How to: Choose Shrubs

Shrubs are the unsung heroes of the garden, giving colour and drama and asking for little in return. But which to choose? Here are our top 10 low-maintenance favourites.

The early spring star: Magnolia stellata

It’s hard to beat the pure white, early spring flowers of the star magnolia, which appear on a waft of scent in March or April. This is a slow-growing shrub or small tree that is fully hardy – ideal for the back of a border or as a specimen in the lawn.

Planting position: Full sun or part shade with well-drained soil in a sheltered spot. Tolerant of all soils but avoid frost pockets as a late frost will damage flowers.
Height: Grows up to 2.5m with a spread of 2.5m when fully mature.
Care: Requires little or no pruning.


The reliable all-rounder: Photinia Red Robin

This fast-growing, evergreen shrub, is also called Christmas berry. It’s known for its dashing red foliage rather than its little cream spring flowers. Photinias are ideal as hedging plants or wall shrubs, or you can clip them for a formal look.

Planting position: Ideal for a south- or west-facing wall in sun or part shade.
Height: 3m with a spread of 3m.
Care: Prune to keep to shape in late spring or early summer.

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The year-round performer: Aucuba japonica Crotonifolia

Known as the spotted laurel, this evergreen shrub has leathery foliage decorated with golden spots. It’s a compact plant, so it makes a good privacy screen when planted as a hedge. Its bright foliage will lift a dark and gloomy corner of the garden.

Planting position: Happiest in sun or partial shade, sandy or chalky soils, and will tolerate a tricky north-facing spot.
Height: 1.5m with a spread of 1.5m.
Care: Pruning not essential, but March is the time for any shaping.

The extrovert: Photinia x fraseri Pink Marble

This recently introduced evergreen Christmas berry is a gem. Displaying pink and green leathery leaves, it works well as a garden specimen – indeed, it’s grown for its upright form and unique colouring rather than for its small spring flowers. This is ideal as a privacy screen and works well in a mixed hedge.

Planting position: Full sun or partial shade in a well-drained soil.
Height: 3.5m with a 2.5m spread.
Care: No need to prune, but if it gets too big, you can hard prune in spring, which will encourage fresh and more colourful foliage.

The reliable evergreen: Euonymus japonicus Bravo

If you’re looking for year-round variegated colour, this sturdy easy-to-grow evergreen is just the ticket. Known as the Japanese spindle, it’s a versatile plant – happy in a container, loosely-clipped, but also often used as a reliable and pleasingly upright hedging plant.

Planting position: Copes well in a coastal garden. Enjoys sun or shade.
Height: 1m with a spread of 1.5m.
Care: Prune to shape in spring. Cut out any stems that have reverted to green.

Euonymus Japonicus Ovatus Aureus1000px

The touch of class: Topiary

If you’re after a formal garden with year-round interest, then think topiary. Lots of plants can be clipped into a shape but the most popular topiary specimens are box, yew, bay and euonymus. Buy already shaped plants for an instant display – you’ll be able to choose from cones, pyramids or even animal shapes. Topiary plants look fantastic when grown in a pair and make perfect specimens to display by the front door.

Planting position: Sun or part shade. Can be grown in containers and most well-drained garden soil.
Height: It’s up to you – keep it clipped at your desired height.
Care: Clip in May.

The scene stealer: Upright conifers

Conifers have rightly come back into fashion. They offer so much variety in the way of foliage, colour and shape. Those that create a column of upright evergreen growth can be useful to draw the eye down the garden, or will accentuate a view if planted in pairs. Dwarf junipers are ideal for small gardens and will grow successfully in substantial pots – but for a larger plot opt for the Irish yew, Taxus baccata Fastigiata.

Planting position: Sun or semi shade in a well-drained soil.
Height: From knee-high to the rafters – and beyond!
Care: Pruning isn’t required on many conifers, as when you cut into the old wood they won’t regenerate and you’ll be left with a gap. Yew can be pruned back into old wood or clipped in autumn.


The Oriental backdrop: Bamboo

If an instant screen is what you need, bamboo could be the answer. A word of caution, though: robust, fast-growing bamboo can take over a garden. Plant varieties that ‘run’ in large containers, and use those that form clumps as screening.
With many bamboos on offer, you’ll find some are ideal for shade and others sun, some will reach well above head height and others will remain at the knee. With instant height and the dreamy rustle of stems and evergreen foliage, these are certainly desirable plants.

Height: Anything from 1m-5m in height with a similar spread.
Planting position: Bamboos can thrive even in poor soils. They prefer a bit of sunshine rather than deep shade.
Care: Cut weak stems out of the clump right at the base in spring.

The autumn dazzler: Acers

Buy one Japanese maple, and you’ll be hooked. There are so many to choose from, some making fine trees and others offering the perfect form for a container. Acers as a whole are slow-growing, and many boast attractive bark when mature. They’re prized for their delicate leaves, especially beautiful in their autumn tones – visit Japan at this time of year to witness a kaleidoscope of orange, yellow and red.

Height: Depending on the acer you choose, they can grow anything from 1m to 8m.
Planting position: They prefer a sheltered spot as foliage can be damaged by strong winds. Ideally, choose a semi-shaded spot in a slightly acid soil – but they will grow in most garden soils. As a guide those with dark foliage require some sun, and those with variegated will prefer the shade.
Care: No pruning is required, but should you wish to shape or remove damaged branches, do this in autumn as the plants will bleed sap in spring. Repot container-grown plants every other year.

The centrepiece: Phormiums

When it comes to making a statement, nothing much beats the strappy foliage of a New Zealand flax – they’re ideal for containers and make the perfect focal point for a garden. There are many different types to choose from, some with gold foliage and others with copper or green. Whichever type you choose, you can be sure the plant will be with you for many years – and the tropical look of these New Zealand natives always inspires a holiday mood.

Planting position: These hardy plants can cope well with a coastal environment and thrive in most soils. Requires full sun.
Height: Mostly 1-2m, but the tenax variety can grow to 4m.
Care: Remove faded foliage from the base of plants with secateurs in spring. Repot container grown plants every other year.