Shrubs: Planting Techniques and Design Guidelines

Shrubs, the sometimes forgotten plants, are making a grand comeback in popularity as an important element in the landscape. The idea of gardening with perennials and annuals (giving lots of seasonal color) has overshadowed the diversity of shrubs. But shrubs are no longer the despised juniper. Instead, they are an easy care landscape enhancement. They can provide the same feeling of color plus form, texture and rhythm that can make a garden into a showcase.

Shrubs are the bones or framework of the garden and help determine the final landscape design. They can provide screening for the patio, hot tub or swimming pool, and define a children’s play area or a place for pets. They can deflect the wind and offer protection from the low afternoon sun. The possibilities are endless. Grouping taller shrubs can give a beautiful and private garden room.

Shrubs can fool the eye by giving an image of depth to a small garden, or turn a large country garden into a smaller intimate one, search with The strategic placement of plants and the use of foliage color easily accomplishes the trickery. Shrubs can also define a favored focal point such as a distant view, a water feature or statue.

There are sizes, shapes and unusual cultivars to fit every landscape, from apartment container planting and urban landscapes to public gardens. There are shrubs for every climatic zone or micro-climate within a zone, from those that thrive in deep shade to those that love full sun.

Shrubs announce the seasons by fresh spring bloom, bright new green growth or interesting foliage color. Fall bloom and foliage color changes begin a transition to changing winter sculptures of bare branches, unusual bark color and berries hanging on for the migrating birds.

If you live in a milder climate, you have the added bonus of enjoying the winter blooming shrubs such as camellias, azaleas, rhododendrons and heaths.

And, let’s not forget the fragrance that permeates the air from lilacs and roses to the sweet smelling daphne.

Shrubs can be a main element in the design of “theme gardens” such as:

  • Japanese gardens using dwarf conifers, pines, evergreen boxwood, azaleas, camellias, heavenly bamboo and Japanese juniper.
  • Drought tolerant gardens using native and non-native shrubs such as manzanita, ceonothus, bottle brush, crape myrtle, germander, etc.
  • Deer-resistant gardens using myrtle, junipers, manzanita, buddleia, rhododendrons, flowering quince, pomegranate, banana shrub, etc.
  • English style mixed border gardens using shrubs, perennials, annuals, bulbs and trees.
  • Fragrant gardens using roses, viburnum, Mexican orange, myrtle, star jasmine, styrax, spice bush, daphne, rhododendron, osmanthus, mock orange, etc.
  • Habitat gardens for birds and butterflies using pineapple guava, flowering currents, weigela, abelia, buddleia, etc.
  • Firescaping gardens, where it is so important in the drier areas to use plants that are less volatile. Examples of shrubs would be Oregon grape, oleander, pittosporum, escallonia, India hawthorn and star jasmine.

Plant Shrubs in a Perennial Garden

Shrubs in a perennial garden offer balance and contrast to the brightly colored flowers and foliage.

Design guidelines

Following are some design guidelines to help with your planning:


Choosing the right shrub for just the right spot in the garden – now comes the fun! Review the size of the garden and the size of the shrubs (size, meaning mature height and mature width) that are going to be part of the landscape for many years. Nothing is more disappointing than discovering that darling little 2-inch high plant is now 15-feet high and as wide. Do your research and plan ahead before you buy. In the excitement, should you buy one of each because all of the plants are too hard to resist? Or, should you use some restraint and design the garden with purpose?


Does the garden need some depth? Place purple-leafed shrubs to the rear. They give the illusion of receding while grey foliage comes forward. Use the plant foliage creatively to reach your design goals.

Color-plan for seasonal bloom

Check if the color will complement the color of your home. Orange cotoneaster berries against the pink stucco house may cause your neighbors to cringe. However, red against a grey house is quite a show stopper. Examine the color wheel. What are your favorite colors? Use them wisely. Are you a lover of cool, pastel colors? Then choose shrubs of different shades of green or grey foliage, or those with blooms of lavenders and pink. Or do you prefer hot color combinations such as oranges, reds and yellows? Tone down the hot saturated colors by combining them with grey foliage shrubs, or plants with white blooms.


