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Native Plant Garden 10 Years In: Lessons Learned Growing Deciduous Shrubs

Finding just the right native shrubs for your garden.

Fothergilla shrub blooming in Spring
Fothergilla in Spring

The array of native shrubs native to our Chesapeake watershed is absolutely amazing. Many add spring flowers, summer fruit and fall color creating quite the boon for any gardener! Gardening on 1/8 of an acre, my real challenge is which native shrubs to grow. Here is what I have grown and learned over the past ten years.  Please note this is very limited experience in that I only have room for so many shrubs! As always, it is one perspective to take in combination with what the pros say provided in the links.


Native bayberry shrub close-up
Bayberry

Bayberry

Bayberries (Morella pensylvanica) are shrubs that can grow to 15 feet tall but 10 feet is more the norm. They thrive in acidic soils but tolerate neutral soils as well. The farther south they are, the more likely they are to retain their leaves all winter. The shrubs are loosely shaped and their size and mass make a great screen or backdrop. Plus those white berries on female plants are very interesting! To get the berries, you will need a male and female plant.


Lesson Learned: Light wise, bayberries are said to grow in part shade. In our garden, where the soil conditions are not ideal for bayberry, they really seem to need full sun.  This may vary depending on the acidity of your soil. In ideal soil conditions, the shrubs may fare just fine in part shade.


native beautyberry shrub in fruit
Beautyberry

Beautyberry

Beautyberry (Callicarpa Americana) is very easy to grow in full sun and part shade. It naturally grows in moist soils but you can grow it in average soils as well. Beautyberry grows in clay soils too. A mature shrub reaches up to 6 feet high and wide.


Lesson Learned: It’s a bit gangly! If you have a naturalistic garden design, you may covet this free flowing vibe. If you have a more formal style, you can help your beautyberry along. Beautyberries bloom on new wood each season so you can prune them in spring to help improve their shape. Pruning back by one to two thirds will help create a tighter shape to your shrub.  From experience, I recommend not pruning until you are sure the shrub is well established. How to tell if it is well established? Is it pushing a lot of new growth? That’s a good sign. Is it producing plenty of purple berries? Another good sign. If conditions turn dry, does it start to wilt? If so, it may not yet be well established.


fall foliage colors of native fothergilla
Fothergilla in Fall

Fothergilla

Fothergilla shines in spring, summer and fall. Dwarf fothergilla (Fothergilla gardenii) grows about 4 feet high and wide. Large fothergilla (Fothergilla major) grows 6 to 10 feet high. Both grow in sun to part shade and in most any soil. The white flowers in spring burst open mid-spring. Fall brings a fantastic palette of fiery oranges and reds.

 

Lesson Learned: This is very easy to grow and a welcome, welcome sight in spring!

 

native Hearts-a-burstin in bloom spring
Hearts-a-burstin in Spring

Hearts-a-burstin

Hearts-a-burstin (Euonymus americanus) grows in part shade and does best in moist and rich soils. It is said by experts to tolerate clay soils. Often described as growing 4 to 6 feet wide and high, it is just as likely to be described as sprawling and suckering. It sometimes called strawberry bush or wahoo shrub.


Lesson Learned: Hearts-a-burstin really needs moisture. I originally grew two shrubs in average moisture soils in part shade. For three years, the shrubs languished producing only one or two seed pods over the several years. Once I moved them to the foot of a down spout where there was full sun, they began to grow, thrive and bloom.


I have had some luck creating a somewhat moister areas by disconnecting down spouts from discharging water into perforated pipes that carried water underground to the street and instead diverting that water to the garden. As we all know, water can be a menace to house foundations so great care must be taken! In my case, I added extensions to the downspouts so no water is discharged within ten feet of the house foundation. I also only did this where the grade slopes away from the house.

 

Lesson Learned: These shrubs are typically only available at native plant nurseries and may look sketchy if the shrubs are young. They are totally worth the wait for the shrub to mature.

 

native shrub Lo-gro Sumac in fall
Gro-Low Sumac

Gro-Low sumac

This smaller cultivar of native fragrant sumac, Gro-Low sumac (Rhus aromatica 'Gro-Low') will spread in width but does not grow tall. In spring, plants have small yellow catkins or clusters of flowers depending on whether male or female. They develop green foliage for summer and this deep orange foliage in fall.


Lesson Learned: I wanted to grow this shrub for the fall color and catkins. I planted one knowing they will begin to spread by rooting branches.  To maintain a single specimen takes pruning twice a year.  That said, it takes about five minutes each time and is easy. This shrub would be a really great shrub for covering ground or stabilizing slopes.


Lesson Learned: The more sun. it gets, the more intense the fall color will be.


native shrub oakleaf hydrangea in bloom near pond
Oakleaf Hydrangea

Oakleaf Hydrangea

Oakleaf hydrangea (Hydrangea quercifolia). produce a range of fall color from purple to mahogany to orange, have gently peeling bark in winter and panicle flowers in summer. Oakleaf hydrangeas have a more informal shape and get quite large, up to 7 to 12 feet tall and wide. There are also smaller cultivars.


