How to select shrubs for your garden and landscape design?
This was the second time we had to remind him to bring the coffee.
My friend, who sat across the vintage marble-top table, rolled her eyes, smiling. For a cafe bustling with customers, especially on a Sunday afternoon, the service sure was slow. But time did seem to slow down here. And it had everything to do with the realisation that this was not the typical café. The Wild Garden by Amethyst, tucked inconspicuously in the heart of the city had brought the concept of a ‘garden café’ to Chennai.
The old granary warehouse building that houses the café hides behind verdant palms of different heights, coyly appearing closer until the stone pathway turns a curve. The white building hides again, as if teasing you to get lost in the garden first. A bowing branch of bougainvillea leads into a small opening, bursting with colour from the red ixora, oriental lilies, yellow roses to the white hibiscus shrubs. Shaded by the frangipani tree is a cosy sit-out on a stone patio that would have never existed if you hadn’t listened to the bougainvillea. A short walk further through the fragrant jasmine thicket reveals a little kitten pen by the lotus pond. At the end of the pond, gleaming in the sunlight, is the chequered marble patio of the Café, welcoming you in.
Associating gardens with trees and flowers is immediate and commonplace, but how many people associate a garden with shrubs? Not as many. This is partly because unless shrubs have attractive flowers, they often go unnoticed by the layman. But here is the catch. Whether you want to visually organise your garden, add or maintain structure, brighten it up in winter, spring and summer, draw interest or merely create privacy, shrubs can provide you the best of options.
Like trees, shrubs can be categorised in a number of ways, that include:
Shrubs for fall colour
When planted in groups, medium-tall shrubs can create screens and barriers, serve as foundation plantings or understory plants beneath trees. More commonly, shrubs can aid transitions. For instance, the transition from the horizontal plane of the lawn or patio to the vertical plane of a building can feel ‘hard’ and abrupt —unless that transition zone is softened with foundation plantings. The most standard means of making this transition is with a blend of low-to-medium-sized shrubs, both evergreen and deciduous, perhaps with some flowering plants. Notice how you, too, must have arranged potted plants by your wall at the entrance, door threshold, or compound to seemingly soften this transition.
Foundation plantings should enhance your overall landscape design. Low planting allows for unhindered vision while defining an edge and deterring (though not preventing) movement. Generally, it’s not good design practice to surround a house completely with foundation plants unless you need to screen an unsightly foundation.
Planting masses of shrubs can effectively separate different areas in the yard, much as walls delineate the rooms of a house, to create ‘outdoor’ rooms. Plants serve an architectural function by defining the floors, walls, and ceilings of such outdoor rooms. Paved floors direct movement into and around the space, lined by short shrubs and hedges that provide efficient visual guides. Coloured and textured shrubs and turfs, ground covers, creeping perennials, and other interesting ‘living’ materials can add character and interest to your garden.
An isolated pair of tall shrubs with interesting branching or a gap in mass planting creates a frame. This can be strategically used to frame a desirable view or draw attention to a focus, like an outdoor sculpture, an ornamental plant, or a water feature. Such an arrangement not only focuses attention but invites exploration. It suggests a different place to be discovered and engaged with.
Although most shrubs work best in groups, they may also be used as accents on account of their colour, leaf texture, or structure. Accent shrubs can lead visitors to your entrance, for example. Trees and shrubs with a special aesthetic appeal are often planted as ornaments to basic structural planting.
A combination planting of evergreen and deciduous shrubs can create seasonal variety in the garden. Seasonal shrubs add flair to your garden and maybe longer-lasting than flowering plants and trees. You could opt for flowering shrubs with bright blossoms or evergreens which come in a variety of shades that will add year-round interest to your garden.
Note that landscapes have a more unified appearance when green-foliage plants predominate the scene. Shrubs with red, purple, yellow, or silver summer foliage can become unintended “focal points” and detract attention from your intended design. It is better to select accent shrubs based on the colour of their flower, fruit, bark, and leaf in fall or spring. Remember, you can unify your landscape by planting the same kinds of shrubs in several different locations.
There are some common factors to consider while planting your shrubs, such as placement in the garden and proximity to other plants.
Avoid planting shrubs too close together – the size of their spread at maturity should determine its spacing. Some shrubs can grow to ten feet or more. Depending on where they are planted, they can shade other parts of the landscape that may require full sun, which at times, maybe undesirable. Conversely, taller plants may shade out understory plants, so select shade-tolerant shrubs for use as understory plants.
Taller shrubs are usually planted 5-7 feet apart, medium shrubs 3-5 feet apart, and low shrubs 2-3 feet apart. In good practice, shrubs are planted slightly more than one-half their ultimate spread away from the foundation so they can attain their natural forms.
While the thought of having a home garden can be exciting, do not give in to the desire to achieve the mass effect of a group planting too rapidly. It will require at least three years, perhaps five, before a group planting achieves its intended effect. A mature landscape cannot be created in one growing season. Make sure to plant shrubs that you can manage and maintain, and ones that will complement your other landscape flowers and trees.
Yet, be convinced that the joy of nurturing and tending your own designed outdoor space is unparalleled, and one you will surely cherish for a long time.
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About the Writer
Reva Saksena is an undergraduate architecture student at the School of Planning and Architecture (SPA), Bhopal. She has experience working at SiteLens Cultural Research Division of India Lost and Found (ILF) by Amit Pasricha. She is the winner of the "2021 Berkeley Prize Essay Competition.”
About the Editor
Srishti Mehta is the author of From the Land of Mist and Snow: Haikus from Antarctica. She is a creative writer, editor and publisher. She is the Editor-in-Chief at Zeyka. She is a graduate of the St. Xavier College, Ahmedabad, and the H.R. College of Commerce and Economics, University of Mumbai (MU). She has been the India Ambassador of the International Antarctica Expedition (2018) with 2041 Foundation. She has diverse volunteer experience in natural field studies, explorations, and journalism with numerous organisations including the Bombay Natural History Society (BNHS), Mumbai.
About the Illustrator
Shruti Bhagwat is an undergraduate architecture student at the Sir J.J. School of Architecture. Shruti has a keen eye for art, design and detail and a passion for books and movies. As the head of public relations for her college, she has organised and hosted multiple events for the institute’s talk series- ‘Manan.’ She was a finalist of Spacematrix’s Designathon 2020.