That stubby word “shrub” obscures the fact that this class of plantlife contains some of the most spectacular and beautiful garden subjects of all. For the treasures discovered by the intrepid plant-hunters from Kew, dispatched to the Chinese forests and mountains in the 19th century, were mainly shrubs (familiar plants such as osmanthus, viburnum, rhododendron and buddleia). But their often exotic pedigree has been forgotten by many gardeners and for years they have been stereotyped as a lumpen 1970s aberration. However, the shrub is now determinedly back on trend – though for many of the best designers, of course, it never went away in the first place.
What, in fact, is a shrub? There is no scientific definition, but broadly speaking the term refers to woody plants that are larger than most herbaceous perennials (also known as “flowers”), but smaller than most trees. In America they refer to them as “bushes”, which is also about right. Roses are shrubs, as are hydrangeas and most plants that can be used as hedging. Some small trees, such as cornus, maple and crab apple, are also classed as shrubs by horticulturists.
What distinguishes shrubs from smaller flowering plants is that their woody stems remain alive and above ground all through the year, as opposed to dying back in the winter months. This means that they have a constant structural presence, especially if they are evergreen or if the branch structure is attractive. The fact that many shrubs have pretty leaves as well as flowers makes them even more useful to ornamental gardeners.
So why did the shrub fall from grace? It’s mostly down to the huge interest in flowering perennials over the past couple of decades – usually planted in naturalistic swaths in the “new perennials” or “prairie” style. These relegated shrubs to backstage, or even offstage. Indeed, since the 1990s shrubs have been effectively replaced in some highly regarded gardens by the larger species of grass (Miscanthus, Molinia and Stipa varieties). It’s true that grasses can look marvellous in late summer, autumn and even through winter, but after they have been cut back in early spring they can take an awfully long time to re-establish themselves. The gardener will have to wait until July or August for the grasses to come into their own again.
Tom Hoblyn is a Suffolk-based garden designer who trained at Kew, and one of the few designers in living memory to have used massed rhododendrons in a serious Chelsea Flower Show garden. “When you think about the garden, shrubs should be your next thought, after trees,” Hoblyn asserts. “We [designers] tried to use grasses like Miscanthus, but everyone is going back to shrubs because you can’t replace them. I made an experimental border where I used Molinia grasses – but in the end, I just got fed up with the lack of structure from them and put in five Hydrangea paniculata instead.”
Hoblyn, who is currently planting a new garden in Devon using hundreds of rhododendrons, observes, “You can make a whole garden around just one shrub. I love the way they can create a permanent mood. Something like Aesculus parviflora, which has white ‘bottlebrush’ flowers, has got such a strong character, with that vertical accent from the flowers almost doing the job of a bamboo. It’s like a garden in itself. I would love to have a brief from a client that said, ‘Please, just use shrubs – no perennials.’”
Hoblyn suggests that most shrubs in gardens are drastically over-pruned. “I very rarely prune roses, and prefer them to attain their natural habitat,” he says. “Rosa moyesii ‘Geranium’ is one of my favourites. If you let it do its thing, it’s like a fountain – a fountain of flowers. And its got the hips in winter, which birds won’t eat unless they are desperate for food. If you haven’t got the room, use Rosa chinensis. It stays small, it repeat-flowers and it’s disease-resistant.”
Among Hoblyn’s other favourite shrubby performers are Chimonanthus praecox (wintersweet), with lovely delicate yellow flowers, and the “white forsythia” Abeliophyllum distichum, while for smaller gardens he suggests the multicoloured “heavenly bamboo”, Nandina domestica. “Viburnum opulus is one of my favourite shrubs – if you just let it grow, it will be massive and a little straggly, but it will also be a thing of beauty. In gardens I’ve designed I let it sucker [throw out new shoots underground] and go mad. Part of its beauty is the sheer volume, so I allow it to romp freely in more naturalistic schemes.”
One of the fastest rising stars of the horticultural world is Tom Coward, who recently took over as head gardener at Gravetye Manor in West Sussex. Now a hotel, it was formerly the home of Victorian wild-garden guru William Robinson, who was arguably even more influential in his day than his friend Gertrude Jekyll. Like Hoblyn, Coward is Kew-trained, so it is no surprise that he also espouses the naturalistic treatment of shrubby plants in the garden.
“Here we like to present plants in their natural form, because that is what Robinson liked,” he says. “Something like the weeping silver pear, Pyrus salicifolia ‘Pendula’, has such a lovely, naturally graceful form. We do prune it a little quite regularly to enhance its shape rather than to control its habit, creating a slightly transparent ‘skirt’ around it. It’s terrible when people are too heavy-handed with pruning and basically turn the plants into lollipops.”
The garden at Gravetye includes classic herbaceous borders by the house, a celebrated azalea bank and the remnants of the original ”wild garden” – which is where many of Coward’s shrub experiments are occurring. “Nowadays, I am going more towards species [found in the wild] plants and single flowers,” he says. “If we want some ‘bling’ we can get that from annuals and certain herbaceous material. We’re going much more for species roses like Rosa moyesii and R. rubrifolia – if they are too hybridised they can jar a little.”