Lesson learned: This shrub takes well to artful pruning.  If you want to create a screen or let the shrub grow you can leave it be and it will thrive. If you want to create some artful structure for winter though, you can prune it to create a very pleasing vase shape. Oakleaf hydrangeas bloom on old wood so do know that if you are pruning in winter, which is a great time to prune as you can see the structure of the plant, you may be removing next year’s blooms.  I tend to prune out suckers, branches growing straight up and branches growing downward to create the shape I like. Since the plants are mature, that still leaves lots of blooms for summer. 

 

native possumhaw shrub with blooms in early summer
Possumahw Viburnum

Possumhaw Viburnum

Possumhaw viburnum (Viburnum nudum) are large shrubs with white flowers in early summer, plentiful berries in late summer and fall, and a variety of festive fall foliage color. Possumhaw grow 10 to 20 feet tall. The berries morph from minty green to pale pink to dark blue - quite a show over the summer.


Lesson Learned: These shrubs will fare just fine for several years in soils with average moisture but over the long haul, more moisture is better.


native spicebush in natural area in bloom
Spicebush in Spring

Spicebush

Spicebush (Lindera benzoin) is an early spring bloomer. 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.


Lesson Learned: The chartreuse buds of this shrub in the forest understory in very early spring get me every time. So even though my garden has a base of fill dirt and is pretty much the opposite of the forest understory, I continue to try to grow spicebush. After several attempts, the only success I have had is planting in full shade, with moisture and leaving significant leaf cover to help prevent surface soils from drying out. Moisture seems to be the key.

 

native summersweet shrub in bloom
Summersweet

Summersweet

Summersweet (Clethra alnifolia) 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. Summersweet grows to about 8 feet tall and 5 feet wide. There are also cultivars which are smaller as well as cultivars with pink flowers.


Lesson Learned: Summersweet prefers moister soils but will grow in average soils.


Lesson Learned: While it will grow and flower in dappled shade I have found the more sun they have, the more flowers you will have.

 

Lesson Learned: This shrub can be late to leaf out in spring so if yours is newly planted, don’t give up on it too early. An easy way to see if a shrub is still alive is to scrape away the bark with sharp pruners, a knife, or your fingernail. If you see green, the shrub is good. If it is brown, keep working your way down the shrub to see if part of the shrub is still surviving. If so, you can prune out the dead wood.

 

yStraight Species Wild Hrdrangea in flower
Wild Hydrangea

Wild Hydrangea

Wild hydrangea (Hydrangea arborescens) is a three to five foot high shrub that flowers in summer. It grows in shade, part shade and part sun. The flowers dry and often persist through winter adding winter interest.


Hydrangea Arborescens 'Annabelle' flower closeup
Hydrangea Arborescens 'Annabelle'

Lesson Learned: It can be hard to find a straight species wild hydrangea. The reason to find the straight species is to get a shrub with fertile flowers for pollinators! The petals I always thought of as the flower shown by the shorter arrow above are sterile. The fertile part of the hydrangea is shown by the longer arrow.


Over the years, I purchased shrubs labeled as wild hydrangeas and only one turned out to be.  Once the shrubs began to bloom, it appeared from the flower, they were mostly sterile blooms and likely the very popular cultivar hydrangea arborescens 'Annabelle.' Beautiful but not providing much to pollinators. This past December I went the native plant nursery route and purchased several shrubs from Bona Terra Nursery. There will be no question when these bloom that pollinators will be happy!


native winterberry shrub with fruit and leaves
Winterberry

Winterberry

Winterberry shrubs (Ilex verticillata) grow 6 to 8 feet in sun or part shade. The more sun they get, the more berries you and the birds get. Shrubs are either male or female. Females bear the berries and you must have one male shrub within 50 feet of the female shrubs to ensure berries.. These shrubs have small white flowers in early summer.


Lesson Learned: For a shrub that thrives in moist conditions, winterberry adapts to average moisture soils very easily.


Lesson Learned: This shrub takes to artful pruning once mature. You can prune out downward growing, inward growing and crossing branches to create a very architectural vase shape that really adds to the winter garden.

 

Lesson Learned: If you are not getting berries you may not have a male shrub in close enough proximity to pollinate your female shrub. If you are not getting berries, this spring, take note of the time of year your shrub produces small white flowers and then check this chart or talk to your local nursery about which variety of male shrub you need.


Lesson Learned: Please be patient with newly planted shrubs. They take three or so years to get established and start really turning out those berries!


Do you have different experience with these native shrubs or a favorite native shrub not covered here? Please share it with us in the comments. Thank you!









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We want you to be as excited about planting Chesapeake natives as we are. “Plant This or That” gives you a native alternative to popular plants. Other posts highlight really fabulous fauna native to the Chesapeake.

Nuts for Natives, avid gardener, Baltimore City admirer, Chesapeake Bay Watershed restoration enthusiast, and public service fan.

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