Choosing Shrubs: Why and How

Find the Right Shrubs for Your Space

Originally appeared in Nation Garden Bureau

Learn what shrubs can do for your garden and how to pick one to fit your space

Can you feel it? Fall is in the air, with cooler temperatures, sweater weather, and pumpkin spice everything just around the corner. But along with cooler, cozy vibes, gardens and gardeners breathe a sigh of relief when fall arrives. Not only is fall a great time to enjoy the garden free of summer’s sweltering heat, but it’s also the perfect time to add new plants–especially high-impact, low-maintenance shrubs.

Fall’s mild temperatures and less intense sunlight offer the ideal environment for planting, both for the gardener and the plants. The still-warm soil creates an inviting home for roots to establish, helping plants thrive. Take advantage of fall to add more interest and beauty to your garden with shrubs.

6 Reasons Why You Should Plant Shrubs

If you love plants that provide gorgeous color, texture, and interest in the garden without much fuss, it’s time to add shrubs to your space.

  1. Shrubs serve as an understory plant, providing transitions in the landscape from towering trees to flower beds to lawns.
  2. They’re terrific multi-purpose plants, creating privacy when planted as hedges or filling foundations with color and texture.
  3. Shrubs add multi-season interest, whether they’re evergreen, burst into bloom in spring, or show off beautiful bark in winter.
  4. Many shrubs provide food and shelter for wildlife, an added perk if you’ve taken up birding during the pandemic or simply enjoy sharing your garden with feathered and furry friends.
  5. There are even shrubs suited for challenging garden spaces, like deep shade or small spaces.
  6. Shrubs can provide beautiful blooms and fabulous foliage for your garden-to-vase arrangements to create your own stunning homegrown bouquets.

Whatever your needs, there’s a perfect shrub for your garden. Think about what you’d like to achieve in your outdoor space, and then take a look at some of our NGB members’ recommended shrubs for your specific needs…

Beginner Tip for the New Gardener

When choosing a shrub, pay attention to its “mature size”—and give it plenty of room to grow.

Adding Privacy with Shrubs

With more time spent at home, you may want to add a bit of a buffer between you and your neighbors. After all, sometimes you want to spend time in the garden without interruption, whether you need to move your office outside for a change of scenery or simply want to relax with a good book.

“Good fences make good neighbors,” as Robert Frost attests. While privacy fences can be pricey and unsightly, shrubs make an aesthetically pleasing, environmentally sound addition to landscapes—helping you achieve your goals of privacy.

Often, gardeners think of conifers as the only solution for creating a privacy hedge. But think outside the box and explore new shrub varieties.

If creating privacy is your goal, try:

Southern Living® Coppertop® Sweet Viburnum is a great shrub for privacy | National Garden Bureau
Stellar Ruby Magnolia
First Editions® Standing Ovation™ Serviceberry ideal shrub for crating privacy in a foodscape | National Garden Bureau
Pinpoint Gold Cypress great for use as a privacy shrub hedge | National Garden Bureau
  • Southern Living® Coppertop® Sweet Viburnum: features brilliant, dark maroon to copper new growth that reappears after each pruning, providing season-long interest. Grows 8-10 feet tall and 5-6 feet wide. Full sun. USDA zones 7b-10b.
  • Southern Living® ‘Stellar Ruby’ Magnolia: naturally dense foliage and pinkish to ruby-red, banana-scented flowers appear in spring and again in fall, making this a good choice for a beautiful, fragrant privacy screen. Grows 10-15 feet tall and 6-8 feet wide. Full to part-sun. USDA zones 7a to 9b.
  • First Editions® Berry White® Panicle Hydrangea: strong, upright stems support large, cone-shaped flower panicles that begin blooming white, maturing to dark pink. The panicles change color from the bottom up, providing a pretty show as a privacy hedge. Grows 6-7 feet tall and 4-5 feet wide. Full to part-sun. USDA zones 3-8.
  • First Editions® Standing Ovation™ Serviceberry: covered in pretty white flowers in spring that turns into edible berries in June, this is an ideal shrub for creating privacy in a foodscape. The dark green leaves mature to red and orange in autumn, adding seasonal interest. Grows 15 feet tall and 4 feet wide. Full sun. USDA zones 2-8.
  • Proven Winners® ColorChoice® Shrubs Pinpoint® Gold False Cypress: features feathery foliage, a space-saving habit, and a cheerful golden color. Ideal for creating a gorgeous but practical privacy hedge. Low maintenance and easy to grow, it needs little pruning to maintain its pretty shape. Reaches 15-20 feet high and 3-5 feet wide. Full to part-sun. Zones 5-7.

