Growing your native garden from the ground up.
Creating a garden comes together more quickly, the more shrubs you add. Shrubs really are the building blocks of the garden. They add the variety of height you need to visually to bridge the transition from perennials to trees. Shrubs are feeders and habitat for birds. They are also an easy low maintenance way to add flowers to your garden. These are the eight best shrubs I know of based on a preference for shrubs that are easy to grow, look good for all of the growing season, have more than one season of interest and are widely available.
Full sun: Dwarf fothergilla, Possumhaw viburnum, Red twig dogwood, Summersweet, Winterberry
Part sun: Dwarf fothergilla, Oakleaf hydrangea, Possumhaw viburnum, Red twig dogwood, Spicebush, Winterberry
Part shade: Dwarf fothergilla, Oakleaf hydrangea, Possumhaw viburnum, Red twig dogwood, Spicebush, Winterberry
Full shade: Oakleaf hydrangea, Spicebush
Dwarf Fothergilla (Fothergilla gardenii)
The unusual flowers of fothergilla are like little star bursts of white joy after the fog of winter passes. Fothergilla blooms in mid-spring and has fiery orange and red colors in fall. Dwarf fothergilla grows to about 4 feet high and wide. It can grow in sun to part shade and in most any soil. There is also regular fothergilla which is larger. Both have all of the same attributes; they just differ in size. I think this plant looks great in a natural shape. It is sometimes, though, also used as a hedge.
Oakleaf Hydrangea (Hydrangea quercifolia)
Oakleaf hydrangea adds four seasons of interest to your garden: papery, architectural bark in winter, fascinating unfurling minty green leaves in spring, panicle white flowers in summer and deep, moody colors in fall. Oakleaf hydrangea has it all. It grows best in part sun to shade in a range of soils. Unlike ornamental hydrangeas, oakleaf hydrangea does not droop in hot weather. Oakleafs can grow to 12 feet in size. If you have a smaller space, there is dwarf oakleaf hydrangea with all of the same attributes.
Red twig dogwood (Cornus Sericia)
Red twig dogwood's claim to fame is red twigs! The bright red stems stand out once the shrub loses it leaves in fall. Red twig dogwood blooms with white flowers in spring and those blooms are followed by berries. This multi-stemmed, vase shaped shrub grows in part sun and part shade in all soils and, in moist soils, grows in full sun.
When mature, this shrub can be 6 to 8 feet tall. Practically, it's easy to keep it much smaller by pruning. Pruning is required anyway to maintain the bright red color. Each year, prune the oldest stems to the ground. The older stems will be browner in color and thicker than the newer, redder, younger stems. The easiest time to do this is in fall or winter when there are no leaves on the shrub.
Spicebush (Lindera benzoin)
Spicebush is an early spring bloomer. I like to think of it as the native version of .forsythia. It has small chartreuse blooms in shade and it's a welcome sight. In the fall, it's yellow foliage glows in the shade. If you happen to get a female plant, it will also bear bright red berries. Spicebush naturally grows as an understory shrub. In the garden it grows best in shade or part shade. If spicebush is in a sunnier location it needs moist soils. In shade, it does fine with average moisture.
Summersweet (Clethra alnifolia)
This shrub blooms in summer with abundant scented flowers that are magnets for pollinators. The bloom period is several weeks. In fall, the foliage is a fantastic yellow. Summersweet grows in sun or part shade in moist or average soils. You can get it to grow in drier soils if you are diligent about watering it weekly during the first several years after you plant it. Summersweet grows to about 8 feet tall and 5 feet wide. There are also dwarf summersweet as well as cultivars, shown above, with pink flowers.
Possomhaw Viburnum (Viburnum Nudum)
This is one of the native viburnums and it's really a great basic shrub with three solid attributes. In spring, possumhaw is covered with white flowers. Those flowers morph into green berries which turn pink and then blue by fall. In fall, leaves turn red and orange. Possumhaw viburnum grows to 12 feet in height but can be easily kept smaller by pruning.
Winterberry (Ilex verticillata)
Winterberry is perfectly named. It is the exception to the shrubs on this list in that it has only one real season of interest - winter. It is stunning though. Large pea sized, bright red berries blanket the stems of mature shrubs. These shrubs grow 6 to 8 feet in sun or part shade. The more sun they get, the more berries you and the birds get. This is a shrub that is sold as male or female. The females bear the berries and you must have one male shrub within 50 feet of the female shrubs to ensure berries. It sounds more complicated than it is. These shrubs have small white flowers in early summer. Please be patient with newly planted shrubs. They take three or so years to get established and start really turning out the berries.
Do you have a favorite shrub not covered here? Please share it with us in the comments. In case you missed it, here are the basics we covered on ground covers and perennials and soon to come, the best small trees!