From flowering lilacs to geometrically clipped formal hedges, shrubs bring a diverse beauty to the garden

Thomas J. Story

While trees are the focal points that give the garden its general character, shrubs typically form the framework that ties the landscape together. They are the constant, often unobtrusive plantings that create backgrounds, direct foot traffic, and provide a smooth transition from tree canopy to ground level.

Distinguishing between trees and shrubs

It’s not always easy to tell the difference between a tree and a shrub, especially since some shrubs can grow large enough to tower over smaller trees. One way to make the distinction (short of consulting a reference book) is to look at the main stems. Trees are likely to have just a single trunk, while shrubs typically have several to many, often equal in size.

Also see how the foliage grows: trees usually carry their leaves on branches growing from points fairly high on the trunk, while most shrubs carry foliage right down to the ground.

Choosing the right shrubs for your garden

Hundreds of shrubs are good choices for the garden. To narrow the field, start by considering only those suited to your climate.

Next, think about the role you want each shrub to play. Maybe you’re looking for an informal border to edge the back of the garden or a formidable barrier against wind or intruders; start by reviewing the sampler at left.

For a formal hedge to be clipped into a geometric shape, look first to the choices in our section on formal hedges.

If you’re looking for a plant with a strong structure to act as a “filler” between taller trees or buildings and a stretch of lawn, try one of the many large, broad-leafed evergreen sorts, such as sweet olive (Osmanthus fragrans).

Maybe you want a shrub that will grace the garden with exceptional blossoms each year, such as rhododendron or lilac (Syringa). Or perhaps your goal is to find a shrub with interesting leaf color, such as gold dust plant (Aucuba japonica ‘Variegata’) or variegated tobira (Pittosporum tobira ‘Variegata’), to complement a planting of flowering perennials.

Our section on common shrubs at a glance includes a selection of basic shrubs ― some evergreen, some deciduous, some imposingly large, others that nestle close to the ground. The choices here can play a variety of roles in the landscape, serving as anything from lovely flowering specimen plants to thorny barrier hedges.