Fall is a great time to plant shrubs, and there are so many choices! One way to narrow your selection and save yourself some frustration in future years is to picture where you want to plant your new shrubs and how you want them to look.
Roles for shrubs
Shrubs can play many roles in your landscape. These include:
- Foundation plantings
- Screens for privacy—or to block a view
- Hedges to define areas within your property or to define property boundaries
- Serve as a woody groundcover
- Source of fall color, flowers, and/or fruit
Once you’ve decided where you want to plant shrubs and for what purpose, consider how they’ll look before you choose. As you think about landscapes you admire, you’ll likely notice how formal or informal they look. Shrubs are often a good indicator of formality.
- In formal landscapes symmetry and geometric shapes are the rule—shrubs are typically pruned to have clean lines, whether rounded or angular.
- In informal landscapes, shrub forms are left to more natural shapes.
This may seem an unusual first step in choosing a shrub, but the desired appearance of your shrub may affect several aspects of your choice:
- If your shrub is evergreen or deciduous—most shrubs that take to shearing are evergreen rather than deciduous
- If your shrub flowers or fruits you will typically want a less formal shape because shearing may remove flower buds—and prevent the flowers and/or fruit that follow—one exception is if you espalier fruit trees to shrub-size plantings (see “Specialty pruning” section in General Pruning link below)
- The distance you plant your shrubs from structures or other plantings—shearing will limit height and perhaps width of your shrub, depending on if your shrub is planted as a specimen or in a hedge.
For formal shrubs, think typically evergreen and smaller-leaved. Many dwarf and smaller conifers will grow into pleasing shapes and stay small with little pruning. Although boxwoods are the classic selection for shearing, the devastating appearance of boxwood blight makes this a riskier choice. Some of the evergreen hollies (Ilex spp.) are suitable replacements:
- Inkberry hollies (Ilex glabra) are native to NC, slow-growing, and tend to grow in a rounded shape that requires little pruning. There are dwarf varieties that grow only to 3 feet tall, and the species typically tops out at 5 to 8 feet.
- Yaupon hollies ( I . vomitoria) are also NC natives, suitable for shearing, but faster growing, larger, and less hardy—only to USDA hardiness Zone 7a, so not suitable for colder parts of Buncombe County.
Note that Japanese hollies (I. crenata), which tolerate extensive pruning and are often used for topiaries, is an invasive plant and has been reported along the Blue Ridge Parkway in Buncombe County.
For informal landscapes, both evergreen and deciduous shrubs can provide a variety of sizes, shapes, colors, and seasons of interest. In addition to many varieties of hydrangeas and viburnums—some of which are evergreen—there are many lesser-known shrubs that are excellent choices for WNC landscapes. A few that are also native include:
- American beautyberry (Callicarpa americana) has arching branches, is 3 to 8 feet tall and 3 to 6 feet wide. Small flowers attract pollinators in late spring/early summer and distinctive purple berries and yellow foliage make this shrub a stand-out in fall. Some varieties have white or pink berries; all beautyberries are attractive to birds.
- Carolina allspice/Sweetshrub (Calycanthus floridus) forms rounded shrubs 6 to 12 feet tall and wide with fragrant, showy red flowers in spring are visited by pollinators. Unusual seedpods form in fall.
- Red chokeberry (Aronia arbutifolia) is typically vase-shaped, 6 to 10 feet tall and 3 to 5 feet wide. It has four-season interest, with white flowers in spring that attract pollinators, shiny green leaves in summer, attractive red fall foliage and red berries that feed birds and mammals, and exfoliating bark during the winter.
Now is the time to plant! Autumn planting encourages strong root growth—cooler temperatures and fall rains make for lower maintenance, too. Give your shrubs a great start by digging a planting hole that is only as deep as the root ball, but 2 to 3 times as wide. Backfill with existing soil rather than other materials. Mulch lightly, keeping the mulch away from the stems, and keep well-watered throughout the winter months. Enjoy!
Article by Debbie Green, Buncombe County Extension Master GardenerSMVolunteer
For more information:
Planting and caring for shrubs: https://content.ces.ncsu.edu/extension-gardener-handbook/11-woody-ornamentals
Pruning trees and shrubs: https://chatham.ces.ncsu.edu/2015/02/pruning-trees-and-shrubs-2/
General pruning: https://content.ces.ncsu.edu/general-pruning-techniques
Landscape design: https://content.ces.ncsu.edu/extension-gardener-handbook/19-landscape-design