From the shrubbery

– Posted in: Garden Design, Garden Plants


Edgeworthia chrysantha - a spectacular late winter flowering shrub, at RHS Garden Wisley.

Do I sense a feeling that shrubs are coming back into fashion? Or at least that perhaps the New Perennial revolution has just gone a little too far? Over the last few years I have seen the odd article, one by Roy Lancaster and one by Dan Pearson on the basic theme of ‘let’s not forget shrubs’ and Gardens Illustrated have even commissioned Dan to write a series about them.
Back in the day, well, let’s say the late 1980s, shrubs dominated garden centres and nurseries, with perennials relegated to horrid little plastic bags in cardboard boxes for a few spring months. We had to fight to get perennials their place in the sun of the sales area. Now it is the other way round. Most GCs and nurseries carry only the most basic range of rather predictable shrubs clearly designed to appeal to bored suburban gardeners: bright flowers, variegation and compact habit compulsory. The number of specialist nurseries doing a decent range has greatly diminished and there has been a massive cull of woody plants from The Plant Finder.
The reasons are perhaps not difficult to imagine:

  1. perennials fit smaller gardens,
  2. they often achieve a ‘final effect’ in two years,
  3. they are completely unthreatening to the nervous gardener, except for the odd runner like Euphorbia cyparissias (which clearly terrifies the nervous or the tidy-minded),
  4. they don’t need complicated pruning, or a “what am I going to do, shall I get a man in?” kind of panic attack when they get too big,
  5. finally, big point, perennials are much cheaper for nurseries to produce; let’s face it, most perennial nurseries buy in their stock as tiny plugs, pot ‘em and flog ‘em, whilst the real specialists (some might say the only real nurseries) who actually propagate their own stock (shock horror – very few do these days) can always take a sharp spade to unsold perennials at the end of the year, pot up and re-sell – can’t do that with shrubs.

Viburnum davidii - the sort of shrub which does the evergreen blog job very stylishly with a minimum of care - but patience is needed.

The perennial take-over, for which I must admit, I have something to be responsible for, ignores these factors:

  1. after the big winter cut-back there is nowt to look at,
  2. few perennials flower in spring,
  3. what does perform in spring flowers so low down the garden can look rather flat,
  4. no bird nests in a perennial.

This last is an important bio-diversity point, as garden wildlife benefits more than anything else on a diversity of habitat – for which woody plants are essential.
Part of the problem with shrubs is how you manage them. Most have a blob-like shape which creates problems in small spaces if allowed to get too big. The response so often is mindless cutting back to turn an amorphous blob into a kind of sub-spherical blob which does not flower properly – which rather defeats the object of growing it in the first place. Unless you are Mexican, in which case you cut it into a cube. Or a Mexican employed by a US landscape company (or should I say vegetation control company) in which case you cut it into a very tight sphere with plenty of bare wood showing. One of the recent developments which disturbs me, with the banks of ‘green cement’ planting installed by unimaginative landscape architects working for penny-pinching clients in much British corporate planting,  is the increasing tendency to annually cut it all back to a ‘shape’. Sometimes this is done quite artistically. Sometimes. But in sustainability terms it is appalling – all that fuel to power the hedge trimmers. What’s wrong with the plant’s natural shape?

Taking out lower limbs gives you planting space beneath for shade tolerant perennials and can give shrubs more character

So, yes, perhaps this is the problem. Management. Some ideas, all of which require  a bit more than mindless trimming:

  1. Knowledge and skill required: prune properly, usually after flowering, keeping the basic plant shape but not letting it get too big.
  2. Bravery required: cut down to base when it gets too big, and let it regenerate. Most shrubs regenerate from the base very well (this will be the subject of a later blog). It will look very bare but not for long.
  3. Creativity required: take out lower branches, revealing lower stems – sometimes attractive in their own right, but allow those straight vigorous new ones to shoot up from the base to gradually regenerate the plant. There will now be space for underplanting with bulbs and perennials, and there is a good chance you will have overcome the ‘amorphous blob’ problem.

Finally – the shrub revival now has its Bible: Jim Gardiner, RHS Director of Horticulture has an incredibly thorough new reference book out on shrubs – 1700 species and cultivars. A ‘does what it says on the tin’ book, basic information plus photographs – photographs which do give you a very good feel of growth habit, size and shape, not just ‘grow me, I’m pretty, the art editor likes me’ type illustrations. It should prove to be very useful for a new generation prepared to slip the odd shrub in amongst the perennials.


