Deciduous flowering shrubs are among the most versatile of all garden plants. Whether used to frame architecture, provide privacy or attract birds, deciduous shrubs are an indispensable part of the garden and are the starting point of great landscape design. In most cases deciduous shrubs are very low maintenance. In fact, most will thrive for years with only occasional pruning.
Deciduous shrubs offer year round interest in the garden. Along with their vibrant flowers, they offer lush summer foliage and brilliant fall colors. What many gardeners don't realize are the winter attributes of deciduous shrubs. For example, the red twig dogwood has amazing red bark which contrasts strikingly against white snow and stands out among the barren winter landscape. Many flowering shrubs, such as several species of viburnum, are fruit bearing and will produce colorful berries which last though the fall and winter.
Formal landscape designs may call for flowering shrubs which are small and respond well to frequent pruning, such as daphne, privet and cotoneaster. Gardens which are meant to be informal and have a more natural feel should be planted with shrubs which, if allowed to grow, become unruly such as viburnum, spirea and forsythia. Specimen shrubs are those which have very distinct, eye catching qualities and are able to stand out as individual plants. Often, interestingly shaped or dwarf evergreens are used as specimen shrubs but there are deciduous shrubs which can have dramatic effects in the landscape as well. Butterfly bush or hydrangea, for example, with their profuse summer flowers, and witchhazel with its late winter/early spring flowers both can be considered specimens.
Proper planning is essential to a successful shrub planting. Before choosing shrubs for your garden, consider their intended function in the landscape. Shrubs can be used in a number of ways in the landscape. Planted as a hedge, shrubs can act as windbreaks, screens which provide privacy or to delineate sections of a property. Hedges generally consist of one type of shrub a can be both formal and neatly pruned or informal and allowed to grow.
Shrub borders use a variety of flowering shrubs and are designed to be more decorative than useful. Plant an array of shrub sizes and shapes in the border. Start with a back drop of larger shrubs. Lower growing shrubs can then be planted between and in front the taller shrubs. Include plants which during different times of the season. While most bloom in the spring, some shrubs, hydrangea, bloom in late summer. Rather than using one of many species of shrubs in the border, use a few different varieties and repeat patterns which seem to work well.
There are several distinct shapes of shrubs; columnar, globular, weeping, spreading, and pyramidal. When planting in a narrow space or on the corner of a tall building, columnar (or tall and narrow) shrubs should be utilized. Spreading shrubs are low growing and are well suited to a slope planting. Also, be aware of the shrub’s hardiness to be sure it will survive the winter.
When contemplating color for your garden don’t limit your thinking to the flowers. For much of the season green is the dominant color in the garden so chose flowering shrubs with interesting foliage. There are many shades of green available to the gardener, from light pale greens to darker blue greens. There are also variegated varieties which can brighten up shady spots. Colors which are opposite on the color wheel will work well together, such as yellow and purple. White flowering shrubs can stand out on their own and, much like variegated foliage, are effective in brightening up shady spaces.
One characteristic of flowering shrubs which is often overlooked while planning a garden is their mature height. Improper placement of shrubs is a main reason for unnecessary transplants and pruning. Deciduous shrubs grow quickly and plants which are 4’ at the nursery could very well end up being 15’ tall in a few years.
Shrubs should be planted soon after they are purchased. If this is not possible, keep the roots moist while the plant is out of the ground. Spring and fall are ideal times for planting new shrubs as the temperatures are cooler. When you’re ready to plant follow these general guidelines. Dig a hole twice the diameter of the root ball and just as deep. Place the shrub in the hole making sure that the top of the root ball meets the existing grade of the garden. Never plant shrubs too low or too high, this a major cause of premature plant decline. If the roots are wrapped in natural burlap it won’t need to be removed, just pull it way from the trunk of the plants and tuck it down into the hole. Back fill about half way with a mix of existing soil, peat moss and compost or manure. At this point, water and let the soil settle. This will eliminate any air pockets and will water the deep roots immediately. Finish backfilling and construct a saucer around the trunk of the shrub and water again. Taller shrubs on an exposed windy site may require staking.
The standard rule of thumb when pruning deciduous flowering shrubs is to prune those which bloom before July immediately after they've finished blooming. This gives them nearly an entire year to develop new bud-bearing branches. Prune those which bloom after July in the winter or early spring. Prune selectively. Remove any branches which grow inward toward the trunk or crisscrossing each other. Thinning out old branches and cutting back those that have become long and leggy will renew the shrub. By removing about one-third of the shrub's old growth will result in a huge flush of healthy new growth.
With hundreds of flowering shrubs to choose from, deciding what to plant can become overwhelming. Find shrubs which you like and use those. Include in you garden planning a visit to your local nursery or arboretum to become familiar with how shrubs grow; you may come across shrubs you don’t recognize which inspire new design ideas.