Texture is all about the size of the shrubs, leaves, and the roughness of the bark. A garden is very boring when shrubs with similar sized leaves are used. Strive for bold leafed shrubs planted next to ones with smaller leaves. A texture example would be using a low growing ground cover juniper with fine texture placed next to a bold-leafed silver berry. This combination will give texture variation, foliage color variation, and both are drought tolerant. Deciduous shrubs with interesting form and bark are a wonderful addition to the winter garden. Examples are crape myrtle, redtwig dogwood, barberry, California Storax, anti Stachyurus praecox.


Form is all about the shape of shrubs, whether they be mounding, columnar, horizontal (flat), weeping, or even spiny. Create variety by combining horizontal and mounding shrubs interspersed with vertical shapes. A good example is using the mounding heath shrub positioned next to a taller and bold-leafed shrub, such as a Mexican orange (Choisya). Plan a few groupings of bold upright evergreen shrubs in the background and you have a winner.


Rhythm is the feeling of movement throughout the garden. This can be done by creating curving lines of shrubs in informal gardens, or geometric lines in formal gardens. Keep the number of different shrubs to a minimum, thus giving the illusion of movement as the eye follows the flow of similar plant material. Think in planting groups of odd numbers. One or three always looks better than two. The exception is if you want to use a single specimen plant as a focal point, such as a shrub rose trained to grow on an arbor. There are no rules for governing the placement of a focal point.

Prepare Trees & Shrubs for Planting

Prepared to plant

Now that you have made your shrub choices, study your site and measure your available space so that the trip to the nursery will be productive. Draw a plan. Once you are satisfied with the plan, take the next big steps and get ready to plant.

  • Schedule your planting. In some places, shrubs can be planted successfully almost all year round, as long as the soil is not soggy. However, fall and early spring are an ideal time. Spring planting allows the roots to become well established before the heat arrives. Planting in the fall gives the roots an added boost to establish themselves during the wet winter months, and be ready to “take off” next spring.
  • When choosing shrubs, look for fresh, healthy plants and they will appear just that – no broken main stems or branches, no browned edges, no insect damage, no diseased spots on leaves, and no evidence of masses of roots peeking out of the pot’s bottom. Don’t forget to take your researched list of shrubs with you. If the plant is not available, at least a similar plant can be substituted.
  • Cost is related to the size of the container. Small one gallon, or 4-inch sized containers, will perform well, and will catch up very quickly to larger container sized plants.

Planting techniques

Following are some guidelines to help your new shrub get off to a good start.

  • It’s a good idea to water the potted plants the day before planting to prevent transplant stress.
  • The day of planting, dig a hole in the prepared soil that is large enough to accommodate the root ball. The root ball should be even with the existing soil surface. Too low placement will encourage rot and too high will cause a drying out. This is very important and actually very easy.
  • Please, no high nitrogen fertilizers in the planting hole. Those new little tender roots burn easily. (An exception is a timed release fertilizer that can be placed in the hole a short distance from the root ball. Package directions will give the correct amount.)
  • Shake or tap the plant out of the container. If the plant is root bound (compacted roots), gently break up the outer root ball with your fingers or a sharp tool. Why? Breaking up the root ball will encourage or force new healthy root growth.

Give everything a good soaking and remember to check the soil again in a few days to be sure the root ball has not dried out. You may have to water several times a week for the first few weeks.

The watering schedule will depend on whether the soil composition is sandy (drains and dries out fast), clay (holds the moisture), or the perfect well drained soil that is organically enriched.

  • If the moisture level is difficult to determine, use a soil water meter or trowel, or old screwdriver to push into the soil to judge the dampness. Is it still evenly moist or bone dry? Water as necessary.
  • A favorite water soluble fertilizer or other balanced fertilizer can be applied at this time and throughout the warm summer months to keep the shrub vigorous and as healthy as possible. Half the recommended rate is sufficient.
  • Soils should be damp before applying any fertilizer. Water the plants first and never apply fertilizer to plants that are under stress from lack of water. That is a sure way to damage them by fertilizer burn. Dry fertilizer sticking to damp leaves also causes burning, so wash the leaves to prevent this damage.
  • Mulching to a depth of 1 to 3 inches will retain soil moisture, keep the roots cool, discourage weeds, and add organic matter to the soil as it decomposes. Be careful not to cover the crown of the plant since this will encourage crown rot.