Blooms may be losing some luster among cash-strapped gardeners weeding out nonessential spending. A practical option is investing in an assortment of low-risk, high-return shrubs.
Few plants can return so much for so little attention as shrubs, which are long-lasting, colorful, cold-hardy, fast-growing, drought-tolerant, pest-resistant and utilitarian, and also deliver multi-season interest.
"They're really great green furniture for lots of people," said Sharon Yiesla, an extension horticulturist with the University of Illinois. "Forty or 50 dollars will give you a lot of annuals, but shrubs will last longer and perform more frequently. They may cost more initially, but over time, shrubs are a much better value."
While the renewed popularity of vegetable growing grabs headlines, people have been spending more on flower gardening and landscaping, said Bruce Butterfield, market research director for the National Gardening Association. In 2008, the total paid for food gardening was $2.5 billion, flower gardening $2.7 billion and landscaping $11.7 billion.
"I'm not sure how that's going to play out in 2009 because it seems like most people pulled the plug on spending for anything except for necessities," said Butterfield. "I also think that the mess in the real estate market and falling home values may hurt flower sales and landscaping."
Shrubs come in three varieties: flowering or deciduous (heather, Japanese maples, roses, to name a few), broad-leaf evergreens (boxwood, holly, azaleas, rhododendron) and evergreens with needles. The latter group includes spruce, juniper, yews and pine, all great foundation plants.
Shrubs differ from trees in that they generally are smaller and produce multiple upright stems, rather than a single trunk. Some varieties, like Japanese maples, are classified as both.
"Choosing the right range of shrubs from small to medium in size can create a strong sense of garden without all that much work," said Lee Buttala of Bridgeport, Conn., a veteran gardener who has cultivated shrubs in a half-dozen hardiness zones. "Shrubs can work so well in a mixed border, and give you good structure and a good look through several seasons — even when they're not blooming. They also can interact with one another and train other plants."
Unlike many other perennials, shrubs are proven performers, Buttala said: "Shrubs require minimal care beyond watering and feeding."
Here is an alphabetical selection of some easy-to-grow, top-performing shrubs that can thrive in many climates while offering a range of appealing features, including fruit, bark, blooms, foliage color, shape and size:
–Aronia (black chokeberry). USDA Hardiness Zones 3-8. White flowers in summer followed by a dark purple fruit favored by many songbirds. Develops a wine-red fall foliage.
–Calycanthus floridus (Carolina allspice, strawberry shrub or common sweet shrub). Zones 5-9. "Best to select when in bloom, as fragrance of flowers vary," Buttala said.
–Clethra accuminata (cinnamon bark clethra). Zones 5-8. Small ivory-colored blooms in summer, followed by golden yellow leaves in fall. Brown bark peels to reveal a gray under-bark, making for a great display in winter.
–Cornus alba "Elegantissima" (red-twig dogwood or cream-edge tatarian dogwood). Zones 2-8. "Great foliage and fantastic stems," Buttala said.
–Cotinus "Grace" ("Grace" smoke tree). Zones 5-9. Purple leaves that turn red and orange in fall. Can be shaped and sized, but that may sacrifice its pink, smoke-like flowers.
–Knockout and Flower Carpet roses. Zones 4-9. The Knockouts tend to grow vertically, while the Flower Carpets spread horizontally. Great border plants, especially when intermingled. Both are long blooming, from early spring until the fall frosts. Flower Carpets have glossier, disease-free leaves and seem more resistant to Japanese beetle infestations than do most other rose varieties. "They work well in multiples," Buttala said. "They're not as fussy. They're great in woodlands. Also great when added to other perennials."
–Heptacodium miconioides (seven son flower), Zones 5-8. "Quick growing with beautiful, peeling white bark," Buttala said. "Great soft green leaves and fragrant white flowers... ."
–Hydrangea quercifolia (oakleaf hydrangia). Zones 5-9. "Phenomenal in spring and summer when in bloom. Great, deep purple fall foliage that holds for months," he said.
–Loropetalum chinense, rubrum "Carolina Midnight" (Carolina Midnight lorpetalum). Zones 7-10. "Sturdy enough to grow on median strips and phenomenal in leaf and in flower," said Buttala.
–Physocarpus opulifolius "Monlo" (ninebark diablo). Zones 3-7. "Great flowers, bark and leaf color and, after flowering, red fruit."
–Spiraea fritschiana (fritsch spirea). Zones 3-8. Summertime blooms; vibrant fall foliage colors in red, orange and yellow.
–Vitex agnus-castus (lilac chastetree). Zones 6-9. Deer resistant plant with glossy green leaves and bright blue flowers.
–Yucca "Color Guard" (Adam's needle). Zones 5-10. "Great foliage all year, and flowers that really give it another season," Buttala said.
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