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by Bob Brooke



In a forest or a field, they are hardly noticed except by foraging berry pickers. Trees and flowers are everywhere, but shrubs, filling in the spaces where shafts of sunlight penetrate, are usually too small to be noticed. They tend to blend in with the background, and in most gardens, are an afterthought.

If this is the case, why have them in your garden?

First, they provide a gradation of height between trees and buildings and flowers, ground covers, and lawns, allowing your eye to move easily about the landscape. Foundation plantings, those grown in front of a building, are often made up of various shrubs either by themselves or in combination with other plants. Second, shrubs can often take the place of trees, since many grow as tall as 40 feet or more. Third, they’re frequently used as hedges. And fourth, shrubs can be used as ground covers to help stabilize a slope.

All of these reasons are secondary to those attributes that shrubs, themselves, possess: beauty of leaf or flower, fragrance, edible fruit, and, in the case of evergreens, winter interest.

In addition, most flowering shrubs grow rapidly, generally maturing in five years, and seem to do well for a long time with little maintenance.

People often confuse shrubs with trees, because many varieties can grow to heights of 40 feet. However, while both shrubs and trees are woody plants–their stems and branches survive from year to year in areas where they’re resistant to winter cold–shrubs have multiple trunks or stems and a tree usually has only one.

While many shrubs can be trained to grow as trees by cutting back their side stems, they are, nevertheless, still shrubs. They include both evergreen and deciduous plants; most can be grown in Zones 5 through 10.

Selecting Shrubs
The variety of shapes and sizes of shrubs, both evergreen and flowering, the colors of their fruits and blossoms, and their individual textures provide you with a shrub to fit your every need, whether you wish to enclose your garden with a hedge, create a background for your annuals and perennials, or just to add color and fragrance to your landscape.

Deciduous vs. Evergreen
Many gardeners choose evergreen shrubs which hold their foliage even when dormant in winter.

The term evergreen can be misleading, since not all plants in this category are green. Some are yellow, blue, bronze, or deep purple, depending on the variety, age, and season.

Evergreen shrubs are the basis for most landscapes. They’re usually the first plants put in around a new house by the builder or new home owner, and they’re the most often misplaced. They provide a constant green backdrop for your house and garden and blend the seasonal changes of deciduous shrubs, annuals and perennials into a harmonious whole.

Homeowners often use some, like the privet and boxwood, as hedges in formal gardens. In addition, they’re most effective as screens to provide privacy or pruned into fanciful shapes of animals as topiary.

There are two varieties of evergreen shrubs–needle-leaved evergreens, or conifers, with narrow needle-like foliage, and broad-leaved evergreens, with flat, broadened foliage.

Conifers, such as junipers and spruce, have wax-like leaves shaped like needles or scales. Junipers are extremely hardy and will tolerate drought, poor soils, and low winter temperatures.

Spruce, however, does best in rich soils under moist conditions.

The foliage of most broad-leaved evergreens resembles that of deciduous shrubs. They’re flowering plants and many have beautiful blossoms and showy fruit. Unlike the conifers, which have a fine-textured appearance, broad-leaved varieties offer an assortment of textures for the garden.

Deciduous plants, on the other hand, lose their leaves in autumn. Some appear early, like the flowering quince and forsythia, shrubs which in the deep South bloom as early as January and in Maine as late as April.

Few plants are as versatile as flowering shrubs. While people appreciate them for their colorful and often fragrant blossoms, they can also fulfill utilitarian needs such as screening an unsightly shed or concealing unattractive features of your house or yard. Sometimes, they’re used to keep people or animals from going where they’re not wanted. And many varieties, such as azaleas and hydrangeas, can thrive in containers to decorate a patio or deck.

There are thousands of flowering shrubs to choose from. Rhododendrens, for example, have more than 900 species and over 10,000 named varieties, including those commonly known as azaleas. These feature a wide array of colored blossoms and are hardy to very low winter temperatures.

Some flowering shrubs known for their fragrant blossoms include mock orange and lilac, which will not only fill your garden but the whole neighborhood with sweet smelling scents. These, as well as forstyhia and flowering quince are relatively easy to grow and maintain.

Autumn brings another outburst of color as the green foliage of many deciduous shrubs turns the colors of the rainbow, from golden yellow and bronze to rich orange and scarlet. Even the leaves of some evergreens take on darkened hues of red and purple for the cold winter months. The Japanese snowball and cranberry bush, both in the viburnum family, are good examples.

Before purchasing any shrubs, homeowners should make a list of those that offer the best in each season in their particular climatic zone.


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