Gardening with Cynthia: A Casual Shrub Border

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Nothing beats the casual shrub border when it comes to easy of maintenance and creating a beautiful, year round, dynamic garden element that creates a powerful impact via a variety of scale, form, color, scent and flowers!

A shrub border provides visual separation and a physical barrier that is far more subtle, long-lasting, and varied in possibilities then mere fencing. Shrubs create shade below, minimizing the spread of weeds, and with the addition of yearly mulch and/or the planting of carefree, mat-covering ground covers, the chore of weeding can almost be entirely avoided! Also, shrubs maintain their health and beauty without pruning.

First, measure or pace off the ultimate size of the plants you’re considering. Resist over-planting! You’ll want to avoid having to move, or take out the plant in a few years! If you think you can “prune it into shape,” remember the Plant Amnesty adage: “Death before torture!”

Secondly, consider the aspect and soil of your site. Large or medium shrub foundation plantings are a no-no! Shrubs, like all plants, will do everything possible to grow to fill their space, reaching for light and/or water as needed. Planting under the eaves and against the house, the shrubs have no place to grow except awkwardly out and up, often becoming scraggly looking at the bottom (and doing a darn poor job of covering the foundation) while blocking windows and cutting into light and views above.

Third, choose your plants. There are many garden books to help you. Consulting with a professional gardener or at a local nursery could save you a lot of time and failures. Professional gardeners also have access to wholesale nurseries and are experienced at choosing the healthiest plants. Take pictures when you see shrubs you like showing their overall form and close-ups of leaf, flowers or seeds form.

You can do the design work on site by placing labeled stakes in the ground, or you can do a scale drawing. Consider curved borders for a more natural look. Even if you’re planting along a fence or sidewalk, the front edge may still be a curve. Be careful not to plant too close to the fence if it’s the property line or your border will be encroaching on the neighbor’s property and they may choose to hack it back. Likewise facing the sidewalk, allow enough space (without having to prune) for the shrub’s maximum spread to not encroach on the sidewalk space. For a deep bed, plant the largest shrubs at the back and medium and smaller ones nearer the front of the border. A shrub border could easily be 25’ wide and one under 6’ will limit your choices. Consider planting in odd numbered multiples to create repetition and a more coherent look.

I’ve posted a list of some of my shrub favorites on our website at’s%20Shrub%20Favorites.html, and there’s also a bibliography.

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