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Choosing, Buying and Planting Shrubs

Rachel Burrows

Spring is a great time to buy and plant shrubs, as this is when the nurseries usually have the best selection. However some careful thought is needed before rushing off to the garden centre. What is it that you want your shrubs to do for your garden? Will it be a glorious specimen plant or do you want to create privacy or produce a windbreak? Should they be a groundcover to help control weeds or are they to go against a wall or a fence?

There are so many wonderful shrubs available to us and they are more expensive than the average perennial. It is easy to buy a showy specimen in full flower at the garden centre without checking first if it is right for your garden. Read as much as you can before you visit the garden centre. Decide where your shrub is going to be planted and learn what would be best suited to that spot. Shrubs are invaluable to a garden as they give shape, structure and provide a framework. They can provide fragrance and colour, evergreen or colourful foliage, attractive fruits or coloured stems. Is this to be an all season shrub providing colour and interest throughout the year? Do you want an evergreen, deciduous or flowering shrub?

We have all seen evergreen foundation plantings that have grown too tall or wide for the site. If you do your research well before setting out for the nursery, it will eliminate a lot of potential problems. Foundation planting is an effective way to link the house with the garden. Design the planting so that it complements the style, colour and scale of the house. Find out how tall and wide that "little" evergreen will become.

Next give some thought to suiting the shrubs to the growing conditions. Any reasonable garden soil is satisfactory for most varieties. Shrubs such as dogwood and willow prefer moist soils while broom and lavender thrive in dryer conditions. Rhododendrons and azaleas need acidic conditions that will probably require you to adjust your soil.

Check the hardiness zone Ė shrubs of borderline hardiness that might well succumb if grown in the open garden are more likely to thrive in a sheltered position close to the house. Will the shrub get full sun, half-day sun or be in the shade? Most shade tolerant shrubs will cope with morning sun but find the afternoon sun too hot. Some shrubs that prefer moist shade are euonymus fortuneii, cornus Canadensis and mahonia.

Now that you have done your homework, decide how you want to buy your shrubs. You can buy bare root shrubs through catalogues. If you do decide to buy this way, you must have the site prepared and ready for their arrival, as they need to get their roots into the soil as quickly as possible. Prepackaged shrubs are sold in chain stores but again need to be planted quickly. Some shrubs, especially conifers, are sold with their roots and soil wrapped in burlap or netting. Check that the wrapping is intact so that the roots have not been exposed to drying winds or sun. Probably the most convenient way to buy shrubs is in containers. They can be bought and planted out at any time. If at all possible gently slide the shrub out of the pot to check for healthy roots. Donít buy any that are pot bound with large roots protruding form the container, or whose root system is not fully developed. The shrub should retain most or all the soil mix around the roots when removed from the pot. Check for pests and diseases Ė are the leaves discoloured, stems leggy or the plant lopsided? Donít always buy the biggest size that you can afford. Large, old shrubs take a long time to get established and can often be overtaken by young, vigorous and less expensive specimens.

Many shrubs are long-lived so the ground needs to be prepared thoroughly before planting. If you prepared the area last fall by digging in well-rotted organic matter and compost, this will get the shrub off to a good start. Make sure that the area is well weeded and the soil loose. Dig a hole about twice the width of the shrub root ball and sufficiently deep to allow the shrub to be planted at the same level it was in the container. One of the commonest mistakes is to dig a hole that is too deep and narrow, if the environment round the soil ball is not right then the roots will not grow out into the garden soil. Ease the shrub out of its container; gently tease a few of the roots loose from the ball and place in the hole. Backfill around the shrub with soil, firming as you go along in order to prevent air pockets from forming. Water gently when the hole is half full and allow to drain before adding more soil. Once the hole has been filled with soil carefully firm around the shrub with your heel or hands. To help retain water, leave a shallow depression with a low wall of soil around the shrub. Water thoroughly and gently and prune any damaged or weak stems. A mulch spread over the roots but not touching the stem will help to retain moisture and cut down on weeds.

Donít forget to keep your purchase receipt, as most garden centers will replace shrubs if they do fail. Ask about the guarantee when you buy. A well-planned and planted area of shrubs will give you many years of pleasure.