How to Choose the Best Shrubs for Brightening Up Your Yard
These botanical workhorses provide structure and beauty to the landscape. Use your personal preferences, hardiness zone, and available space to select the right ones for your garden.
Offering an enormous diversity of sizes, shapes, flowers, and foliage, shrubs can turn a bland landscape into a beautiful, dynamic showpiece. These sturdy plants help fill in beds and solidify foundation plantings, which makes your yard more inviting. Flowering varieties add extra color and sweet fragrances. Depending on where you live and the conditions in your yard, different shrubs can add evergreen texture, groundcover on a slope, and even more privacy by blocking street noise. They also help protect the soil from erosion and support wildlife with food and shelter. Here's a look at various important characteristics to consider so you can pick out the best shrubs for your yard.
Types of Shrubs
Before diving into the different types, you may be wondering what a shrub is, exactly. In general, they are plants with multiple woody stems that usually don't die back to the ground in winter (which most perennial plants typically do). A few trees like serviceberries can also have multiple woody stems, so some experts distinguish shrubs further by saying they stay under 10 feet tall. There are exceptions to this rule, as well, which as led to the term "trub" to label those plants that just can't seem to make up their minds if they are a tree or a shrub.
Related: Create an Easy-Care Shrub Garden
Shrubs can be deciduous (meaning they lose their leaves every winter) or evergreen. Some families of shrubs include both of these types, like hollies. There are also coniferous (cone-bearing evergreens) species like many junipers and yews.
Shrub Foliage Colors
The leaves of shrubs come in just about every color, even nearly black like 'Black Lace' elderberry. Even plain green deciduous varieties often turn bright colors in the fall, too. And evergreen shrubs, despite their name, offer an amazing range of foliage colors beyond green, including soft blue, yellow, and variegated in yellow or cream with green. These hues look even more striking in a snow-covered winter landscape. When selecting shrubs, make sure to consider its appearance throughout all seasons.
Shrub Shapes and Forms
In addition to the usual upright, rounded configuration, shrubs can be weeping (branches drape downward), prostrate (branches grow low and outward, which can work well for covering slopes), and topiary (pruned into interesting shapes). Some species are available in dwarf forms, especially conifers, which are a good choice for smaller properties.
Compared to many smaller plants, most shrubs are quite drought-tolerant once they are established (for the first year after planting, you'll want to make sure your shrub stays well watered so the roots have a chance to grow in). In some parts of the country, you can't always count on rain to water your plants. If you want to use less water in your garden, choose shrubs that can tolerate dry conditions. Some examples are potentilla, spirea, and many viburnums.
Avoiding Deer Damage
Deer can damage shrubs by nibbling their twigs, fruit, and foliage. Gardeners across the country are always on the lookout for ornamentals that deer won't touch. Lists vary by region (and even by neighborhood) but certain types of plants appear on many of them. Consider shrubs with thorns or prickers, resinous wood, aromatic foliage, and fuzzy leaves.
Advantages of Native Shrubs
Native shrubs are also a good option. Because they've existed in the same regions for centuries, they've adapted to local climate and soil conditions. They also have plenty of low-maintenance benefits: They usually don't need extra watering, tend to resist pests and disease, and they're big favorites of local wildlife. A few options that combine the virtues of beauty and low maintenance include:
Shrubs That Attract Wildlife
Many shrubs with berries (native or not) attract birds and other wildlife. These include:
Popular Shrub Choices
Because boxwoods are easy to manipulate and maintain into so many different shapes and sizes, they can always find a home in the garden. Boxwood is an evergreen covered with tiny, oval, glossy leaves. It tolerates shearing into hedges very well. Common boxwood grows to 20 feet tall, but there are all kinds of cultivars that stay smaller. Boxwood will grow in sun or light shade, preferably in well-drained soil, but it can tolerate drought, too. Hardy in Zones 4-8.
Also known as lily-of-the-valley bush, andromeda bears pendulous chains of puckered blooms in spring that closely resemble lily-of-the-valley flowers. Andromeda, or pieris, is a 4- to 12-foot-tall, broadleaf evergreen. It produces clusters of fragrant, white, urn-shaped flowers in the spring. This slow-growing shrub likes some shade, but can also tolerate full sun, and needs well-drained soil that's not too dry or too wet. Hardy in Zones 6-9.
A true harbinger of spring, forsythia bursts into a vibrant display of golden blooms before any leaf foliage emerges. Forsythia produces rows of bright yellow, trumpet-shape flowers on its bare stems in early spring. It usually grows 8 to 10 feet tall. Plant it in full sun or part sun, and well-drained, evenly moist soil. Hardy in Zones 4-9.
Harry Lauder's walking stick is actually a filbert used as an ornamental shrub. It sports curling, twisting branches that can be pruned for use in crafts and flower arrangements. It has coarse, veined leaves and grows 8 to 10 feet tall. Filbert shrubs can tolerate full sun and part shade, and do best in well-drained soil. Hardy in Zones 4-9.
Hydrangeas can flourish in sun or shade. Huge bouquets of hydrangea flowers, which include mophead and lacecap varieties, show beauty from summer to fall. Lacecap hydrangea features flat clusters of tiny, tight, fertile flowers ringed by petaled, sterile ones. The blue, pink, or white flowers nestle among green foliage in early summer, and grow best in well-drained soil. Hardy in Zones 6-9.
Lilac boasts fragrant sprays of tiny, tubular florets in pink, white, and shades of lavender during the spring. Heart-shaped, smooth, bluish-green leaves continue through the season and drop in the fall. Lilac grows slowly but lives a long time. Plant in full sun or part sun with well-drained, evenly moist soil. Hardy in Zones 4-9.
A showy shrub native to eastern North America, mountain laurel is closely related to azaleas and rhododendrons. Mountain laurel is a broadleaf evergreen that grows up to 15 feet tall. It's vigorous and produces globes of intricate, starlike florets in late spring. Plant in full sun or part sun with well-drained soil. Hardy in Zones 4-9.
Pyracantha (firethorn) branches are covered with thorns. They produce white flowers in spring that become bright orange or red berries by fall. Its smallish, oval leaves are evergreen. This shrub is easy to grow but difficult to prune; just plant it in a spot with full or part sun and well-drained soil. Hardy in Zones 5-9.
In areas where dry winters tend to desiccate evergreen types, deciduous varieties of rhododendrons can fill in the gap. Plum-leaf azalea, native to the Southeast, bears its fragrant, orange-red flowers in midsummer, later than most azaleas. Shrubs have evergreen foliage and grow to 10 feet or more. Plant in part shade and moist, well-drained soil. Hardy in Zones 5-8.
PJM rhododendron is a compact evergreen that grows 3 to 6 feet tall. Resembling an azalea, its leaves are small and leathery, turning purplish in the fall. Spring flowers are pinkish-lavender. Plant in part shade and moist, well-drained soil. Hardy in Zones 4-9.
Seven-sons flower grows to 15 feet, so is an example of a "trub" because sometimes it is shaped to grow more like a tree. Its soft green foliage shows off 6-inch-long clusters of fragrant ivory flowers in late summer. It prefers moist soil but tolerates drought, too. Plant it in full to part shade. Hardy in Zones 5-8.