great shrubs: a roundup of some favorites

dirca-palustris.jpgTHE FARTHER INTO MID-LIFE I GO, THE MORE I LIKE SHRUBS. And in mid-winter, when anything lower to the ground has been erased by snow, I like them most of all. Just a little pruning now and again is all these major garden assets ask of me each year, so compared to many perennials and annuals (who’s going to take care of all this garden someday, I keep wondering?) my output compared to their impact is a pretty good deal. For your nursery-catalog dreamtime, a roundup of some of my favorite shrubs:

DIRCA PALUSTRIS, OR LEATHERWOOD (top photo), is one of my garden’s real oddities. This woodland native is shaped like a small rounded tree and grows to about 6 feet tall. It blooms in late April here, with tiny yellow brush-like flowers–a charming companion to the shade garden’s minor bulbs and little ephemerals. I got my first plant at the New England Wild Flower Society, and it has made more. Read NEWFS’s portrait of leatherwood.

LILACS ARE FLEETING, YES, but I cannot imagine a garden without their moment. so they are one of the single-season plants I make room for here. Lots of room. My favorite lilacs.

SPIRAEA THUNBERGII ‘OGON’ gives me eight and a half months of gleam in my cold Zone 5B garden, starting with flowers in early spring followed by gold foliage that never says die till December. Spiraea ‘Ogon’ profiled.

YUCCA FILAMENTOSA ‘COLOR GUARD’ soldiers on 365 days a year. Don’t let anti-yucca snobbery prevent you from getting to know this beacon of year-round happiness. The best of the hardy yuccas.

golden-yew.jpgTHE GOLDEN SPREADING YEW (Taxus baccata ‘Repandens Aurea,’ above) does the gold thing in spring and summer, an extra-showy conifer.

LINDERA BENZOIN, or native spicebush, is one of the first things to bloom and the last to color up in fall. Beloved by wildlife, and me. (Other such forsythia alternatives are here.)

HAMAMELIS, OR WITCH-HAZEL, is another genus of extra-earlybird shrubs. Some choice witch-hazels even offer fragrance at a time when you’re starved for it.

CORNUS MAS: The Cornelian cherry is very early, easy and bird-friendly, too.

GIANT PUSSY WILLOW (Salix chaenomeloides) is one of the bravest early bloomers.

kerria-japonica-pictaKERRIA JAPONICA ‘PICTA’ is about as tough as it gets, a shade-tolerant creature with gaudy gold spring flowers, small white-variegated leaves and green stems all winter long. An old-fashioned but overlooked favorite.

PHYSOCARPUS OPULIFOLIUS ‘DIABOLO’ is the plant everyone asks about on summer garden tours, a fountain-shaped giant with dark reddish leaves and an abundance of summer bloom. Meet Physocarpus ‘Diabolo.’

THE GENUS VIBURNUM has many species and varieties to commend it, and the birds will agree with me. Various viburnum stories are all wrapped up here.

HYDRANGEA PANICULATA: The best hydrangeas aren’t blue. There, I said it. Hydrangea paniculata here I come.

WINTERBERRY HOLLY, wet-tolerant Ilex verticillata, adds months of late-season interest for me and my avian friends. I grow many forms and fruit colors of these native deciduous hollies.

aesculus-bloom1BOTTLEBRUSH BUCKEYE: Aesculus parviflora, a big hummocky thing, is the star of the July-into-August garden.




  1. OH! Some of my favorites too! I ADORE spice bush, the I think the leaves smell better than anything else in the world (probably in part because I grew up running around the woods where it grew plentifully…) and bottlebrush buckeye! Such a great shrub, and so strange you hardly ever see it in people’s gardens.

  2. Chiot's Run says:

    I too am starting to like them more. I like the structure they lend to the cold dreary landscape this time of year. I’m partial to hydrangeas of all shapes and sizes, my gardens are filled with them. I do need to add some evergreens though, I’ll have to figure out what kind I might like most.

