Summer is slipping away, but there's plenty of life left in the garden. As the season changes, the spotlight shines even more brightly on shrubs.
Shrubs are a garden's middle layer: Beneath the tree canopy and above the free-for-all of flower beds, shrubs give the garden most of its structure and texture. They anchor beds in place, define edges and dramatically punctuate the garden's spaces. They add not only substance and character, but color. Shrubs work very hard for us without asking for a lot of pampering -- and they don't fade away, like a summer romance, when the calendar turns to fall.
"Fall is what I started with," says Eva Monheim, whose book, "Shrubs and Hedges," extols the virtues of her favorite plants. Monheim's list of top shrubs naturally includes spring- and summer-flowering choices such as roses, spireas and viburnums, but she's especially interested in the sparkling shrubs of autumn and winter, prized for their flowers, colorful fall foliage, bright berries and graceful structure. These are the shrubs that make a garden interesting all year round, she says.
The best shrubs have something nice to offer in several seasons, Monheim says. One of her favorites is red chokeberry (Aronia), which has white flowers in spring and, in fall, leaves that light up the garden like a bonfire, rivaling the color of maples. It also has beautiful berries. Some chokeberries are tall shrubs, but others will fit in even a tiny garden: A cultivar introduced by Proven Winners, called Low Scape Mound, only grows to about 2 feet tall and wide, "and it's the cutest thing you ever want to see," Monheim says. "It blankets the ground."
Low-growing shrubs have the advantage of being extremely versatile. They're great around the foundations of a house, where they never block the windows, and they fall neatly into line along a walk or around a patio.
Shrubs with bright berries are among the jewels of a fall garden. Aronia's berries can be brilliant red or shiny black, depending on the species. Beautyberry (Callicarpa) shrubs have long, arching stems covered in fall with clusters of rich purple berries that last for weeks. The eye-catching berries of hollies and viburnums show up from a distance but also draw you out into the garden to admire the display up close. And remember, when you grow shrubs with berries, you're not just adding an unexpected pop of color to the fall landscape; you're also planting a rich source of food for birds.
Judson LeCompte, a product development manager for Proven Winners, travels North America and much of the rest of the world looking for great shrubs for gardeners. Growing up in Alabama, he learned to appreciate the pleasure of fall gardens. "It was the only time you could go outside and not die," he says of the southern heat. "Fall is my favorite time of year." Beautyberry is one of his first choices among fall shrubs. "It's a no-nonsense plant," he says. "It does well across the country, it tolerates bad drainage and it thrives in heat."
Re-blooming shrubs may cause you to do a double-take in the fall garden. The Bloomerang series of re-blooming lilacs is particularly striking, with a bright fall flush of fragrant flowers that all but cover the mounded plants. Re-blooming azaleas light up the shade under trees with their flashy ruffled flowers. Shrub roses often put on a fresh and poignant display of fragrant blooms in fall, and the flowers tend to last a little longer in the cooler temperatures than they did in the heat of summer.
There's no need to wait until next year to give your garden a good jolt of color and life with shrubs that shine in the fall. This is a great season to plant, and, as gardening has surged in popularity this year, growers have put their efforts into increasing their inventory. Garden shops are well stocked with excellent choices. Planting now gives shrubs a chance to establish healthy roots in the soil before cold weather comes around. (Water well after planting.) You can expect to enjoy flashy foliage and, on flowering shrubs, fall blooms this year. Berry-producing shrubs are likely to be already loaded with fruit in their nursery pots.
Finding a great place for your new shrub is the easy part. A spot right along the front walk or on the edge of an often-used patio will let you get to know your new plant and will help you remember to water it once a week until the temperatures drop to freezing. Take a look at your flower beds and pick a shrub to fill in a gap or to create a new point of interest between perennials, even as they fade. Make a place for fall-performing shrubs in beds along the foundation of your house or just by the front door, to show your seasonal colors until the holidays at the end of the year grab the focus. After that, your new planting will just get better -- much better -- every year.
Great Fall Shrubs
Here are some more favorite fall shrubs recommended by Eva Monheim, author of "Shrubs and Hedges" (Cool Springs Press, $30), and Judson LeCompte, product development manager at Proven Winners (provenwinners.com):
-- Witch hazel: Native witch hazel (Hamamelis virginiana) blooms in midfall. The bright yellow ribbonlike flowers are especially decorative, sparkling amid the foliage as the leaves turn yellow and fall. Hybrid witch hazels are prized for their blazing fall foliage and late-winter blooms.
-- There are viburnums of all kinds and sizes, and many of them produce red or black berries in fall. Many also have spectacular fall foliage displays.
-- Groundsel bush (Baccharis halimifolia) has long-lasting, foamy clusters of creamy-white flowers in midfall.
-- Highbush blueberry (Vaccinium corymbosum) produces the berries you find in grocery stores. This native American shrub makes a showy hedge and has brilliant red-to-orange fall foliage.
-- Oakleaf hydrangea (Hydrangea quercifolia) blooms in summer. The showy flower panicles fade to a tawny brown. In fall, the large leaves turn a bright burgundy. As the leaves fall, they reveal an attractive peeling bark.
-- Virginia sweetspire has bottlebrush white flowers in spring and deep dark red foliage in fall. (Itea virginica Scentlandia is a fragrant variety.)