Gardeners looking for colorful, low-maintenance plants are discovering that shrubs do the job and a bit more. Hydrangeas, azaleas and easy-care roses are claiming the spots where perennials once were preferred, and backyard landscapes are changing for the better. The shrubs themselves are undergoing a transformation, too.
“The trend we see right now is taking the classic shrubs like hydrangeas or lilacs and improving on them in some way,” said Shannon Springer at Spring Meadow Nursery and Proven Winners in Michigan. Reblooming and long-blooming shrubs are one of the company’s top priorities, she said.
Flowering shrubs have truly become the new perennials, says Tony Fulmer, chief horticulture officer of Chalet Nursery in Wilmette, Ill. Annual and perennial flowers remain popular, of course, but the big nursery’s five teams of garden designers are making increasing use of hydrangeas, shrub roses, forsythia and other flowering shrubs – especially compact forms – in their landscaping plans for new gardeners and for everyone else in need of gardens and plants that don’t require a lot of attention.
“Anything that performs well as a foliage plant and blooms for a long time, we are going to sell the heck out of it,” Fulmer said.
Chalet’s retail and landscaping divisions sell millions of dollars’ worth of plants every year; hydrangeas and shrub roses represent more than half of the sales of flowering shrubs, he said.
Shrubs have always been popular, but new introductions have exploded in the past few years, offering gardeners and designers more choices than ever before.
If you’re already dreaming of spring, sketch out a plan for additions to your garden and look forward to planting new shrubs when the danger of frost has passed.
Flowering shrubs with an extended season of bloom have a distinct edge “because people aren’t just looking for two weeks of color,” Filmer said. Gardeners and designers also want “shrubs that are more compact, less gangly, and look great in containers.”
One of the most popular new hydrangeas is Limelight, a hardy, mid- to late-summer blooming shrub with large blooms that open with sparkling chartreuse petals, which change to creamy white and then fade to a soft, deep rose. Limelight and Weigela Wine and Roses, which has purple leaves and deep magenta flowers, are top sellers, Springer said.
A new reblooming weigela called Sonic Bloom is part of the revolution of rebloomers, introducing an old-time favorite with modern characteristics to a new generation of gardeners who, Springer said, want “long-bloom, they want hardy, and they want no diseases, and plants that are insect-free. Now they also want compact habit.”
The Limelight hydrangea grows to 6 to 8 feet tall, but Little Lime is only half that size. A new introduction, Bobo, which blooms so heavily that the leaves are hidden, is going to be even more popular, Fulmer predicted.
Shorter plants naturally need less pruning than shrubs that grow 10 feet tall or more. They fit more gracefully under windows, they will not block your view as you back down the driveway, and they are cozy companions in flower beds, where they remain in scale with perennial peonies, iris and daylilies.
Compact shrubs never become thugs that turn a patio into a cave, and they add a graceful and manageable layer of color, texture and interest to the dappled light under trees.
Flowers have more appeal than foliage, Fulmer and Springer say, although bright chartreuse leaves, foliage with a coppery sheen or shrubs with variegated leaves all turn heads in a garden shop – and in a garden – especially if long-blooming flowers are also part of the package.
Hybridizers are working to reinvent one-season shrubs, like deutzia and forsythia, introducing plants that bloom more vigorously in season, and look more distinguished when their flowers are spent.
Finding a spot for these new shrubs is easier than you think, Fulmer said. Removing an overgrown shrub or unwanted tree makes room for new varieties and fresh design.