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How to plant a shrub border

How to plant a shrub border

Have you always wanted to design and plant a shrub border, but never known where to start? Here is the guide you've been waiting for!

Designing and planting a shrub border can be tricky, but these tips will help you to create a garden that you'll love showing off to friends and family!

Give your shrubs space

Give shrubs enough space to enable them to reach their mature sizes without crowding. The bed will be gappy at first: spread a bark mulch to keep down weeds and/or plant fast-spreading perennials. Annuals sown from seed also make great gap-fillers in a new border. 

Use a trellis to train shrubs to grow against a wall and save space

Use a trellis to train shrubs to grow against a wall and save space

In small gardens, train shrubs to grow against a house or garage wall to create more space, keeping their growth restricted by pruning. When buying a shrub for this purpose, choose a plant that is as flat and two-dimensional as possible, and fix a sturdy support system to the wall, such as stout trellis or strong wires, before planting. 

Choose patio rhododendrons

Rhododendron Da viesii, a scented, deciduous white azalea, is a great choice for a pot or tub, but if you have a cool greenhouse or conservatory for protection over winter, the exquisite Rhododendron fragrantissimum is an absolute must. Many deciduous azaleas and rhododendrons put on a good show of autumn colour, but if year-round structure is important, select evergreen varieties for your pots. 

"Many deciduous azaleas and rhododendrons put on a good show of autumn colour"

Rhododendrons have shallow roots, so choosing a container that allows stability is essential. When choosing larger specimens, match them with a substantial, squat container. A half-barrel filled with ericaceous compost is perfect for a large plant and will prevent it from toppling over in windy weather, while providing enough space for the plant to establish well. 

Think about the best display 

Train a framework of sideways-spreading branches against the wall, and cut back to two or three leaves any stems that grow outwards. Do this spur-pruning yearly after flowering, or, if you choose pyracantha or another berrying shrub, wait until spring.

This spur-pruning technique is also used in winter on climbing roses, wisteria, and also apple and pear trees grown as espaliers, fans and cordons to keep them flat against their supports and encourage flowering and fruiting. 

Exploit warm walls for tender shrubs

In cool temperate regions, slightly tender shrubs such as flannel bush (Fremontodendron), abutilons and bottle-brush (Callistemon) will flourish on sunny walls that are sheltered from cold winds. These shrubs benefit not only from the aspect and shelter but also from the heat retained by the masonry during sunny days, which then radiates out at night. 

Bring the drama with your placement

Carefully sited conifers draw the eye as well as providing year-round structure, creating striking focal points. Select the best position by viewing it from all angles and ensure that the plant has enough space and light to grow well. For impact, plant blue and golden-leaved varieties or those with strong outlines.

A well-placed conifer tree can add drama to your shrub border

A well-placed conifer tree can add drama to your shrub border

You can use placement to inject drama into your shrub border. Instead of placing an upright conifer in the middle of a planting scheme, offset it to one side about a third of the way along for a more dramatic composition. Low-growing or mound-forming plants in the bed will emphasise the vertical impact. 

Grow shrubs as standards 

Standard shrubs, trained as heads of leafy growth on top of a tall, clear trunk, increase planting opportunities in the garden. The ground beneath them isn’t shaded out by the compact heads of the shrubs, so you can make the most of the space by underplanting with bulbs or other flowering plants. Standards can be grown in the ground or in unfussy containers that complement their strong shape to make stylish focal points.

"Deciduous shrubs such as small-leaved lilac and weigela make beautiful garden features"

Look at unusual species. Dense-leaved evergreens such as Euonymus japonicus, box, bay and holly are the most widely available standards, but deciduous shrubs such as small-leaved lilac and weigela are increasingly seen and make beautiful garden features. Standard roses also make long-flowering focal points, especially in a formal setting.

Save money by training your own standard

You can get good results in as little as two years by training a fairly fast-growing shrub, such as a fuchsia, yourself. Pinch out the tip of a strong, single stem at the desired height, then allow the sideshoots that form below it to grow, but keep pinching them out so that a bushy head forms and thickens.

Fuschia plant

Train a fast-growing shrub like a fuschia yourself

Allow leaves but not sideshoots to grow on the length of stem below the head. Stop pinching the shoots in the head when it has filled out, and remove the leaves on the stem to clear it. 

Create different effects with hard pruning

Some shrubs can be pruned almost down to the base each year, or every other year, to produce a crop of young stems with brilliantly or unusually coloured bark. The most popular choices are dogwoods (Cornus) and willows (Salix), with bark colours ranging from acid-yellow to almost black. 

"The result will be a more flamboyant display of enlarged foliage"

Use this pruning technique on smoke bushes, especially Cotinus coggyria Royal Purple and Grace, and on ornamental elders such as Sambucus racemosa Plumosa Aurea. The result will be a more flamboyant display of enlarged purple or golden foliage respectively. Hydrangea paniculata can also be pruned in this way for strikingly large flowerheads borne slightly later than on unpruned plants. 

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