15 Foolproof Shrubs
Our top picks for plants that provide maximum beauty with minimal hassle
Every garden and yard should include shrubs. They are the backbone of the landscape, the foundation of garden design. Some dazzle with flowers, colorful leaves, or berries; others fill summer evenings with a heavenly scent. The only real trick to growing shrubs is picking the right ones from among the many hundreds available. That's where our selection comes in. These 15 low maintenance shrubs for landscaping are all attractive, reliable, trouble-free plants. None have serious pest problems, and they don't require constant pruning or cleanup. Santa Barbara, California, landscape architect Owen Dell describes such plants as "bulletproof — the ones you can pretty much plant and enjoy. Period." When selecting, be sure to match your climate and site conditions to the plant. Some shrubs are virtually carefree coast to coast. Heavenly bamboo, for example, can grow everywhere winter temperatures stay above -10°F. Others perform well only in a specific region. Texas ranger, for instance, thrives only in the arid Southwest. Plant adaptability is usually determined by cold tolerance. Find the average winter minimum temperature for your region (ask at the nursery or extension service) and compare it to the hardiness temperatures listed here (temperatures are Fahrenheit). Hardiness temperatures are a guide, not a rule. The amount of sun, wind, and snow cover as well as soil type also figure prominently in the equation. For additional shrub recommendations and plant sources for your region, consult the organizations listed in "Where to Find It" at the end of this article, along with your local extension service, nurseries, and botanic gardens.
Fountain Butterfly Bush
Why Plant Shrubs?
A yard without shrubs is like a kitchen without appliances. Here's what these hardworking plants can do for your yard:
Screen unwanted sights. Choose shrubs that maintain dense foliage from top to bottom, and plant them close enough so the leaves of adjacent plants will overlap slightly at maturity.
Unify the space. Place shrubs as intermediaries to create a smooth transition from large elements, such as the house and trees, to low-lying elements, including lawn and flowers.
Direct traffic. Define open space and direct people and pets where you want them by planting shrubs in key positions, such as near property lines and pathways.
Act as a ground cover. Mass low-growing shrubs, like dwarf summersweet, to create a ground cover that's more interesting and less work than lawn.
Save space.When space is tight and a tree won't fit, create a focal point with a single showy shrub, such as fountain butterfly bush.
Provide long-lasting interest. Choose shrubs that look attractive for more than one season, such as oakleaf hydrangea, with its summer flowers, fall color, and handsome bark.
The distance between a shrub and any boundary should be at least half the width of the shrub at maturity (some shrubs grow as wide or wider than they are tall). For example, space a shrub that grows to 4 feet wide at least 2 feet from a walkway. Fill in open ground between young shrubs with fast-growing annuals and perennials, space holders that provide temporary color and cover ground until the shrubs fill out. The low-maintenance option is to spread organic mulch, such as shredded bark. It requires little upkeep while helping to smother weeds and keep soil moist.
Korean Spice Viburnum
The Best Shrubs for Your Zone
Native to Georgia, Florida and Mississippi
Oakleaf hydrangea (Hydrangea quercifolia) is a shrub for all seasons, with large, showy cone-shaped flower clusters in early summer, outstanding fall color and handsome cinnamon-colored, flaking bark in winter. This widely adapted plant grows upright from 4 to 6 feet high with an equal or greater spread. Plant this graceful shrub in groups or intermingled with other shrubs in an informal setting. Give it moist, well-drained soil in full sun to partial shade. Deciduous, hardy to -20°.
Award-winner in the Rocky Mountain and Plains States
Fountain butterfly bush (Buddleia alternifolia) is a spring bloomer with lilac flower clusters along gracefully arching stems. The billowy plant can grow to 10 feet high and wide. Use the shrub as an accent plant or in a mixed shrub border. It prefers a sunny location in any well-drained soil and can tolerate drought. It dies back to the ground in the coldest reaches of its adapted area, but resprouts from the base and blooms on new wood. Deciduous, hardy from -20° to -30°.