Skilled pruning here - a complete regeneration job. notice the strong upright young stems which will regenerate the plant.

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Coming soon!   Dig, Plant and Bitch, the Soap Opera for Gardeners.


Noel Kingsbury

Noel Kingsbury

Noel Kingsbury is a gardener and writer based in the west of England. Author of over 20 books, including four collaborations with Dutch designer Piet Oudolf, he is passionate about wild-style planting and bringing nature into the garden.

Noel Kingsbury

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Sara Malone February 29, 2012, 8:59 am

Kudos on a great article! Couldn’t agree more. And there are many compact shrubs available and if you expand your horizons to include conifers, even more. If you choose and site properly, which may take a little research and planning, you will have a garden that is attractive for far longer than with perennials. The nurseries are enablers, and until gardeners start demanding more interesting material, they will continue to see the same old stuff, albeit increasingly in patented form. Stand up for shrubs!

Flâneur Gardener February 29, 2012, 11:20 am

I guess my only nod to gardening fads is that I do like dahlias, and that’s definitely because they suddenly arose to fame after years in the shade. But mainly I want a garden like my mother’s or my grandmothers; a nice mix of bulbs, perennials, shrubs and a decent vegetable patch. And trees! Never underestimate a couple of good trees to hang a hammock or a clothesline between…

Donna February 29, 2012, 12:00 pm

You are singing the the choir here. My partner in landscape design is a large wholesale grower, of trees and shrubs. We have not seen a decrease because the jobs we design and fill are all large scale and using only perennials do not fit the scale of these projects.

One point you missed and one that is a bit touchy is that there is a big difference of those that landscape a property and those that merely garden. Shrubs are not as easy for the gardener to ‘fit’ into their design if they have limited knowledge of what they are using. They often know very little about the cultural or overall space requirements. They know even less of mass and scale.

Perennials are manageable and if a ‘mistake’ is made, it is more easily rectified. A landscape cannot be complete in design if it does not have year round interest and our trees and shrubs form the structure of the gardens and help to give the winter interest. Also, they are VERY important to wildlife, especially in winter.

We design drifts of sweeping perennials on these large private and commercial properties, but they are almost always supported by a backdrop of trees and shrubs. Sometimes in hedge form and other times in a natural scheme, but never do we have grass and a few perennial beds and call it a design.

As for pruning, it is so important to train and maintain. My partner provides this service yearly to clients and will also tell those that need guidance how to do it themselves. Shrubs are coming back into ‘garden’ design because of our aging population too. Many have decided to cut back on garden real estate (notice I did not say maintenance) and swapped out flowering shrubs for their prized perennials.

Loree / danger garden February 29, 2012, 12:01 pm

Today on my blog I’m talking about my current “shrub” obsession…I thought it was just me! Maybe instead it’s all part of a larger trend? Interesting to think about.

Susan in the Pink Hat February 29, 2012, 2:28 pm

I think your first #2 point, that perennials achieve a final effect faster has as much to do with gardeners’ impatience as anything. Nowadays, most people don’t stay in one place for the 5 or 10 years minimum needed to see a shrub or small tree come into its own. Fast growing shrubs like Cornus sanguinea or Euonymous are still easily found in nurseries and I have yet to see a standard suburban garden or municipal planting without one. Another factor is whether it can be grown to a huge size and transplanted successfully. If you can only plant it as a graft and it takes 10+ years to look like anything, forget it.

As for US landscaping crews, I would welcome any shearing that made a shrub look spherical. Usually it’s some inverted cone or tabletop shape with spindly legs showing at the base.

Len Cheeseman February 29, 2012, 3:13 pm

When I started my small residential patch a few years ago I regularly visited one local New Zealand nursery where large quantities of shrubs could be found. During spring visits the Viburnums,amongst others, such as Physocarpus,both dark and gold, stacked in rows,looked like shrub versions of the new perennial plantings popularized by yourself and others which had me wondering why designers have not used shrubs more creatively to create,for example,the kind of drifts,shapes,colour and texture so prevalent in herbaceous plantings.Prehaps the moment is imminent.

