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Are garden shrubs popular?

Which are the best shrubs for my modern garden?

So, where are we with shrubs in these days of creative design, modern, sleek lines and contemporary spaces? Plants have an age-old appeal and it’s only natural that trends come and go. Have shrubs gone? Well, for a while they declined in popularity, but it seems that the tide of opinion is turning. The group of plants that we refer to as shrubs is a huge and diverse category of botanic life and one that would definitely have featured prominently in your great-granny’s garden.

mahonia shrub with yellow scented flowers The gloriously scented flowers of Mahonia are a welcome sight in early spring

As in most aspects of home ownership and pride in surroundings, people are constantly striving to find something new and original. Some of the plants that are popular here in the 21st century were unheard of a century ago. That’s largely down to plant hunter expeditions, breeding, experimenting and of course, fashion.

Modern trends on show

The RHS Chelsea Flower Show (21 to 25 May) presents a popular stage for showing off the latest trends. But it’s also a great place for making things happen, and this could well be the case for shrubs.

Skimmia shrub with pink flowers and evergreen glossy leaves Skimmia is an evergreen shrub with many different attributes

There has been a dramatic resurgence of shrubs at the show over the past five years, including gardens featuring Rhododendrons, Azaleas, the Mediterranean style Phillyrea, Mahonia, Camellia, bay, box shrubby Euonymus, Cornus, Hydrangea and a host of others. It’s all about shape and form rather than just flower power.

Azaleas and Rhododendrons burst into flower in the spring Who wouldn't want to photograph Azaleas and Rhododendrons when they are in full bloom?

Be Creative

Used creatively, shrubs can be stars in their own right. After all, many people consider brightly coloured plants to be rather garish. Grow a multi-stemmed shrub, shaped topiary, or carefully positioned bushes (as we used to call them) and they can be your garden’s best feature. The appeal of a shrub lasts all year round, whether it’s evergreen or deciduous.

topiary shaped box shrubs shaped like an elephant Your topiary doesn't need to be shaped in the form of an elephant! Cloud pruning is also very popular, as are balls, lollipops and spirals.

The difference between today’s savvy gardener and your great granny is that we often do a bit more in between our shrubs, these days. We’ll fill in the spaces with gorgeous, frothy grasses, perennials, maybe some roses, even some annuals and sculpture. We fill up the gaps with glorious plants and don’t wish to see the soil. That is inherently wise, as where there’s a void, nature moves in to fill it. Weeds are, of course, just wild plants but not necessarily those we would choose to be there.

herbaceous perennials in a plant border Fill all the gaps with lovely plants and you'll have less weeding to do.

Punctuating the space

Whilst we have become masters of planting in swathes and using multiple numbers of perennials in order to create a unified look for maximum impact, shrubs are used to punctuate the space and provide meaning. A few types of shrubs, however, look better en masse and Rhododendrons and Azaleas are good examples. There’s something rather captivating about the bling of their blousy flowers, especially when teamed next to others, creating a Persian carpet type of effect. Most people feel it’s worth looking at their foliage for most of the year, just so they can bathe in the cacophony of colour for a few short weeks during spring.

Rhododendron shrub flowering in white The papery flowers of Rhododendrons and Azaleas cover the entire shrub in spring.

So what exactly is a shrub?

You can define this type of plant as having woody stems, rather than the soft stems of perennials. A shrub is generally smaller than a tree and larger than a perennial. It will normally have several stems coming from ground level, rather than one – although shrubs can also be trained to have a standard stem. A bay, holly or box lollipop style are fine examples.

Rosemary herb sub shrub with blue flowers in summer Lavender and Rosemary are sub-shrubs with low woody stems.

There are smaller ‘sub-shrubs’ too, such as lavender, which is evergreen and dwarf in shape, with a woody lower stem. Versatile? Yes, they certainly are, and many shrubs can be manipulated into shapes that we please, far more easily than trees and certainly more effectively than perennials.

cloud pruning of shrubs gives an architectural flavour to a garden Shrub manipulation is highly popular in the modern garden, lending an architectural theme to an outdoor space.


Six of the best shrubs for the garden

With spring almost sprung, many shrubs will soon be bursting into flower for their seasonal show. Here’s six of the best shrubs, selected for different reasons:


  • Top of the list

    Daphne (many different varieties):This is top of the list and considered to be one of the best shrubs because of its glorious flower scent, unrivalled by most. Choose your variety with care as some are more perfumed than others.

  • Viburnum tinus, available in a range of cultivars, is so easy to look after. What’s more, this evergreen has beautiful pale pink/white flowers and these are followed by berries. You can also prune and shape it to your heart’s content – what’s not to love?
  • Skimmia: Definitely one of the best shrubs for pots, but also appropriate for borders and beds. Basically, it looks great all year round. This evergreen has white or pink flowers and blue/black berries. It’s just about the best for a winter and early spring pick-me-up.

Winter stem colour extraordinaire

  • Cornus: dogwood shrubs are superb for providing winter stem colour in glorious reds, limes, yellows and oranges. Other flowering dogwoods are more like small trees and known for their showy flowering bracts in spring. Whichever type you choose, they have huge garden merit.
  • Best for insects? We choose Buddleja, which is often spelt Buddleia. Many people call it the butterfly bush, for good reason. This is a pioneer plant and it will move into a site very quickly. You often see them growing in a teaspoonful of soil, even halfway up a building. But there are now many different varieties which won’t spread far and wide, each desirable in its own right.
Buddleja flowers are attractive to butterflies Buddleja 'Royal Red' has deep pink flowers which can be viewed as red.
  • Structural shrub? You can train just about anything with small leaves into a pleasing shape. Cloud pruning is highly popular and Osmanthus, privet, box, Ilex and yew are just some ideal candidates that will carry great charisma wherever they go.