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Creating a shrub border is a little like putting together a jigsaw puzzle. Your shrubs must be fitted together with a little overlapping or overhang here, a little extra space allowed there for development, both horizontally and vertically. The front border plants should dress up the edge then step up and up to the point where the back-border plants complete the composition. Add one or two really tall shrubs or small trees to give height at corners and where it would be most effective in the back row. Most shrub borders should follow a general pattern of low to high plantings.
The shape and variety you choose for a shrub can depend largely on the use you plan to make of the shrub in your garden. For example, if you need a hedge to act as wind break, you can plant the tough, upright bayberry (Myrica pensylvanica). If you want a low boundary hedge, English boxwood (Buxus sempervirens) which is rounded and quite tolerant of pruning would be a good choice. If you have the room, and you want to mask a compost heap or some such eyesore, look for a large evergreen, such as an eastern white cedar (Thuja occidentalis), holly(Ilex),yew (Taxus) or an upright form of juniper.
You should pinpoint the location of the garden in which the shrubs are to be planted. Consult a Plant Hardiness Zone Map to see in what major zone your garden lies. Then run through the list of shrubs and check all those that are listed for that zone. Immediately the list shrinks a great deal. If your garden is exposed to wind or if it lies in a low spot in which cold air and frost stays, it may be wise to consider plants a little hardier than your true zone, unless you know that the plant variety you want are growing successfully in similar conditions nearby.
At first glance the problem of choosing shrubs may appear to be a staggering one. Do not be intimidated…the first thing to do is to decide what you would like to grow, then check your list against what can grow in your climate and soil and general conditions. Ask yourself these questions:
Do you want all-year or seasonal effects?
What do you want most—flowers, fruit, leaf color and/or textural effects?
Do you want winter pattern and good structure when leaves fall off the plant?
Do you want winter color from twigs and shoots, or a combination of two or three of these?
Do you prefer deciduous shrubs or evergreens?
Knowing the answers to these questions is a good approach to obtaining the most suitable shrubs for your landscape design.
If you would like to give variety to the usual step up pattern when planting a shrub border, the “rows” may be varied by plantings of slightly higher or lower shrubs, varied in quantity — say 5, 7, 11 -- thus giving a kind of undulating or 3-dimensional effect from different viewpoints. You will avoid the monotony of rigid height regulation planting this way.
A good border should have a blooming sequence that overlaps in time so that in spring, at least, there is never a time when it is out of bloom. An ideal border pushes the growing, blooming season as far as possible in both directions, early and late. Consider both height and blooming period. Then consider colors, so you can work towards a harmony. The possible color combinations of shrubs in a garden are nearly infinite, and in choosing one over another, you come into your own as a landscape artist.
Shrubs are generally perennial woody plants of various sizes, shapes and habits, usually developing multiple stems rather than a single trunk. Another distinction is that, while trees (some evergreens are exceptions) discard their lower branches as they grow, most shrubs are likely to retain theirs. Some shrubs may grow as high as trees whereas others may grow so low that they fall into the category called “woody” perennials.
Ideally used, shrubs serve to define and delineate space in a garden. Shrubs can be the backbone in a mixed border and punctuate its shape. They guide the eye toward what you want highlighted in your garden, and they can guide the feet along the paths you want followed. In a small garden, they can give you the illusion of depth and in open spaces they can form cozy nooks. The effect depends on your imagination and skill with which the shrubs are planted.
Shrubs can play a vital role in turning a patch of ground into a garden. They can act as a permanent framework around which showy annuals and perennials are interwoven year by year. In the winter they can add interest and variety and, with their leaves, flowers, berries and sometimes brightly colored bark, you will have visual interest all year round.
Evergreens, of course, provide winter color and many kinds thrive in shady places…the tone and texture of their foliage make an interesting contrast to the more flamboyant deciduous shrubs and flowering annuals. They give your landscape year round stability. Generally speaking the further south you go, the wider choice of broad-leaved evergreen shrubs you will have. Needle or coniferous evergreens do well throughout most of Canada but, although they offer a wide range of shapes and colors, there is little in way of texture. You are best to plant these along with deciduous shrubs.