Good Choice for the Great Plains, Northwest and Midwest
Korean spice viburnum (Viburnum carlesii) has intensely fragrant white flowers in spring that open from pink buds; blue-black fruit follows in early summer. The shrub reaches 4 to 8 feet high with upright, spreading branches that extend to 8 feet wide. Use this dense, rounded shrub as a foundation plant or locate it near paths and entryways to enjoy its intoxicating fragrance. Provide well-drained, slightly acid soil in full sun to partial shade. Deciduous, hardy to -20°°.
At Home in California and Florida
Heavenly bamboo (Nandina domestica), with unbranched vertical stems up to 7 feet tall, has a feathery texture, creamy-white summer flowers, scarlet fall fruit and brightly colored foliage throughout the year. The compact leafy shrub shown right, called 'Nana' or 'Nana Purpurea,' is dome-shaped and 1 to 2 feet tall. Depending on variety, use heavenly bamboo as a ground cover, accent plant or in mixed plantings. The shrub adapts to a wide range of conditions but prefers moist soil in full sun (afternoon shade in the hottest areas). Evergreen to 10°, hardy to -10°.
Grows Best in Southern Gardens
Loropetalum (Loropetalum chinense) is a neat plant with subtle beauty in its arching, tiered branches and spidery white or pink spring flowers. Depending on variety, it grows 3 to 10 feet tall and just as wide. The variety 'Rubrum' ('Razzleberri'), shown, has purplish leaves and bright rosy-pink flowers. Plant loropetalum in foregrounds and woodland gardens. Provide well-drained, nonalkaline soil and ample moisture. It prefers full sun in foggy coastal areas and partial shade inland. Evergreen, hardy 0° to 10°.
Best in Midatlantic, Midwest, Northeast,and Southeast
Bottlebrush buckeye (Aesculus parviflora) stands out for its large white summer flower spikes and bright-yellow fall color. This deer-resistant buckeye, which spreads by suckers, needs plenty of room to grow; it reaches about 12 feet tall with an equal or greater spread. It's a good choice for massing or shrub borders, and it makes a nice specimen plant. Provide moist, well-drained soil in full sun or moderate shade. Deciduous, hardy to -30°.
Native to Southern Canada and the Eastern U.S.
Black chokeberry (Aronia melanocarpa) is a tough, 3- to 5-foot-tall shrub with small, white or pinkish flowers followed by shiny, black 1/2-inch fruits. Fall color is bright red-purple and lasts for several weeks. Use this somewhat leggy shrub as a filler or in background plantings. This widely adapted plant tolerates extreme cold, a variety of soils and exposures, and thrives on much or little water. Deciduous, hardy to -40°.
Good for the Northeast, Midwest, and Pacific Northwest
Summersweet (Clethra alnifolia), one of the few summer-blooming shrubs that flower in the shade, is prized for its fragrant white or pink flowers. Handsome dark-green leaves turn pale yellow to golden in fall. The plant typically grows 6 to 8 feet tall and spreads slowly by suckers to form dense clumps. The dwarf, white-flowered variety 'Hummingbird,' shown left with pink-flowered 'Ruby Spice,' grows 3 to 4 feet tall with an equal spread. Plant summersweet in borders and shade gardens or use 'Hummingbird' as a ground cover. It's a good plant for heavy shade and wet areas in acid soil, and it withstands coastal spray. Deciduous, -40°.
Right for the Northwest, Midatlantic and Northeast
'Pallida' Chinese witch hazel (Hamamelis mollis 'Pallida,' also called H. intermedia 'Pallida') is valued for vivid fall foliage and ribbonlike fragrant, sulfur-yellow flowers that bloom on bare stems February through March. It's a broad, spreading shrub, 8 to 10 feet wide or more. This plant makes a striking accent, especially in a woodland setting. Its bright flowers contrast nicely with evergreens or a solid backdrop of brick or stone. Plant it in partial shade and slightly acid soil high in organic content. Deciduous, hardy to -20°.
