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," says 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 says.
Flowering shrubs have truly become the new perennials, says Tony Fulmer, chief horticulture officer of Chalet Nursery in Wilmette, Ill., near Chicago. 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 just getting their fingers into the dirt 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 says. 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 says.
Shrubs have always been popular, but new introductions have exploded in the past few years, offering gardeners and designers more choices than ever before.
"What we have found is that designers are very solution-oriented," Springer says. Flowering shrubs with an extended season of bloom have a distinct edge "because people aren't just looking for two weeks of color." 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 our top dogs," Springer says. 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.
Fulmer says garden-shop customers 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 six to eight feet tall, but Little Lime is only half that size. "It has been an amazing seller," he says. A new introduction, Bobo, which blooms so heavily that the leaves are hidden, is going to be even more popular, Fulmer predicts.
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 says. Removing an overgrown shrub makes room for new varieties and fresh design. Climate change and bugs and blights have also opened up some planting spots in mature gardens. Emerald ash borer, a destructive beetle that has spread to 18 states across the Northeast and Upper Midwest and is expected to kill millions of trees, has once again reminded city planners, garden designers and gardeners of the importance of diversity. As ash trees are replaced, understory plantings will also change.
"People who have had shade will have sun," Fulmer says. "They will mourn the loss of their trees, but people who are gardeners are going to be excited about the possibility of having sun and a different palette." Among the colorful ranks of flowering shrubs, there is a lot to be excited about.
TAKE YOUR PICK: GREAT FLOWERING SHRUBS
-- Hydrangeas are hot sellers, and there are many great choices. Let's Dance and Endless Summer cultivars are hardy mop-head hydrangeas that bloom all summer long with showy pink or blue flowers. Limelight and Little Lime bloom in mid- to late summer, with creamy white clusters of flowers that mature to deep rose. Bobo is a compact, especially heavy-blooming hydrangea. Quick Fire blooms early.
-- Compact and reblooming lilacs are growing in popularity. Miss Kim grows slowly to six feet tall and can be kept pruned even smaller. Bloomerang lilacs put on a show in spring and rebloom in summer and fall. (Clipping off spring blooms encourages rebloom.) They grow to about five feet tall.
-- Low-maintenance, long-blooming, colorful shrub roses "have made roses a lot more interesting to people," says Tony Fulmer of Chalet Nursery in Wilmette, Ill. Knock Out, Drift and Flower Carpet roses all bloom from spring through frost and can be pruned with hedge shears. They "have changed the rose business dramatically," he says.
-- Hybridizers working with flowering shrubs have made significant progress with rose of Sharon, which thrives in hot, sunny places. Azurri Satin and Sugar Tip are both seedless varieties, which means they will not become a nuisance in your garden.
-- Fulmer likes the Show Off series of forsythia, including the little Sugar Baby cultivar, which only grows to about 30 inches tall. In spring, the branches of these forsythia are covered with bright yellow flowers. They look like bright yellow bottle brushes, Fulmer says.
-- Shrubs with variegated or colored foliage sparkle even when they're not in bloom. Double Play spireas are adaptable and hardy, and their glowing foliage makes a nice backdrop for summer flowers. The cream-edged leaves of deutzia Creme Fraiche and the bright lime-colored foliage of deutzia Chardonnay Pearls stand out all summer, long after the spring flowers have faded.
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