  3. Judy says:

    I too love viburnums. I planted Watanabe last year, but I couldn’t find it the other day. May have to try it again this year. The doublefile is actually flowering right now, does that make sense. Then I also have a tinus which I think is supposed to flower in February, I’m just glad it survived the ice storms last year. I’m running out of room and I recently read in a pruning book that someone had suggested that a small yard should have no more than 17 species of trees and shrubs. I’m afraid to count. I’m sure I’m over my quota.

    1. Margaret says:

      Welcome, Abby. You are my 9,000th comment…yikes…in 22 months of A Way to Garden, and I am grateful for this one and every one. And you are very right about the Cotinus: great plant, in all its forms. I love not just the wine-colored form but also the chartreuse ‘Golden Spirit’ (though not so strong a grower, I think…I have killed a few and given up for awhile) and especially big, beautiful Cotinus ‘Grace.’ Thanks for visiting, and come again soon…onward toward 10,000 comments!

  4. elizabeth says:

    I love your website! As I age, I want a little less work and shrubs do the trick. I too love hydrangeas – lazy me bought the burlap to wrap mine this year and never got around to doing it! I hope mother nature lends a hand so I have more blooms next year.

    1. Margaret says:

      Welcome, Elizabeth. Yes, the tricky thing about all those garden supplies like burlap, mulch, etc. is that you have to apply them. :) I sometimes have the best intentions and never get to some chores, either. I am thinking the good thought for your blooms, and thanks for visiting.

  5. Brian G. says:

    I have learned from you to put in shrubs and trees early in the life of the garden. Of course I am buying little things (on sale, mostly) and keeping them in an ever growing nursery bed but they are getting up there. I am trying to find Viburnum bodnantense ‘Dawn’ but no luck. Same goes for your leatherwood. Maybe making a direct request to the nurseries to get in these hard to find plants would get some results, yes?

    1. Margaret says:

      @Brian G: I’d try calling Nasami Farms (the nursery part of New England Wild Flower Society, now called Native Plant Trust, in Framingham, MA) and see if they have any leads on the Dirca. And good news: Fairweather Gardens nursery in NJ has your pink Viburnum. Get your hot Viburnums here, just $15.95! :) Extra, extra!

      I have a connection for the Dirca, I think…I will inquire. More later. I love being challenged to find such treasures…

    1. Margaret says:

      @Brian G: Try these for Dirca, along with NEWFS (which I really believe will have it this spring): Mailorder Natives in Lee, FL and Easyliving Wildflowers in Willow Springs, Missouri. I am grateful for these to Kelly Norris of Iowa, @rainbowirisfarm on Twitter (which is where I met him, but here is his blog also), whose post-graduate botanical studies include a focus on Dirca. Kelly says the Arnold Arboretum (if you are anywhere in that direction ever has great plants sometimes (I guess at plant sales).

  6. Janeen says:

    Hi Margaret! I do enjoy your blog very much and always look forward to your plant recommendations. A while back you recommended astilboides tabularis and I thought, “I have the perfect spot for it!” but I couldn’t find it anywhere… Well, I spotted it in a catalog recently and before I pounce on it, I was hoping for a bit of advice. I’m unsure how many plants I truly need to fill an area of 11′ long by 6′ wide (3′ wide at narrowest side) without going bankrupt!

    1. Margaret says:

      Welcome, Janeen. One of my favorite plants is Astilboides tabularis (as you can read in this post). How big is gets is a tricky question, as it can take a little while to settle in I think, especially if the soil is dry (which it won’t like as much probably as a normal to slightly moist spot), at least here. Bright shade seems to be ideal.

      I have made divisions off my oldest plant, maybe 3 chunks spaced 18 inches apart in a triangle-like grouping, and the foliage from those has covered an area of 4 feet or 5 across because the leaves are so big. I didn’t want to wait, but I could have spaced them twice as far from one another (3 feet) and waited a bit more. The oldest plant (despite my taking chunks off it) is 4 feet wide on its own.

      Sorry not to be able to give you a precise answer, but how patient are you and how is the soil and light there?

