Shrubs: Adding Shelter and Beauty to your Garden

The benefits of adding shrubs to your landscape


Shrubs are very important in the natural environment—providing shelter and food for a variety of animals and birds. But they are often underutilized in many otherwise creatively designed landscapes. As a design element, shrubs provide the medium height in a garden and help blend the differences between trees, herbaceous plants and grass lawns.

But the woody branches of shrubs also provide more fullness. This fullness is what often gives a garden that established look and also provides visual interest during the winter.

Attributes and Benefits of Shrubs

Forestiera neomexicana 'Berry Girl'Shrubs, like Forestiera neomexicana 'Berry Girl', provide birds with food as well as shelter.

Creates the Understory

In any landscape, it's important to have variation in heights. Shrubs provide the intermediate height between the taller trees and the shorter plants. Shrubs also come in a wide range of sizes, from short and wide to narrow and tall. Select shrubs with their mature size in mind and allow plenty of space for them to grow.

Shrubs Provide Food and Shelter

If you want to attract birds to your garden, shrubs are an important element as many shrubs have berries that are attractive to birds as well as providing shelter. They also provide nectar-rich flowers that attract hummingbirds and butterflies.

Seasonal Intrigue

What would spring be without the welcoming blooms of Forsythias and Lilacs? Just as these signal the arrival of warm weather, other shrubs provide fragrant and colorful blooms during spring and summer; some even have the added bonus of producing berries later in the season. Many berries remain on shrubs through the winter adding a bit of color to an otherwise brown landscape.

Shrubs Provide Design Interest

The benefit of shrubs' woody structure shows after the leaves have fallen. Some shrubs such as dogwoods have colorful stems of red, yellow or purple. New Mexico Privet has interesting branching structure and a pretty creamy color bark which brightens any landscape. The contorted branches found in the Harry Lauder's Walking Stick might be thought of as a curiosity, but they definitely lend intrigue. Keep any pruned branches to use in floral arrangements.

A Few Favorite Shrubs

Our favorite shrubs are those that are fairly low maintenance and easy to grow. Also, we tend to favor things that have a dual purpose of providing design interest at the same time they attract birds.

Rhus trilobataRhus trilobata is one of our favorite shrubs because it is relatively low maintenance and easy to grow.

  • Rhus trilobata (Three Leaf Sumac) has small yellow flowers followed by berries that attract birds but the gorgeous red and orange of its foliage in the fall is its greatest attribute. A shorter version, Rhus aromatica 'Gro Low' only grows to about three feet in height. Another small version is Rhus trilobata 'Autumn Amber' and is only 18 inches tall and has a pretty yellow color in the fall. Use this shrub in areas where a groundcover is needed.
  • Forestiera neomexicana (New Mexico Privet) is a tall shrub, or can be pruned into a multi-trunked small tree. Its branching structure has great character and it looks good against a wall. The female plants have berries that birds love.
  • Fallugia paradoxa (Apache Plume) is one of the very best shrubs for a native landscape. It is extremely drought tolerant and has pretty white flowers throughout the summer. The seed heads, however, are its greatest glory with pink feather-like plumes covering the tips of branches.
  • Cercocarpus ledifolius (Curl-Leaf or Evergreen Mahogany) can grow about twelve feet high but can also be pruned and used as a small multi-trunked tree. As its name implies, it keeps its leaves in the winter. This shrub requires some pruning if placed in a small area.

Fall is a great time to plant most shrubs. The cooler air and less intense sun helps get their roots established while the soil is still warm. Check your landscape for a few places where shrubs could be used to add fullness and create a haven for birds.

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