- Many are easy to grow
- Different types of flower in every season
- Some keep their leaves all year, others lose them in autumn
- Plant evergreen shrubs in October and April
- Plant deciduous types from autumn to late winter
- There are types to suit all sites
- Keep in shape by pruning annually
- Make new plants from cuttings or seeds
What is a shrub?
Shrubs are more familiarly known as bushes. They have a woody framework of branches, usually with several main stems sprouting from near ground level, rather than a single trunk. They are generally smaller than trees, although some types can grow to a substantial size. They can be evergreen or deciduous (losing their leaves in autumn), and grow in a wide range of soils and situations.
Choosing the right shrub
It’s important to choose a shrub that will thrive in your site as it will be there for years to come, so first consider your soil type and the amount of sun, rain, wind and frost it gets.
Getting the right look
Consider what you want from your shrub, such as:
- Size – shrubs can range from low-growing ground cover that may only reach 30cm (1ft) high to substantial plants that can eventually exceed 4m (12ft).
- Evergreen or deciduous? Shrubs that keep their leaves all year make great screens and structural elements, while those that lose them over winter often offer vibrant autumn colour and let in more light.
- Colour – shrubs can provide spectacular flowers in almost every hue. The foliage can range from every shade of green, to golden, red or purple. The leaves can also be variegated – edged with silver, yellow or white.
- Fragrance – many shrubs offer fragrant flowers, which are especially valuable in winter. Some also have aromatic foliage, such as lavender and rosemary
- Season(s) of interest – do you want flowers, fruits and colourful foliage in spring, summer, autumn or winter, or in several different seasons?
- Wildlife-friendliness – many shrubs offer nectar-rich flowers, fruits or berries, nesting sites and shelter.
Choosing shrubs for hedging
Many shrubs can be used for hedging, creating an attractive, wildlife-friendly boundary or screen. Your range of options includes:
- Evergreen or deciduous.
- Colourful flowers, fruits and foliage in various seasons.
- Informal or formal styles, and low or high maintenance.
- Tall, medium or low-growing.
When to plant
The best time to plant deciduous shrubs is from autumn through to early spring, as long as the soil isn’t extremely wet or frozen. Evergreen plants are best planted in autumn or spring.
Container-grown shrubs can be planted at any time during the growing season, but avoid planting in hot or dry weather to avoid the plant becoming dehydrated.
Where to plant
Most shrubs like an open, sunny site, but there are shrubs to suit all growing conditions including shade.
Shrubs that originate in warmer climates may suffer in winter and need the shelter of a wall or greenhouse and well-drained conditions. The plant label will tell you how hardy the shrub is. See our guide to growing wall shrubs.
Some shrubs need acidic soil, such rhododendrons and camellias. They won’t cope in dry, alkaline or limed soils. Check out our advice on identifying your soil type.
Many smaller or drought-tolerant shrubs can be grown in containers.
Tender shrubs grown in containers, can easily be brought indoors to overwinter
Prepare your soil
Shrubs are long-lived plants, so it’s worth enriching the soil with plenty of well-rotted garden compost or manure before planting in the garden.
How to plant
Planting a shrub is quick and easy, but worth doing carefully to ensure your plant settles in well and thrives for years to come.
Different shrubs need different levels of care, but there are plenty of easy, low-maintenance options.
- Newly planted shrubs should be watered regularly for at least the first two years.
- Once established, most should cope without extra watering, except in particularly hot, dry spells.
- Shrubs growing against walls may need additional watering, as they may be sheltered from rainfall by the wall.
- Shrubs in containers need regular watering over the summer.
Most shrubs will thrive without additional feeding. But for optimum performance, you can apply a general-purpose fertilizer in late winter at the rate recommended on the packet.
Shrubs in containers need feeding from early spring until late summer.
A thick layer of mulch, such as well-rotted compost or manure, around the base of shrubs will:
- suppress weeds
- provide nutrients
- improve soil conditions
- conserve moisture
Mulch is a layer of material, at least 5cm (2in) thick, applied to the soil surface in late autumn to late winter (Nov-Feb). It is used to provide frost protection, improve plant growth by adding nutrients or increasing organic matter content, reducing water loss from the soil, for decorative purposes and suppressing weeds. Examples include well-rotted garden compost and manure, chipped bark, gravel, grit and slate chippings. Mulch when the ground is damp, ideally in late winter after adding fertilizer, but any time from autumn to late spring is fine. Avoid placing the mulch directly against the stems of the shrub, as this can cause rot.
Removing spent flowers encourages further flowers, but is not essential and often not practical on large shrubs.
Do not deadhead shrubs that produce attractive fruits or berries, especially if these also provide food for wildlife.
- Hardy shrubs need no additional winter protection – check plant labels for hardiness before buying.
- Tender shrubs from milder climates grown in containers can be moved indoors over winter. If grown in the border, protection by wrapping the plants against the cold can protect them
Overwintering tender plants: lifting or mulching
Caring for older plants
Shrubs can live for many years, and if pruned annually should keep their shape and stay in good health.
Some shrubs may produce suckers, which are shoots that sprout directly from the roots and may appear a little distance away from the main shrub. These should be removed as soon as they appear.
Variegated shrubs may also produce occasional shoots with leaves that are not variegated. These shoots tend to be very vigorous and can eventually take over, so should be removed promptly. See our guide to tackling reversion.
Trees and shrubs: variegated foliage
Looking after hedges
Hedges, whether evergreen or deciduous, should be trimmed at least once a year to keep them neat and prevent them growing too tall.
Looking after shrubs in containers
These need additional watering and feeding, and regular repotting into larger containers as they grow. See our guide to container maintenance. Pruning and training
Pruning can keep shrubs healthy, productive and attractive, as well as restrict their size. Pruning can also enhance a shrub’s best features, such as colourful stems or large foliage. Some shrubs require less pruning than others however, so it’s best to check out their individual requirements first.
Hedges need regular trimming to keep them neat and at the desired height and width.
Most shrubs can be easily propagated by cuttings, at various times of year:
- In spring and early summer, take softwood cuttings
- In late summer to early autumn, take semi-ripe cuttings
- In mid-autumn to late winter, take hardwood cuttings
You can also propagate many shrubs by a simple process called layering.
Most shrubs can also be grown from seed, although patience is needed as this is a slow process. The resulting plant may differ from its parent if it was a hybrid cultivar.
Seed: collecting and storing
Shrubs are usually very robust garden plants and if grown in conditions that suit their needs, they should be relatively trouble-free.
Signs of problems look out for:
- Damaged leaves
- Leaves turning brown
- Yellowing leaves (chlorosis)
Shrubs can sometimes suffer insect infestations or fungal diseases, so check plants regularly, especially when carrying out the annual pruning.
Common pests include:
- Aphids – tiny sap-sucking insects, often seen on soft shoot tips and young leaves.
- Mealybugs – identified by white waxy fluff in nooks and crannies on stems.
- Scale insects – look for small scale-like lumps on stems and leaves.
Common diseases include:
- Honey fungus – a fatal disease, which forms a white fungal mat beneath the bark of the infected plant.
- Phytophthora root rot – which leads to wilting, yellow or sparse leaves and dying branches.
- Verticillium wilt – which causes stems to die back and leaves to wilt.