilizer to your shrubs if they grow incorrectly or appear discolored. Most shrubs won’t need fertilizer. If your shrubs appear sickly, reevaluate your watering schedule and test the soil’s pH. You can send a sample to your local cooperative extension to determine any amendments needed.
Shrubs in grassy lawns that receive regular fertilizer don’t need to be fertilized separately.
Remember to water your plants after fertilization to wash the fertilizer off the leaves and into the roots.
The best time to fertilize is in the early spring when the roots begin to grow after dormancy.
Pruning your shrubs promotes healthy growth and lowers the risk of disease. Since most plant illnesses result from poor air circulation, pruning back underperforming limbs can increase airflow and promote healthy new growth. Pruning also maintains a shrub’s desired size and enhances its appearance. For blooming shrubs, regular pruning leads to more blooms.
To prune, first, remove all dead or declining branches from the shrub. Then trim away any excess growth you don’t want. Typically the top ⅓ of the plant is removed annually. Leave the base of the shrub wider than the top to allow sunlight to infiltrate the plant, and thin out the congested growth in the middle of the plant to allow proper circulation.
When pruning, cut just above the branch collar (the swelling where the branch joins the trunk) without cutting the collar; this promotes faster healing. A chemical zone in the collar stops the spread of decay, and you won’t need a wound dressing.
Depending on your plant’s needs, you may need to approach pruning differently.
Thinning is a common technique to let more air and sunlight into the plant. Removing branches inside the bush will make new growth thicker, creating a fuller appearance.
Heading is the practice of removing twig branches. Use a pruner to remove larger branches and reduce the size of your bush while maintaining its shape. Heading makes shrubs thicker.
Shearing or clipping refers to removing only the new growth. Shearing keeps the shape of your shrubs and is used to create hedges and topiaries
Renewal pruning or “hard pruning” is used to reinvigorate old or overgrown bushes. This type of pruning can save rapidly declining shrubs from dying. If your plants suffered a harsh winter, renewal pruning can help them recover. Cut the entire plant down to a height of 6 to 24 inches (depending on the mature size of the plant) to reset the shrub’s growth. Once the new growth reaches 6 to 12 inches over your first cuts, you may prune the tips to encourage lateral branches and compact growth.
When to prune shrubs
The optimal time to prune depends on the plant.
Springtime flowering shrubs should be pruned after they bloom.
Summertime flowering shrubs should be pruned before the bloom season (winter or early spring).
Non-flowering shrubs should be pruned after new growth has reached maturity.
You can do some light trimming throughout the year as needed.
FAQ about landscaping with shrubs
• Rhododendrons are colorful shrubs that are virtually maintenance-free once established.
• Arborvitaes are drought-tolerant plants great for privacy due to their vertical growth.
• Japanese boxwood needs little water to survive. This boxwood cultivar grows slowly, making it easy to maintain.
• Rosemary is a low-maintenance shrub enjoyed for its recognizable scent and drought tolerance.
Bushes such as boxwoods, holly, laurel, and privet are the easiest to manipulate into cubes, spheres, and topiaries.
Many tools are available to maintain and sculpt your shrubs. The tools needed to maintain your shrubs’ appearance will vary depending on your shrub’s size and desired shape. Clean your shears, saws, and trimmers before each use to avoid spreading diseases amongst your plants.
Tools used for trimming shrubs:
Hand-held shears for small shrubs and meticulous detail
Lopping shears can reach the center of the bush and cut larger branches.
Pruning saws use a long, curved, narrow blade to cut through green wood. Pruning saws help trim large bushes.
Hedge shears look like large scissors and are ideal for light trimming, shaping, and hedging.
Electric hedge trimmers make shaping hedges easier with their long arm of rotating blades.
Yes. Blades that have been in contact with a sick plant will pass the disease to every plant you prune. Clean your blades with isopropyl alcohol after each use.
Leaf it to a professional
Shrubs can be a lot of work. If all that planting and pruning gets to be too much, don’t beat around the bush! Hire a local landscaper to boost your curb appeal.
What good are beautiful bushes when your grass is lackluster? Hire a lawn care professional who has the equipment and know-how to keep your lawn looking lush.