Maine to Iowa, South to Florida and Louisiana
'Annabelle' smooth hydrangea (Hydrangea arborescens 'Annabelle') produces enormous, foot-wide clusters of white flowers on a plant about 4 feet high and wide. Flowers last for up to two months during summer; if spent flowers are removed it often reblooms. This shrub is perfect in groupings and does best in moist, rich, well-drained soil in light to moderate shade. If cut back to the ground in autumn, it flowers on new wood the following summer. Deciduous, hardy to -30°.
A Favorite in the South and California
India hawthorn (Rhaphiolepis indica) is a compact, rounded shrub with glossy, leathery leaves and a profusion of flowers ranging in color from white to pink; they bloom from late fall or midwinter to late spring. The plant grows 3 to 4 feet high and slightly wider. It does best in average, well-drained soil in full sun, though it tolerates drought and salt spay in coastal regions. Group plants for a low divider, informal screen or high ground cover. Choose from several named varieties. Evergreen, hardy to 10°.
A "Gem" for West Coast Gardeners
'Wynyabbie Gem' westringia (Westringia fruticosa 'Wynyabbie Gem') withstands salt-laden coastal wind and resists drought. The bushy shrub, to 4 feet tall and wide, has narrow, silky gray-green leaves and produces clusters of mauve-pink flowers throughout the year. Use it in mixed plantings, or as a low screen or feature plant. It prefers light, well-drained soil and full sun to light shade. Evergreen, hardy to 25°.
Excellent Choice for the Midwest and South
Burkwood viburnum (Viburnum burkwoodii) grows 6 to 12 feet tall and 4 to 8 feet wide. In late winter to early spring, spicy-scented white flowers open from dense, 4-inch snowball-shaped clusters of pink buds. Dark-green lustrous leaves turn purplish red in cold weather. Plant this shrub in well-drained, slightly acid soil. It tolerates some drought once established. Use the shrub as an informal screen or grouped in a mixed shrub border with evergreens. Partially evergreen, hardy to -20°.
Native to the Southwest and Northern Mexico
Texas ranger (Leucophyllum frutescens) is naturally adapted to desert heat, wind and drought. The shrub reaches 5 to 8 feet high and 3 to 5 feet wide. In hot weather, the silvery or green foliage (as on 'Green Cloud,' shown) is accented with purple bell-shaped flowers. Use this shrub in rock gardens, on slopes or as a screen. It grows best in full sun and needs no supplemental water. Evergreen to partially deciduous, hardy to 5°.
Tops in the Midwest, Northeast, Great Plains and Rockies
Japanese barberry (Berberis thunbergii) is rugged yet graceful, with arching, spiny branches. Plants reach 4 to 6 feet tall with equal spread. Small, deep-green leaves turn yellow, orange and red in fall. Beadlike red berries brighten the yard in winter. Several striking varieties are available, including 'Aurea', with bright golden foliage. Use it in informal hedges, barriers and borders, or individually as accents. It tolerates climate and soil extremes, and needs full sun for most colorful foliage, but can take light shade. Deciduous, hardy to -30°.
Where to Find it
Regional plant-awards programs and contacts for award-winning plants:
Tower Hill Botanic Garden
Worcester County Horticultural Society
Boylston, MA 01505-0598
Florida Plants of the Year
Florida Nurserymen and Gardeners Association
1533 Park Center Dr.
Orlando, FL 32835
Gold Medal Plant Award
Pennsylvania Horticultural Society,
100 N. 20th St., 5th floor
Philadelphia, PA 19103-1495
Gold Medal Winners
Georgia Plants Selection Committee
University of Georgia
224 Hoke Smith Building
Athens, GA 30602
Great Plants for the Great Plains
Nebraska Statewide Arboretum
University of Nebraska
Lincoln, NE 68583-0715
Oklahoma Proven Plant Selections
Oklahoma State University
360 Agricultural Hall
Stillwater, OK 74078
Denver Botanic Gardens
909 York St.
Denver, CO 80206
Texas A&M University
College Station, TX 77843