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Finding suitable shrubs

In the last few years we have completed the structure design of the garden but then stopped due to completing the house renovations. We put in trees, roses and spring bulbs as I knew what I wanted and where. Other plants were given by family to try out. I have enjoyed the grasses but a lot isn’t what I would like long term. 

I’ve started to read up about planning borders and it says to put in the trees and shrubs first. I’ve done my trees (not in this bed) but I have no idea what shrubs to go for. When I look at the plant lists many shrubs are huge and they would take up the whole border! 

I’m hoping I’ve started with the hardest border as it’s a bit of a disappointment to find this all so hard. I’m thinking due to the shape and narrowness is why I am having difficulties. Yet it is a bed I look at daily from my kitchen window so I want to make it right. Or maybe it’s because I don’t actually like shrubs? The only reason I’m thinking I should include them is if they are evergreen so the garden doesn’t look so sad in winter.

Do I need shrubs in every bed? What shrubs are good to give the structure the books say I need? Which shrubs grow small? As I must have room for my grasses and perennials as the look I am going for is cottage flowery fullness!


  • I'm not aware of any rule that says you have got to have a shrub in every bed but the evergreen ones do have the benefit of providing some winter colour and even some deciduous ones are nice in winter because they have bright stem colours that are more noticeable when the leaves and other growth near them has died back. Red stemmed dogwood has nice bright red stems that really shine out in winter and they can be cut down to the ground each year once established and shoot up with fresh stems from the ground. Even these cut back each year might get a bit big for the border in the photo and small evergreen shrubs I think might be potential options would be diosma, some of the variegated hebes and pittosporum variety Tom Thumb. There are also other options that are vigorous enough that you could just keep them regularly trimmed to a small size even if they naturally would grow bigger than you would ideally want.
  • FlyDragonFlyDragon Posts: 834
    I've just today bought some evergreen shrubs to put in borders that I filled with perennials last year.  It looked a bit miserable over winter and the beds became very muddy (clay soil).  Perennials are lovely but I want a bit of structure and permanence too. I generally only go for flowering shrubs though, and no variegated leaves!
  • Given you have Stipa tenuissima I'm guessing the strip of ground in the photos must be quite sunny and free-draining.

    I have a similar theme in my garden in that I'm keen on grasses and perennials. However, over the past few years I have realised there is little winter structure so I have added the following:

    Daphne 'Perfume Princess'
    Mahonia "Soft Caress'
    Brachyglottis 'Sunshine' (previously Senecio)
    Rosemarinus officinalis 'Foxtail'
    Pinus strobus 'Horsford'
    Evergreen herbaceous such as heucheras, enphorbias and Libertia grandiflora.

  • LoxleyLoxley Posts: 5,560
    You could plant early spring bulbs and primulas to extend the season a bit. Cyclamen coum, primula vulgaris and veris. (Snowdrops too but they will spread into your lawn, ignoring the shape of your borders lol). If you are just wanting a bit of evergreen stuff, tiny blob-like hebe type things, clipped yew, or even evergreen ferns like harts tongue fern could be useful.
  • LoxleyLoxley Posts: 5,560
    This is a quite good seasonal layering sequence (although not quite in chonological order!) Nigel Dunnett (@nigel.dunnett) • Instagram photos and videos
  • Janie BJanie B Posts: 948
    I have a new long herbaceous border, which is full of brightly coloured flowering perennials, and looks glorious all summer long (when we're most often outside enjoying the garden, either alone or entertaining). Not a shrub in sight. When a friend asked what it looked like in winter, I had to reply "Awful... but you should see it from April to October...!". No law that says you need to plant shrubs in your beds... do what you want, and what suits your lifestyle... 
  • earlydazeearlydaze Posts: 103
    Adam Frost has some really helpful guidance on incorporating layers in your garden - here is a link to one - he also has some online sessions on the topic (bookable from his website). I have to say for me, it was a real eye opener about adding shrub layer and I am in process of adding evergreen shrubs to my herbaceous border as we speak. There are some simply stunning dwarf hebes that dont take up much space and add year round interest, while also complementing many perennials. 
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