Trees may be fabulous but shrubs are addictive—you can’t have just one or two.
The first gardening piece I wrote for Saltscapes was nearly a decade ago; it was about the remarkable Nova Scotia plantsman, Captain Richard Steele, and his wonderful rhododendrons and azaleas. I was fortunate to become good friends with Captain Steele (known as Dick to his friends), and was hugely saddened when he passed away in March 2010 at the tender age of 94.
Dick’s legacy to me was a broadening of my gardening palette. He encouraged me to become besotted with woody plants, also known as shrubs and their larger relatives, trees. Trees are fabulous, but they take some years to become impressive. Every year, however, I add a number of new shrubs to our garden, much as I add new perennials. They’re like potato chips—you can’t just have one or two.
There are many reasons to incorporate shrubs into your yard or landscape. To begin with, most of them tend to be reasonably low-maintenance: plant them correctly, and you can enjoy many years of beauty with little work (more about that in a bit).
There’s a shrub for every garden, or, if you’re living in an apartment or condo, for every deck or balcony. Shrubs and trees form the foundations or “bones” of a garden, providing structure to a landscape. They can be planted by themselves, or incorporated into borders and beds along with perennials, annuals, bulbs and even veggies and herbs.
Shrubs can erupt into bloom in early spring, saturate us with colourful and fragrant blooms throughout spring and summer, and give us a blaze of foliar glory in autumn before presenting us with the quiet elegance of winter interest. They can offer privacy and keep out unwelcome pests when planted in hedge formations, and can provide microclimates by acting as windbreaks for delicate plants. For the wildlife gardener, many shrubs are attractive sources of food and shelter for songbirds, pollinators and other wild creatures. How can we resist such excellent plants?
Choosing shrubs is as simple as going to a nursery or garden centre and asking questions. Since most shrubs are a little more expensive—or, depending on your tastes, a lot more expensive—than are perennials and annuals, you will want to make sure you’re purchasing quality, healthy stock suited for Atlantic Canadian gardens.
I am inclined to purchase small, young specimens of particular shrubs and trees, because they settle in more quickly and adapt to my garden far more readily than large, mature specimens might do. You can buy large specimens, but be aware they will be significantly more expensive than their smaller counterparts. (My rationale is that if I buy small plants, I can buy more of them, although my long-suffering spouse doesn’t always go along with that.)
Look for plants with a pleasing, balanced shape to them, with no damaged limbs or signs of disease or pest problems. You can lift most shrubs from their containers to get a look at the roots, which should be firm and white or pale brown, not soft and mushy and dark brown to black.
Make sure that the shrub you select is hardy to your growing zone—you don’t want to invest time and money only to have the plant die because your winter is too harsh.
The secret to success is to situate new shrubs where they will be happy, and to dig an appropriate planting hole. For example, rhododendrons won’t be happy if they’re sitting in soggy soil, whereas Canada holly (Ilex verticillata) is perfect for damp, even soggy, situations.
Dig a hole that is at least twice as wide but only as deep as the shrub’s rootball. If your new plant appears to be rootbound when you remove it from its container, carefully loosen the roots and shake them out as much as possible before you set it into the ground.
Add a little compost around the roots and refill the hole with the soil you removed, tamp it down, then water well. Add more soil if necessary once the water has settled the soil around the plant.
Mulching around shrubs serves a number of purposes: it helps to keep the soil cool and moist around those newly planted roots; it shades weed seedlings, reducing the need to do much weeding; it also helps to prevent damage from lawn maintenance tools such as string trimmers and lawn mowers. Most shrubs and trees resent damage from such equipment, and the gardener tends to get cranky at the lawn-maintaining individual in the family.
Why, yes, that’s the voice of experience speaking.
Even after mulching, you’ll still need to water regularly for the first season, especially if it’s a dry summer—but remember to water well, not often: give the soil around the new shrub a thorough soaking every few days, and then don’t water it until the soil is nearly dry. This will encourage the roots to spread out and grow deeply, anchoring the plant and helping to establish an excellent system for taking up moisture and nutrients.
There are two schools of thought on pruning shrubs. If you are going to prune, remember to prune spring-flowering species like forsythia and quince after they blossom, so that you don’t inadvertently cut flower-bearing branches and end up with a tidy but bloomless shrub.
I am of the more free-and-natural school of shrub maintenance: I generally only prune my plants to remove damaged, dead or diseased wood.
In the spring, I go around with my secateurs and loppers and shears and have a little trimming session. I cut back any limbs that were broken by excessive snowfall and drifting, perhaps tidy up the dappled willow so it will produce more colourful foliage, and thin out the limbs of ninebarks and twisted hazel, the better to show off their marvellous bark or contorted twigs.
See above for a list of shrubs well suited to Atlantic Canadian gardens. Don’t worry if you are just starting to think about this for this season—you can plant shrubs all season, right into autumn.
Hot off the press: Plants for Atlantic Gardens (Nimbus), by Jodi DeLong, profiles 100 or so plants—from Acer (maple) to veronica—suitable for Atlantic Canada’s climate and soil conditions. Meet Jodi at book signings throughout May and June. Find out where and when at bloomingwriter.blogspot.com.