Containers/Small Space Garden Shrubs

If you garden in a small space, like a patio or balcony, or if your yard is more postage-stamp-size than a sprawling estate, you might think shrubs aren’t for you. Think again.

Many breeders recognized that smaller-space gardeners need shrub-love, too, leading them to develop compact shrub varieties ideal for containers or tight spaces, but with the gorgeous bloom-power and fabulous foliage of their bigger cousins. You’ll even find compact shrubs that bear fruit for a healthy, homegrown harvest.

Try these small-but-mighty shrubs to add an instant “thriller” to a container or to brighten a narrow entryway:

Little Miss Figgy is a beautiful compact fig that produces fruit and can be grown as a container shrub | National Garden Bureau
Wee Bit Grumpy hydrangea
Matcha Ball Ash Leaf Spirea is a round shrub that adds gorgeous color in small spaces | National Garden Bureau
Little Mischief Rose has deep pink blooms with white eyes making it a perfect container shrub | National Garden Bureau
  • Southern Living® Plant Collection/Sunset® Plant Collection Diamond Spire® Gardenia: a perfectly lovely, fragrant columnar gardenia ideal for narrow garden spaces. The white flowers appear in late spring and bloom through fall. Grows 3-4 feet tall and only 2 feet wide. Full to part-sun. USDA zones 7a-10b
  • Southern Living® Plant Collection/Sunset® Plant Collection DownHome Harvest™ ‘Little Miss Figgy’ Fig: a beautiful compact fig that produces large, prolific, delicious fruit. Both highly ornamental and practical for gardeners who love to grow food, it’s more cold hardy than comparable figs and creates great interest in landscapes and containers. Grows 4-8 feet tall and 3-4 feet wide. Full sun. USDA zones 7a-10b.
  • Proven Winners® ColorChoice® Shrubs introduced several compact hydrangeas perfect for containers or small gardens, including Invincibelle Wee White®, a smooth hydrangea that grows only 1 to 2.5-feet tall and wide (zones 3-8); Wee Bit Giddy® and Wee Bit Grumpy®, both bigleaf hydrangeas created to stay compact (3-feet tall and wide) but with huge bursts of intense red (Wee Bit Giddy) or deep purple (Wee Bit Grumpy) blooms all season long (zones 5-9); and Fire Light Tidbit®, a tiny, low-mounding (3-feet tall and wide) paniculata that blooms lime green, matures to white, blushes to pink, and finishes vibrant dragon-fruit pink. The autumn foliage adds fire to the garden, with hues of orange, maroon, and red. Full to part-sun. Zones 3-8.
  • First Editions® Matcha Ball® Ash Leaf Spirea: with beautiful, fern-like foliage that emerges with hints of red in the spring and matures to bright green, this perfectly round shrub adds gorgeous color in small spaces, maturing 2-3 feet tall and 3-4 feet wide. Full sun. USDA zones 3-7.
  • Easy Elegance® Little Mischief Rose: deep pink blooms with white eyes make a pretty contrast against older, light pink flowers. The glossy-green foliage remains trouble-free with this disease-resistant rose, perfect for gardeners who love beautiful blooms. Grows 2-3 feet tall and 2-4 feet wide. Full sun. USDA zones 4-9.

Shrubs for Deep Shade

Some garden spaces are tricky, like deeply shaded areas under trees or along with buildings and fences that cast shadows. Often, these areas need brightening to avoid drabness—and to prevent erosion. What’s a gardener to do? Look for shrubs that tolerate deep shade.

While most shrubs need at least partial sun, a few that tolerate deep shade include:

Sprinter® Boxwood does well in shady spots | National Garden Bureau
North Star® Boxwood produces shiny green foliage that remains evergreen all winter | National Garden Bureau
BananAppeal® Small Anise Tree maintains a pretty, compact, well-behaved form with fragrant anise-scented foliage | National Garden Bureau
First Editions® Pink Frost Florida Anise Tree provides lovely variegated white and green foliage against maroon-red flowers, ideal for adding interest to shady spaces. | National Garden Bureau
  • Proven Winners® ColorChoice® Shrubs Sprinter® Boxwood grows to its mature size quickly, faster than conventional boxwood; plus, it’s free from the boxwood odor that some gardeners dislike. Grows 2-4 feet tall and wide. USDA zones 5-9.
  • Proven Winners® ColorChoice® Shrubs North Star® Boxwood produces shiny green foliage that remains evergreen all winter, perfect for adding year-long interest; unlike many varieties, North Star® resists boxwood blight. Grows 2-3 feet tall and wide. USDA zones 5-9.
  • Proven Winners® ColorChoice® Shrubs Stonehenge Skinny Boxwood is a tall, thin variety, great for narrow entryways or corners. It grows 6-8 feet tall and just 12-18 inches wide. USDA zones 4-7.
  • First Editions® BananAppeal® Small Anise Tree maintains a pretty, compact, well-behaved form with fragrant anise-scented foliage. The golden-yellow foliage brightens dark garden spaces with a pretty pop of color. Plus, as an added bonus, it’s deer-resistant. Grows 3-4 feet tall and wide. USDA zones 7-9.
  • First Editions® Pink Frost Florida Anise Tree provides lovely variegated white and green foliage against maroon-red flowers, ideal for adding interest to shady spaces. The foliage turns a pretty shade of pink-rose in cold weather, creating seasonal interest. Grows 6-10 tall and 6-10 feet wide. USDA zones 7-9.
Beginner Tip for the New Gardener

