There’s a broad cast of shrubs homeowners can use in designing their gardens and planting beds. What are these shrub types, and how can they best be utilized?

Shrubs are the workhorses of the garden. Whether used alone or in groups or drifts, as accents or as part of a planting bed design, shrubs are garden plants that supply great variety and seasonal interest.

Shrub Types

Shrubs sizes range from large (15′ +/-) to dwarf (1′ +/-), and can be described as rounded, oval, upright, pyramidal, columnar, vase shaped, or weeping. They also have texture, determined by their leaf structure – leaves can be large and stiff, narrow and willowy, small and soft, or a combination. Leaf color and gloss also have parts to play in determining texture.

Broadly, there are two types of shrubs: those that loose their leaves in the winter (deciduous), and those that keep their leaves year-round (evergreen). Of the evergreens, there are broad leaf types and needle leaf (coniferous) varieties. All can be used in various ways to enhance a home garden.

In his book Professional Planting Design – An Architectural and Horticultural Approach for Creating Mixed Bed Plantings, (2007, John Wiley & Sons), landscape architect Scott C. Scarfone lists 4 subtypes of the above:

  • Structural Shrubs
  • Foliage Shrubs
  • Flowering Shrubs
  • Dwarf Shrubs

Structural Shrubs

Think of structural plants as the “bones” of the garden. Along with small trees, they provide broad shape creation and spatial definition. Use structural shrubs as backdrops for seasonal bloomers, mass them together to frame planting bays, or use them to separate planting beds or zones.

Structural shrubs can be either evergreen or deciduous. Evergreen structural shrubs can also be used functionally, as screening, wind breaks or sound buffers. Masses of large evergreen shrubs can be the perfect foil for a vibrant specimen plant.

Foliage Plants

These plants are generally planted for the texture, shape, size and color of their leaves, and can vary widely, from the broad waxen leaves of viburnums to the fine needle-like leaves of the yews to the vibrant fall colors of many deciduous shrubs. Even evergreen shrubs can have variegated leaves, or different hues from summer to winter.

Use foliage shrubs in groups as background plantings for perennials or other flowering plants, or as individual accents, showcasing their own finest features.

Flowering Shrubs

Landscape plants that flower strut their stuff during their season of interest and can put on outstanding displays either as mass plantings or individual plants.

Flowering shrubs like Encore azaleas or Knock Out roses are perfect for use in mixed beds, but gardeners should try to avoid letting one flowering plant up-stage another. Take into account the shrub’s bloom period. Ideally, flowering times of all varieties should overlap seamlessly, from early spring to mid-summer to early fall.

Group plantings can provide bold color statements, but beware – too much of a good thing can overwhelm a small garden or planting bed. Smaller plantings may best be served with just 3 to 5 plants of the same variety grouped together.

If an individual specimen has especially ornamental characteristics it can make a perfect accent. Put it on display, in a bed of ground cover or against a wall, where it’s assets can be appreciated.

And don’t fixate just on color – a flowering plant’s form can add a new dimension to the planting.

Dwarf Shrubs

Compact dwarf shrubs contribute at the understory level – at the feet of other plants. They can have characteristics of both foliage and flowering plants, and are best used as “front men”, at the leading edges of planting beds. They not only contribute in their own right, but they can tidy up the planting by hiding the scraggly “feet” of their taller cousins, and provide color interest when the others are not blooming.

Dwarfs can also take on a structural plant role when used with low-growing ground covers. They’re great for massing on slopes, or for use in a pocket garden or niche where a larger plant would be out of scale.

Used correctly and in concert with a well-designed plan, shrubs can add functional solutions and aesthetic enjoyment to a garden for years to come.


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