Toronto Star column – published April 11, 2015
Top 8 of Mark’s Picks
As you gander over your landscape this early April morning, consider the tools that you have in your tool box to create the garden of your dreams and be sure that shrubs are in it.
Shrubs are best defined by what they are not: trees or herbaceous perennials. They are not even short trees, though they are always by definition under 8 meters tall. They stand in your garden throughout the winter, providing interest and a convenient place for birds to perch while your hostas and day lilies have retreated to the relative security of their root zone.
Come spring, most shrubs burst forth with leaves and/or blossom, which is why we usually refer to them as ‘flowering shrubs’. Lilac, forsythia, hydrangea, and the like fall into the shrub category and many of us fall under their spell [see how I did that?]. Especially as they bloom.
The earliest of all flowering shrubs is the witch hazel, which is hardy in Toronto but not much further north. Chances are, it has bloomed already in your neighbourhood and is moving on to the leafy stage now. We think of forsythia as early flowering but the native downy serviceberry [Amelanchier arborea] actually blooms earlier, or about the same time depending on the weather.
Garden retailers have learned to stock up on quantities of flowering shrubs as they come into bloom. Human behaviour being what it is we walk into a garden centre when the magnolias are in full bloom expecting to find them in bloom there also. Sometimes this works, but only if you are quick on the draw and make your enquiry at the beginning of the blooming time. Nursery growers don’t generally hold the flowering of shrubs back; in fact often they force them early in an unheated plastic covered hoop house. This is the perfect environment for winter protection and the early flowering creates some hype for some species before they bloom out of doors.
To help you make intelligent choices, here is my list of 8 favourite flowering shrubs with my reasons why each is on the list. Note that I love shrubs. I have about 300 of them in my 10 acre garden, planted there to take advantage of a sequence of blossoming times throughout the season and a convenient source of food, shelter and nesting places for song birds. They announce the arrival of each stage on the gardening calendar with flowers, fruit and changing leaf colour.
There is nothing not to like about these shrubby beauties:
1. Lilac. The fragrant, fast-growing specimen in your neighbour’s yard is a weedy common lilac and is best viewed in your neighbour’s garden from your place. Let them deal with the aggressive roots and top growth while you enjoy the wafting scent of lilac from the other side of the fence. There are many different kinds of lilacs.
a. Dwarf Korean lilac will only grow 150 centimetres tall. Fragrant purple/lavender colour. Compact, neat and orderly.
b. French hybrid. The French hybridised them so we named this group after them. Romance is strongly associated with this lilac and the people as it is the most fragrant of them all, maturing at about 3 meters tall. Available in a wide range of colours and colour combos. Look for ‘Agincourt Beauty’ [my old neighbourhood!] and ‘Sensation’. A sensational addition to a large garden or perennial border.
c. Preston lilacs. Canadian. Grows to 3 meters tall. Flowers two weeks after the common and French hybrid and is more winter hardy. I like Prestons mostly for the season-extending qualities of the flowering time.
2. Magnolia. Is it a tree or a shrub? Well, if it is under 8 meters high, it is a shrub; over 8 meters, it is a tree. Either way, this is the best way to celebrate Mothers’ Day every year. Once you plant it in your mother’s garden it will bloom on or about Mothers’ Day for [almost] ever, reminding her of you. Sweet. Like the large, saucer-shaped flowers on the ‘Saucer’ Magnolia, or choose the more winter hardy [zone 4, Ottawa] star magnolias like ‘Pink Star’ or ‘Royal Star’. A handsome, large-leafed shrub or tree when out of bloom, too.
3. Hydrangea. Perhaps no other family of flowering shrubs has received so much attention from the hybridizers in recent years as the hydrangea. My old-fashioned ‘Annabelle’ hydrangeas [I own about 50] have been totally out classed by the new ‘Incrediball’. This introduction features masses of massive flowers about the size of your head. They bloom from mid-summer through the fall.
‘Bigleaf’ hydrangeas [Hydrangea macrophylla] include one of the early ‘new’ introductions about a decade ago, ‘Endless Summer’. This variety became instantly popular and inspired several more in the family including ‘Twist and Shout’ and ‘Blushing Bride’.
4. Elder [Sambucus spp.]. I ordered some fruiting elder to plant in my vegetable garden 3 years ago from Veseys Seeds in P.E.I. They took off and last year I harvested my first bushel of fruit. Great jelly!
There are ornamental elders that hold their own, including golden leafed varieties and ‘Black Lace’, a winter hardy [zone 4] deep coloured, fast growing alternative to Japanese red maple. Look for ‘Guincho Purple’ for added colour. Grows to 2.5 meters.
5. Butterfly bush [Buddleia spp.]. The Sheridan Nurseries catalogue lists 14 varieties. Is that enough choice for you? I love butterfly bush mostly for their attraction to butterflies. As advertised, this plant is a magnet like no other to our winged friends that flutter around looking for nectar come late July through early fall. Butterfly bush will flower for up to 10 weeks if you remove the spent flowers: deadheading it is the perfect excuse to slow down and enjoy the company of butterflies.
6. Flowering Dogwood [Cornus florida]. Unlike the red-twigged cousin (red-osier dogwood), the flowering dogwood is hardy here in Toronto but not reliably north of here. In my opinion, the large, creamy white or soft pink flowers of the flowering dogwood are a highlight in the garden. You will wait until late in the spring for them to arrive but, when they do, they will be the focal point. I find several outstanding specimens in full bloom during the Through the Garden Gate tour of Toronto gardens each June.
7. Japanese Maples [Acer palmatum]. Did the Japanese maple change the plant industry or the plant industry change the Japanese maple? Whatever. The point is that where there were 2 varieties to choose from 25 years ago; Sheridan Nurseries now offer 24 varieties in their current catalogue. Twenty-four! When I started in the business there was the mother of all Japanese maples, ‘Atropurpureum’ and if you wanted something exotic you bought ‘Bloodgood’. Now you can buy plants with deeply serrated leaves [‘Tamukeyama’], weeping [‘Crimson Queen’], upright growing with a weeping habit [‘Inaba-Shidare’], and a variety that features orange leaves [‘Orangeola’].
Note that the most hardy of Japanese maples are recommended for use up to zone 5 [Barrie], which is why people in Ottawa and Montreal hate us (seeing as they live in zone 4).
8. Ninebark [Physocarpus opulifolius]. No one had heard of ninebark a few years ago, but since plant breeders added several exciting new varieties to the family, everyone wants one. Most of them grow to 2 meters or more but the new ‘Little Devil’ is a wonderful exception. A compact, easy to grow shrub that features button-like off white flowers in June borne on a compact plant that never needs pruning. Perfect for the busy urban gardener.
For something really interesting that will keep most any gardener guessing as to its name, try ‘Coppertina’, featuring copper foliage in the spring, turning red in the summer with pink/white flowers in late spring. All ninebark are relatively disease free.