When planting shrubs, dig a hole at least twice as wide as the container (some sources say 5 times as wide) and deep enough that the top of the root ball sits just slightly above ground level. Amend soil with compost as needed, and make sure the site drains well to keep roots healthy.

Foundation Planting

If you’re tired of the “meatball” shrubs builders add to landscapes around new homes, you’ll love the diverse, gorgeous varieties available to dress up foundation plantings. Shrubs can provide so much more interest and pleasure than just hiding foundations. Choose varieties that offer beautiful color, fragrance, and seasonal interest, too, while still maintaining a well-behaved habit.

Look for varieties like:

Fool Proof™ Gardenia: provides year-round beauty and deliciously-fragrant, double, pure-white blooms that appear in late spring and continue through fall.
First Editions® Little Lady Lilac a perfect multi-purpose foundation planting. | National Garden Bureau
First Editions® Crimson Fire™ Fringe Flower: the first truly compact red-leaf loropetalum, the shrub remains nicely shaped and well-behaved, making it fabulous for foundation plantings.
Very Fine Wine™ Weigela: plant a beautiful pop of color against foundations.
  • Southern Living® Plant Collection/Sunset® Plant Collection Fool Proof™ Gardenia: provides year-round beauty and deliciously fragrant, double, pure-white blooms that appear in late spring and continue through fall. This disease-resistant variety is also heat-tolerant and stays nicely compact, growing 3-4 feet tall and 3 feet wide. Full sun. USDA zones 7a-10b.
  • First Editions® Little Lady™ Lilac: a perfect multi-purpose foundation planting. Not only does the shrub look lovely as the dark pink flower buds open to lilac, fragrant flowers, but the bright green foliage also turns dark red in autumn, extending seasonal interest. Plus, the booms make a terrific addition to homegrown bouquets. Grows 4-5 feet tall and wide. Full sun. USDA zones 2-7.
  • First Editions® Crimson Fire™ Fringe Flower: the first truly compact red-leaf loropetalum, the shrub remains nicely shaped and well-behaved, making it fabulous for foundation plantings. The ruby-red foliage adds long seasonal interest, while the neon-pink flowers bring a vibrant burst of color to the garden. Grows 4 feet tall and 4-5 feet wide. Full to part-sun. USDA zones 7-9.
  • Proven Winners® ColorChoice® Shrubs Very Fine Wine™ Weigela: plant a beautiful pop of color against foundations. With its dark burgundy foliage and pretty, rosy-pink early summer blooms, the shrub adds a long season of interest in plantings. Plus, unlike many unruly weigelas, this one stays well-mannered, growing only 2-2.5 feet tall and wide.

Multi-season Interest Shrubs

One of the best uses for shrubs is their ability to add multi-season interest to your garden. Whether you choose an evergreen that adds pretty texture, a deciduous shrub with gorgeous autumn foliage, a beautifully blooming shrub that adds pops of color both to your garden and your vase, or a shrub with interesting structure and bark for winter interest, choose varieties that extend your garden’s beauty throughout all the seasons.

Some favorite varieties include:

