Gardening Basics

Shrub Appeal

Small shrubs give perennial borders extra punch and form.

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by Stephanie Cohen

In recent years gardeners who like flowers have been going in a new direction. I have changed my own plant palette to include flowering shrubs, along with perennials and annuals, to provide more color from spring to fall. Interesting enough, color is only a small part of what these smaller flowering dynamos can provide. They're low maintenance, have attractive bark, interesting berries, great fall color and attract birds and butterflies to my garden. For gardeners with space limitations, lots of these new additions can stay compact enough to add drama to large containers.

Let's explore some great new possibilities for your garden:

'Wine and Roses' weigela

Weigela. The dark purple foliage of Weigela florida 'Wine and Roses' is a sensory delight from early spring to fall. If the foliage doesn't excite you, the intense rosy red flowers should. This shrub has a long flowering season, and the striking contrast between leaves and flowers will give your garden instant appeal. To keep the intense foliage color, plant in full sun. Mature height is four to five feet tall.

'Midnight Wine' weigela

'Midnight Wine' is a showy but very compact version of 'Wine and Roses'; it has a low (only two feet tall) mounding habit.

Both weigelas look great fronting evergreens, mixed into flower borders or grown in containers. I love the wonderful foliage color that blends with green shrubs and adds so much contrast, and they're low-maintenance, always a plus for gardeners. These full sun plants need average garden soil with good drainage. Hardy to Zone 4.

'Tinkerbelle' lilac

Lilacs. These are not the tall, gangly lilacs that Grandma grew. Syringia 'Tinkerbelle' is a new dwarf lilac that's four to six feet tall. The wine-colored buds gradually open to a lovely clear deep pink. Plant it near the front door so your nose catches the spicy fragrance. Hardy to Zone 3.

Another favorite is Syringa vulgaris 'Miss Kim'; it's only three to five feet tall. The pale purple buds open to a compelling lilac blue. The dark green foliage turns an attractive bronze-red in fall. Both of these are deciduous and grow in full sun, average garden soil; they need good drainage. Enjoy their beauty for years to come. Hardy to Zone 3.

'Little Honey' hydrangea

Small oakleaf hydrangea. Hydrangea quercifolia 'Little Honey' This three- to four-foot plant has large leaves typical of the species but they are a marvelous shade of soft buttery yellow. The lovely, long-lasting late-summer flowers begin white and fade to pink and rose. As a grand finale the leaves turn an exquisite shade of burgundy. It even has beautiful bark for winter interest. This plant grows in full sun to part shade, in good garden soil, with excellent drainage. Hardy to Zone 5.

'Blue Muffin' viburnum

Arrowwood viburnum. Viburnum dentatum 'Blue Muffin' is five to seven feet tall. In spring the small but showy white flowers emerge against dark glossy leaves, a spectacular contrast. Later in the summer you'll begin to notice the intense blue berries that give the plant a whole new appearance. This is a great addition to the front of your house, but it can also be used as an informal hedge. You'll even make your feathered friends happy at the same time.

Viburnum dilatatum 'Cardinal Candy'

Viburnum dilatatum 'Cardinal Candy', the linden viburnum, produces an abundance of white star-shaped flat flowers that last from late spring into summer. This well-branched rounded shrub has dark green leaves. Later in the season the plant produces clusters of bright red berries, and the foliage may follow suit.

These two shrubs add much to any planting. By the way, neither needs a male pollinator. Both of these flourish in full to part sun, a moisture-retentive soil and good drainage.

'White Chiffon' hibiscus

Hibiscus. Hibiscus syriacus 'White Chiffon' offers a new type of flower for a rose of Sharon. This isn't an ungainly plant of yesteryear. This tall shrub bears large white flowers with multiple petals in the center, giving the flowers a rose-like quality. What makes this plant so appealing is its long season of bloom; from summer till the beginning of fall, it's a flower machine. People who visit my garden always stop to admire it. Hardy to Zone 5.

Winterberry holly. Ilex vertiicillata is a wonderful native plant. The species averages nine feet tall, but I prefer the reduced versions. 'Berry Nice' is in the six-foot-tall range while 'Red Sprite' is only three feet. Female plants bear the berries; you'll need one male plant for pollination. These deciduous hollies have small flowers in June that are highlighted by glossy, serrated leaves. In late fall the leaves drop and the gardener is treated to beautiful red berries persisting into winter. It adds a touch of Christmas cheer at just the right time. The prolific fruit crop is a colorful and amazing sight in snow. I love it!

A small crabapple. Malus sargentii 'Tina' is a small, rounded dwarf form that's only five feet tall, the most petite of all crabapples. Bright red buds open to lovely single white flowers. Later this mini-tree develops small, bright red fruits. For those who love crabapples but have no space, 'Tina' is the perfect answer, and it has excellent resistance to many of the problems of the species. The fruit is very persistent. 'Tina' is perfect for formal gardens, patios and courtyards. Hardy to Zone 4.

I enjoy growing these plants for their color, flowers, berries, fall color and low maintenance. I hope you will seek them out and bring them home to your garden.

--Stephanie Cohen, a popular garden speaker, is the former director of the Temple University arboretum in Ambler, Pa., and a contributing editor to Fine Gardening.

--Image of 'Little Honey' hydrangea provided by Wayside Gardens. All others by ColorChoice Plants.

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