Planting Shrubs

A shrub needs elbow room. Eventually, it'll reach its mature size and growth will slow and stabilize. At that point, the shrub shouldn't be crowding other plants, including other shrubs and your flower garden, nor should it be encroaching on areas where you need to walk or keep things, including garden furniture. The ultimate height and width of the plants are things you need to plan for even before you buy your shrubs.

Know the limits; find out the projected mature size of the shrubs you want ahead of time. This information ought to be on the nursery tag or on a label on the pot; otherwise, someone on the nursery staff can tell you, or you can look it up. Read on for some planting info.

Deciding when to plant your shrubs

As with trees, plant in the spring! This timing gives young plants an opportunity to establish themselves in your yard, a few months in which to develop roots that both anchor and fuel the show this year and for years to come. Local nurseries have the best and broadest selection waiting for you in spring.

Fall planting is also possible, right after summer's heat begins to dissipate and well before a frost is expected — four to six weeks before frost is a good time frame. Gardeners in mild-winter climates tend to have better luck because of the longer spell of hospitable weather. Either way, though, don't expect significant aboveground growth (new leaves or flower buds); some root development at this point can give new shrubs a jumpstart on next spring. To help the plants prepare for dormancy, don't fertilize fall-planted shrubs.

Avoid summer plantings, even if the shrubs are on sale! Summer heat and sun are stressful for newly planted shrubs and they may struggle, dropping leaves and buds. If you simply must, coddle the youngsters with some sheltering shade and plentiful water.

Situating your shrubs

Where to plant your shrubs has as much to do with the ground quality as with the location. A single shrub, sited solo and out in the open, is what land-scapers call a specimen plant. People view it from all angles. So attend to the ground below (is it good soil or can you improve it? Is it free of obstructions, including tree roots and utility lines?) and attend to the space around (will it have enough space to grow and reach its full potential?).

Shrubs are great in rows or sweeps, as screens, barriers, or hedges, and as foundation plants. For best results, clear the area in advance and make sure the shrub isn't too close to a building, fence, or other obstruction that may inhibit or halt its growth. Depending on how many shrubs you're installing, either dig a line of individual planting holes or make a big, long trench.

The concept of shrub borders isn't new, but it goes in and out of garden fashion. The idea is to plant a group or row of shrubs that are different sorts, weaving together a compatible, textured show. It can have an informal or wild look, or it can be an artful tapestry. Because the different plants have different growth habits or profiles, you may need to intervene from time to time with your clippers or loppers to keep the look you want and to discourage more aggressive growers from dominating.

Pay attention to your lines of sight if you're planting in the front yard. A shrub too close to the road can make pulling out of the driveway a harrowing experience.

Perfecting your shrub-planting skills

Amending the planting hole is usually a good, practical idea. If you know your yard's soil isn't that great, or if your new shrub has a particular soil requirement (for instance, rhododendrons prefer acidic soil), by all means, make soil adjustments. The rule of thumb is half native soil and half organically rich amendments (which can be any or all of the following: topsoil, compost, dehydrated manure, loam, or slightly moistened peat moss). Chapter 4 has more info on soil amendments.

For the shrub to receive the maximum benefits of the improved soil, the planting hole should be as big as you figure the rootball will become over time (the rule here is that the rootball ultimately will become as deep and wide as the plant above is tall and wide).

In the next few sections, I give you a few more details on how to plant your bushes based on the form they're in when you buy them, whether as container plants, bareroot plants, or balled and burlapped. For a general approach to planting bushes, no matter what form they arrive to you in, apply the info in the earlier section "Planting your tree." (Follow all the instructions save for the last one, on staking.)

Container shrubs

Suppliers commonly sell shrubs in pots. Your main concern is that the plant not be too terribly rootbound. Tilt the pot and nudge out the root system for a look, if possible. The roots should fill the pot but not be an impenetrable mass; some roots may be questing out the bottom drainage holes. (If the root system seems small for the pot or dirt spills out all around, the shrub is not well-rooted; bypass the plant in favor of a better specimen.)

When you're ready to plant back at your house and you coax the rootball out of the pot for the last time, you can help encourage new growth. Using your fingers, tease tight roots loose, especially on the bottom. If the side roots are fairly tight and resistant, you may score them very lightly with a sharp knife (% inch deep is all) on four sides to inspire fresh root growth when the plant's in the ground.

Bareroot shrubs

Occasionally, shrubs are available earlier in the season or via mail-order as bareroot plants. These plants are dormant plants and, truthfully, don't look too promising, but don't be fooled. You should see no evidence of green growth on the top part. The root system should look healthy, though, with crisp white or brownish roots (if you have wiry, black, or limp roots — only a few — clip them off; if you see a lot of these, the plant is in rough shape; reject it).

Bareroot shrubs can go into the ground earlier in the spring, because they're still dormant and won't be traumatized by the cooler soil and air. Properly planted, they come to life gradually along with the rest of nature.

Batted-and-burtapped bushes

Larger shrubs and field-dug ones are often sold balled and burlapped, later in spring when freezing weather is past in cold-winter climates and fall through spring in mild-winter climates. The root system is wrapped up in a protective cover of burlap that's laced securely in place. This wrapping allows you to get the plant from nursery to home without a mess.

Eyeballing this mass can give you an idea of how big a hole you need to dig — aim for at least several inches deeper and wider than the rootball. A hole the size of the mature plant, partially filled with a mix of native and amended soil, may be even better.

Prior to planting, remove or cut off all the burlap and twine. In the past, some landscapers and gardeners simply opened up the bottom of the bundle and put the plant in the hole, leaving the remaining burlap and string to rot over time in the hole. But this tack is no longer advisable — today's burlap and twine may contain plastic, which doesn't biodegrade. Take it all off!

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