Stacy February 29, 2012, 4:39 pm

I think (from experience) that it’s easy for a new-ish gardener to overestimate the risk of either damaging shrubs during pruning or worse, of misshaping them in some horrible, permanent way. No matter what you do to a perennial, it’s more on a “live/die” toggle switch–you won’t have to live for years with something you’ve maimed unintentionally… Once you’ve done the research and dived in with loppers and saw, though, you realize that pruning isn’t quite such a big deal. But until that point I came close to regretting planting the shrubs in my small garden because they were, like you say, overgrown, amorphous blobs. (Now “limbing up” is my favorite gardening phrase instead.) I didn’t realize shrubs had gone out of fashion, though–every book I’ve read emphasizes them as those all-important “bones.”

Debbie February 29, 2012, 8:26 pm

Love my shrubs but it’s been a transition. My first garden was ALL perennials. Ooh boring, boring especially in winter. Now I’m on the lookout for fun shrubs but I hope they don’t go down the same route as perennials.

Don Statham March 1, 2012, 8:00 am

Gardening is always going through Fashion trends and the love affair of the American prairie style planting which requires hundreds of perennials has been in vogue now for a good decade. Piet Oudolf being the head of this movement. As I age I wish I had more shrubs & less perennials. The amount of cutting back takes a good deal of time both in the fall and spring- not to mention the carpal tunnel syndrome from so much work! I have to say you make some excellent points here. Shrubs are an important habitat for birds. It’s gives me so much pleasure seeing them land on the horizontal branches in the winter. I find myself slowly replacing perennials with shrubs. I have noticed its very difficult to find some of our old standards such as Symplocos paniculata- sapphireberry. There is a trend of plant breeders to produce endless blooming shrubs such as hydrangeas and ignoring some of the great shrubs from previous generations.

Jan LeCocq March 1, 2012, 2:52 pm

We’re definitely into shrubs, bushes and trees! Check out Many of the images are from Sara Malone’s garden in Petaluma. I’m in the midst of revising mine in NW FL.

Maria Carlos March 2, 2012, 12:11 am

I appreciate your points about the value of shrubs, because I love them. But I really must protest your racist remarks. Couldn’t you have made your points without disparaging a particular nationality? Even if you meant it as humor, it’s racist. It’s not funny.

Noel Kingsbury March 2, 2012, 5:26 am

My comments on Mexican gardening are based on a couple of visits there and seeing the frustration of Mexican colleagues with a deeply conservative style of plant management, which at its best can be very creative, but is all too often cliched and still very colonial in style. The situation in the US is of course that large numbers of Mexicans are employed on poor wages/conditions to ‘maintain’ gardens, essentially by applying a debased form of this heavy-duty pruning. The result is the horrendously chopped about shrubs you see all over the US, which i am sorry to say is now spreading over here!

and i think that we have to be able to discuss national garden cultures and with humour without accusations of racism being made.But of course, come to think of it, Anglo-Mexican relations have historically been quite good, whereas in the US, the very word ‘Mexican’ carries tonnes of cultural baggage…. when i was last in Mexico, i was told “you drive like a Mexican” i.e “you drive well”, but in the US I think that would be interpreted differently, get my point?
.. I’d better shut up….

On the subject of Mexican garden culture – did you see my blog, 2 years ago on my own site , where i had planted a ‘Mexican heritage’ garden at home.

Cynthia March 2, 2012, 5:58 pm

With you all the way. Even backyard gardeners, if the focus is either native or animal friendly, are guided toward shrubs–being faster than trees of course to do their filling and design work. I also would like to confirm something I am sure I read that Piet wrote–he said his massed grasses were great for public spaces, but he’d have only accent grasses in a private garden. THX

Maria Carlos March 3, 2012, 12:19 pm

Thank you, Noel, for responding. You got my point. And I got yours. We both come from our particular cultures. I appreciate your explanation of your perspective. My own Mexican heritage and family history of Chicano activism informs my perspective. I have a garden corner that honors my father, and just may follow your example and plant an annual bed to prepare for fall’s Dia de los Muertos.

Noel Kingsbury March 5, 2012, 2:03 am

Love the idea of the planting being ready for Dia de los Muertos. With us I think it might be the worse for wear after autumn storms.

Lyn March 7, 2012, 6:51 pm

I was surprised to read that shrubs have been out of fashion there, as here in Australia, it is perennials that are harder to find. Shrubs are found in nurseries everywhere in their thousands, although the range of easily available shrubs has been shrinking (but so has the range of every other kind of plant). I have to buy most of my perennials by mail order, but I rarely leave a nursery without a few shrubs. Impossible to garden without them.

Tony March 9, 2012, 8:17 pm

Hmm? Return of the Knights who say, Ni!

Methinks to bring us a shrubbery!

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