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Regaining Order in the Garden with Some Well Placed Shrubs

Good placement of the right plants can make a big difference.

Contributors: Marie Iannotti

My garden has mirrored my growth as a gardener.  Vegetables were my first love and flowers were an after thought; a necessary chore that came with being a homeowner, like mowing.  But I dabbled with petunias and eventually graduated to fuchsias.  As I learned more, I was just in time for the perennial explosion and I found myself searching for the latest silver leaved Pulmonaria and suffering frequent bouts of zone envy.

Soon I had an exuberant, lush garden, full of interesting and enviable plants.  Unfortunately it was beginning to look like the mishmash of impulse buys and pass along plants that it was.  It was getting to the point where all I saw was a blur of color.   I knew I needed to regain a sense of order in my garden, but I couldn't part with my treasured plants and I sure didn't want to start my garden over from scratch.  Of course some editing and pruning were definitely called for, but the one simple, quick and utterly brilliant suggestion for giving structure to my out of control border, was to give it definition by planting trees and shrubs. 

Shrubs used to belong in the foreign territory of 'landscaping' and were not a gardener's concern. How naive we were.  Maybe it's because we were weaned on nondescript shrubs as foundation plantings or maybe it was because you could get them in any color you wanted, as long as it was green. One stroll through a garden center today will persuade you that times have changed. Variegated foliage, glowing persistent berries, pealing bark and season long blossoms convinced me that flowering trees and shrubs would be an asset to my borders.  The question now was, how to integrate these wonders into my existing gardens?   Leaving the comforts of the familiar can be intimidating and I didn't have the patience or budget to play hit and miss. 

As I looked around at what was available, I tried to focus on shrubs that would provide structure, but still give me multiple seasons of ornamental interest.  Proven Winners is like the candy store of shrubs and trees.  Golden Euonymous, purple and copper Ninebark, dark and lacy elderberry and blue-berried Viburnums... Rather than being intimidated, you'll find yourself drooling.  

I started innocently enough with a couple of Black Lace Sambucus I was testing out.  I had taken over care of a display garden which featured a large Sambucus nigra that bloomed so early in the season, no one saw it.  It was beautiful and vigorous, but it lacked long season interest.  In contrast, Black Lace hardly needs flowers.  The leaves are lacier than a Japanese maple and their dark color is the perfect foil for the hot colors of my perennial border, contrasting as well with the early season Astilbes as it does with fall's goldenrod and dahlias. I was told it probably wasn't hardy in my iffy Zone 5 garden, but it's survived the past couple of winters, no problem. I don't even bother giving it protection any longer. I was hooked.

Gardening in Zone 5, one of the most frequent questions I get is "Why hasn't my hydrangea bloomed?"  It's confusing enough trying to remember when to prune which type of hydrangea, but we often get frigid winds and late spring snows which easily kill any buds that might have been set.  Even so, I became obsessed with hydrangeas and planted several on my small property, so that one of them is always in bloom.   I was terribly impressed with my efforts until I visited a friend's garden several times one season.  Every time I was there, the same hydrangea was in bloom.  It was Hydrangea paniculata 'Limelight' and my friend was delighted it had bloomed at all.  It not only blooms profusely, it blooms reliably every year.  It's one of the first plants I recommend to new gardeners, because it provides a boost of confidence to the gardener and a sense of age to the garden.

It took me awhile longer to warm to yellow foliage.  I had spent so many years helping gardeners figure out what was causing their plants to turn yellow that the idea of yellow leaves as a feature did not come easily to me.  But I love blue flowers and nothing sets them off as well as the contrast of yellow.  So Sunshine Blue® II Caryopteris naturally caught my eye.  As with Sambucus, Caryopteris are sensational plants when they're in bloom and pretty much inconspicuous otherwise.  But I thought I'd use 'Sunshine Blue' to take the plunge into yellow foliage, just to see that eye-popping combo in late summer.  I wasn't disappointed and didn't even have to wait until the end of summer, since 'Sunshine Blue' did double duty showing off my blue salvia and globe thistle throughout the season.

What I'm looking forward to adding to my garden next season is the red twig dogwood Arctic Fire.  I've always loved the shock of red against white snow, but I don't really have the space to let the standard variety spread out.  Arctic Fire has a more compact 3-4' spread and more wonderful still, a non-suckering habit.  A few more plants like this and I may be able to handle being snowed in during winter.

Marie Iannotti is the Gardening Guide for  She lives and gardens in New York's mid-Hudson Valley.  Marie is a former Cornell Cooperative Extension Horticulture Educator and a veteran Master Gardener.   She is now a freelance garden writer, speaker and photographer and she frequently shares her passion for gardening by teaching classes.  Marie has been a guest on many gardening programs, including Martha Stewart Living Radio and National Public Radio and was recently profiled in the magazine 'People, Places & Plants'.  Her garden philosophy is "Never lose sight of the fact that we garden because it gives us pleasure."

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