Legend of the Fall®Bottlebrush Shrubs create long-lasting interest in the garden. | National Garden Bureau
Opening Day™ Doublefile Viburnum a shrub that blooms beautifully in spring with large, baseball-sized, green-tinged flowers that mature to snow white—and then puts on an incredible fall foliage show.
Amber Jubilee™ Ninebark adds hues of orange, yellow, and gold to the garden with its vibrant foliage, while clusters of delicate white blooms cover the shrub in spring and fall.
Tiger Eyes® Cutleaf Staghorn Sumac makes a statement in your garden, with beautiful golden, cutleaf foliage.
  • Proven Winners® ColorChoice® Shrubs Legend of the Fall® and Legends of the Small™ Bottlebrush Shrubs create long-lasting interest in the garden. Bottlebrush is known for its spectacular autumn color, and both of these varieties add brilliant, glowing hues of orange, yellow, and red foliage to the fall garden while producing prolific white, fragrant flowers in spring. Legend of the Small™ makes a perfect addition to containers or small gardens, reaching only 2.25 feet high and 2-3 feet wide, while Legends of the Fall™ grows 4-5 feet tall and wide. Full to part-sun. Both varieties are hardy in USDA zones 5-9.
  • First Editions® Opening Day™ Doublefile Viburnum: a shrub that blooms beautifully in spring with large, baseball-sized, green-tinged flowers that mature to snow white—and then puts on an incredible fall foliage show. The deep red-purple autumn foliage adds interest to fall gardens. Grows 5-10 feet tall and 5-8 feet wide. Full to part-sun. USDA zones 5-8.
  • First Editions® Amber Jubilee™ Ninebark adds hues of orange, yellow, and gold to the garden with its vibrant foliage, while clusters of delicate white blooms cover the shrub in spring and fall. Grows 5-7 feet tall and 4-6 feet wide. Full sun. USDA zone 2-7.
  • First Editions® Tiger Eyes® Cutleaf Staghorn Sumac makes a statement in your garden, with beautiful golden, cutleaf foliage. New growth is bright chartreuse green, quickly turning yellow and contrasting nicely with the rosy-pink leaf stems. Pretty in summer, the show really takes off in fall, with foliage turning dramatic yellow, orange, and intense scarlet. Grows 6 feet tall and wide. Full sun. USDA zones 4-8.
Beginner Tip for the New Gardener

When planting shrubs in the fall, give them plenty of time (preferably 6 weeks or longer) to settle in and grow strong roots before the soil freezes.

Create a Wildlife Habitat with Shrubs

Designing a wildlife habitat in your garden creates a perfect oasis for birds, bees, butterflies, beneficial insects, and mammals who need food and shelter, as well as a lovely retreat for you to relax and recharge while watching wildlife play. Creating a backyard wildlife habitat may seem daunting, but it’s simple: provide food, water, shelter, and space.

When you add shrubs that benefit wildlife, you’ll check off two of those requirements: shelter and food, based on selecting the right types of shrubs. Look for shrubs that produce dense foliage, perfect for nesting or hiding from predators, as well as shrubs that produce food, like berries or nectar-rich flowers.

A few varieties to try include:

Butterfly Towers™ Buddleia attracts pollinators to your garden.
Tianshan® Seven-Son Flower produces clusters of fragrant, creamy-white flowers that appear in late summer, followed by unusual purple-red fruit in autumn.
Fibre Optics Buttonbush is a great shrub for cut flower designs - National Garden Burea
Aquavita™ Juniper produces delicious berries for birds, while also providing yearlong shelter with beautiful aqua-blue, dense foliage.
  • Southern Living® Butterfly Towers™ Buddleia attracts pollinators to your garden. Available in magenta or white blooms, the profuse flowers beckon butterflies, bees, and hummingbirds, appearing in summer and blooming through fall. The unique vertical habit makes a pretty hedge or screen. Grows 4-5 feet tall and 2-3 feet wide. Full to part-sun. USDA zones 5a-9b.
  • First Editions® Tianshan® Seven-Son Flower produces clusters of fragrant, creamy-white flowers that appear in late summer, followed by unusual purple-red fruit in autumn. Not only will wildlife love the shrub, but it also adds seasonal interest with dark green foliage that turns yellow in late fall and attractive exfoliating bark that looks great in winter. Grows 8-12 feet tall and 5-7 feet wide. Full to part-sun. USDA zones 5-9.
  • First Editions® Fiber Optics® Buttonbush performs beautifully in moist conditions, making it popular in wetlands restoration projects, as well as a good addition along streams and pond banks. The spherical, creamy-white, fragrant flowers attract pollinators, while many species of waterfowl eat the seeds. Grows 5-6 feet tall and wide. Full sun. USDA zones 4-9.
  • Proven Winners® ColorChoice® Shrubs Aquavita™ Juniper produces delicious berries for birds, while also providing yearlong shelter with beautiful aqua-blue, dense foliage. The easy-to-grow, adaptable, pyramidal shrub makes a great addition to any garden striving to be wildlife-friendly. Grows 12-15 feet tall and 3-4 feet wide. Full sun. USDA zones 4-9.

No matter what your needs—privacy, multi-season interest, wildlife-friendly, or more—you’ll find an amazing array of shrubs to add beauty and benefits to your garden.

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