  7. Susan says:

    I love everything about this site. It’s warm and welcoming and I always learn about new plants to yearn for.

    I know you are writing a cookbook but are thinking of composing a book of your web posts? I just finished “The Informed Gardener” and I thought her format worked well.

    Your posts would make a satisfying garden book–along with the doodles…I’d love to own.
    Regards, Susan

  8. Janeen says:

    Thanks for the info

    I’m in Warren NJ, zone 6. The spot I wish to plant, which is on the north side of our house, gets bright & dapple shade throughout the day. I have trucked in soil already because the soil here is heavy clay.

    As far as being patient, I think I can wait a while for it to take off. It sounds like maybe 3, about 3′ apart would do the trick.

    1. Margaret says:

      Welcome, Susan. Not a cookbook, but a memoir-style book about leaving my old life in corporate “success” for a life here in the woods and the garden, a sort of dropout story. And yes, I do want to publish another garden book (my old one is out of print) so I hope that will be next. Crossing fingers for my publisher’s enthusiasm (or as you say there are other methods now). See you soon again, and thanks for all the encouragement.

      @Janeen: I think rather than in a straight row you might want to do a bit of a zigzag, and if it’s 11 feet long I was thinking maybe 5 or 6 plants (because where it’s 6 feet deep you will need them 2 deep, no?). I underplanted mine with small bulbs to give an extra show before the leaves come out (I have winter aconite, for instance).

  9. Carol Schnall says:

    Hi Margaret:

    Spring must be coming because my clivia flowers are almost open and new growth is appearing on some of my plants. Hurray. So I’m thinking about what will be a big spring project which is to clear a border of vines, dead trees, and other undesirables and plant shrubs that won’t attract deer. Outside of honeysuckle lilac and forsythia which they have left alone, I can’t think of any other shrubs that I can count on since this is their path to other parts of my property. Do you have any suggestions? This is our Western border which is close to a wetland so it is a bit swampy but not where the plants will go.

    Thanks so much and I hope you’re having a good winter.


    1. Margaret says:

      Welcome, Carol. When I did not have a fence, deer ate everything…at one time or another. Viburnums, hollies, all my favorites. I have read they pass on bayberry, Myrica pensylvanica, but have not grown it. I just can’t imagine living without my various forms of fencing. Once of the best deer-resistant plant lists (note: not “proof” just resistant) I have seen is from Rutgers. Sorry not to have the secret to this one. :)

  10. Jan Johnsen says:

    I just discovered this website and love it. I have added it as a link on my new blog –
    it goes hand in hand with Margaret’s ‘woo woo’ approach to gardening…Yay Margaret!
    I have spent 40 years in the landscape profession and have much to share….

    1. Margaret says:

      Welcome, Jan. Thanks for the encouragement. I see from your homepage that you are a May Sarton fan as well; she was my hero. I love her books, and have for decades. See you soon again.

  11. Joan says:

    Margaret, it’s impossible to fence here, so there’s a lot of finger crossing as I plant. My impossibly truck-mangled, 50 year old yew hedge is now gone and in it’s place are 12 wintergreen boxwood, less desirable to deer, two leather leaf viburnum, a stewartia, a vitex, and an andromeda “Scarlett’, which deer hopefully by-pass. Lookin’ good so far. I’m moving my Spirea ‘Ogon’ in nearby, bought after I read your piece on it. It made it through its first abominable winter and needs more sun. There’s a winter hazel nearby to pick up the gold. It’s just about faded, but put on a lovely show. New plants, new things to try, I love it! Thank you for the inspiration.

  12. kem says:

    we surrounded our property with Leyland cypress trees. great for privacy till they all started dying one or two at a time. trying to plant a variety of shrubs and trees this time as we take out leylands. saw a new plant at local nursery “daphniphyllum macropodum”. is this a good small tree?

  13. Dee/reddirtramblings says:

    Thanks for the roundup. I ordered a couple of shrubs including golden mockorange on your recommendation. I do so enjoy your blog’s open design. So lovely Margaret.~~Dee

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