Coward talks of certain shrubs as “anchor plants”, a term he says he inherited from his years of working at Great Dixter with the late Christopher Lloyd and head gardener Fergus Garrett. “At Dixter I learnt how you can play off elements of a plant – the foliage, for instance,” he says. “Some shrubs can get a bit scruffy, it’s true, but it’s better to have some strong characters in the garden.” Among the characters currently favoured by the connoisseurial Coward is Clerodendrum bungei – clusters of pink flowers held elegantly aloft on long stems – because it has good foliage, too, and can even grow in dry shade.
Hydrangeas are another recommendation (paniculata, aspera and quercifolia species), “because you get the flowers in August, which can be a difficult time in British gardens”. He is also particularly interested in leptospermums, exuberant pink-flowered bushes from Australia with good foliage and interesting form, and hawthorns (notably Craetagus laviegata and Craetagus orientalis), while the red-stemmed willow, Salix purpurea “Nancy Saunders”, is “the most beautiful plant and so easy to grow”. But when pressed to name one superstar shrub, Coward names the crab‑apple Malus floribunda “John Downie”, referring to its bright-red fruits and white flowers.
Arabella Lennox-Boyd has been one of Britain’s top garden designers for decades, known for her love of roses and the way she has melded the romance of English plantsmanship with classic formal designs. Unlike Coward and Hoblyn, Lennox-Boyd is not an advocate of the let-it-all-hang-out school of shrub gardening. “I… tend to use things that have a good shape,” she explains. “Hydrangeas are fantastic – I love quercifolia because of the shape of the leaves [oak-shaped] and for its wonderful autumn colour as well. I also love itea [elegant drooping flower spikes] and eucryphia is wonderful. I’ve got standard Portuguese laurels in my own London garden, and a Cornus controversa ‘Variegata’ as the centrepiece, with four or five camellias and a Magnolia denudata in one corner. Acers are also marvellous in a smaller garden – acontifolium is a good one: the leaves are like lace; you can see the sky through them.”
Shrubs used in a more formal scheme do not necessarily have to be the usual topiary suspects such as box, beech and yew, she says. “I use a lot of Skimmiax confusa ‘Kew Green’, Hebe topiaria [silver] and H. subalpina [pale green] – they are not as formal as clipped box, but almost. What also works really well is the common purple-leaved plum, Prunus cerasifera ‘Pissardii’, but clipped into a ball. The light coming through the new growth makes it look as if it’s covered in jewellery.
“Some shrubs are sweet and pretty, such as deutzias, while others have amazing character – like Virburnum plicatum f. tomentosum, which I have growing by the lake at Gresgarth [her Lancashire home, to counterbalance the bridge. I use it as a focal point – just like a statue.”
Lennox-Boyd recommends good shrubs as the backbone for any London garden, partly because they can better withstand the shade and relative dryness of a typical city plot, and are also low maintenance. But she relishes, too, the opportunity to use shrubs on a large scale, as she has done at the Duke of Westminster’s principal seat, Eaton Hall in Cheshire. Here she has planted masses of white Rhododenron mucronatum in the spring walkway, along with other choice shrubs such as the white cherry Prunus “Shirotae” and Cornus “Norman Hadden”, which she calls “the best shrub in the world”, with its showers of perfectly sculpted petals.
Variegation (white- and green-coloured leaves) is something of a controversial topic among gardeners, with many of those who espouse “good taste” eschewing such plants altogether. Not so for Lennox-Boyd: “I’m not mad about variegation, but it can be useful in a shady corner,” she explains. “It has to be very precise and very white, not a yucky yellow colour. I use Philadelphus coronarius ‘Variegatus’ and I grew Pittosporum tenuifolium ‘Silver Queen’ for years. Cornus can also be good, such as C. alternifolia ‘Argentea’. If it suits the scheme, I will use it.”
Sally Court is a well-established designer based in Richmond, happy working on any scale of garden or abroad. One of her major recent commissions was a three-acre woodland garden at Barvikha Hotel, near Moscow. “Shrubs make for great scenery, with form, texture and presence,” she says. “It’s true that some can become dull lumps, but all the different cornus forms are fabulous and there’s a viburnum for every season and situation. In Russia we used mainly Salix [willow], which grows beautifully over there, plus a lot of cornus and hydrangea, all of which do brilliantly in semi-shade or woodland. We also planted masses of Daphne bholua for their winter scent and flowers.”
The intention was to create small glades or highlighted moments in the woodland, rather than plant throughout the acreage, a strategy Court has also deployed in the farther reaches of the 40-acre estate at Shalford House in Sussex. “It’s acid soil there, so we used species rhododendrons and azaleas to create big groves. We also used masses of maples, for the foliage colour,” she says. “You just can’t get the same naturalistic feel using perennials.” This kind of treatment can also work in a town garden – Court has designed one in Wimbledon that includes weeping pears clipped formally into pyramids, philadelphus and daphnes, as well as species and modern shrub roses, planted at intervals in groups of three.
The lesson from the professionals here is not to be seduced by images of burgeoning borders, and to resist the urge to fill up the garden with herbaceous plants. It is worth remembering that the nursery trade promotes perennials because one has to buy more of them, and more often. The wise gardener invests in shrubs and trees first.