The shrub border has been a part of many landscapes. In the old world (Europe) tall hedges of box and yew outline the garden and landscapes. Even now, gardeners are trying to recreate shrub borders around their landscape to mimic what their ancestors had. But maybe we should be looking at a mixed shrub border, instead of a clipped hedge.
What are the pros and cons of a mixed shrub border versus a clipped or sheared hedge? There are many more than you might think. Growing up in North Central Kansas, I was well aware of the sheared hedge. My Grandpa Mitchell, was a handyman and home gardener for many years. Bordering his driveway was a hedge of sheared bridal veil spirea. And even now, I shear hedges for clients in the Central Great Plains.
But I maintain my own mixed shrub border around the southeast and eastern sides of my property. At first, it started as a collection of shrubs, I really wanted to grow every shrub possible to grow in Northeast Kansas. But it has slowly developed into the mixed shrub border, which is more than a mere collection, but a groups of plants which grow together harmoniously.
Pros and Cons of a Mixed Shrub Border versus a Clipped Hedge
What does a mixed shrub border really have going for it? And what could go wrong? And how is it better or worse than a clipped hedge?
Low maintenance versus high maintenance
You may have realized that a shrub border of a single plant species, or a sheared hedge needs trimming, A LOT. Because you are constantly removing the new growth and cutting into the apical stems of the shrub, not only does it keep sending out new shoots, but it also thickens up the stems behind the new shoots. So if you need to remove more than just the new growth, you are cutting into the thickened, older stems.
A mixed border of shrubs can be pruned regularly, but there is no need to do so. I just let my shrubs grow to their full potential. This means that they may look a little scraggly from time to time, but eventually the new growth catches up to itself.
Also, because a sheared border is just one or maybe two species, they risk for a destroying disease or pest is greater. For example, boxwood blight is overtaking large plantings and borders of boxwoods on the East Coast, and will likely end up doing the same to boxwood hedges in the Great Plains. With a mixed border, the chance for having a single pest of disease wipe out the entire border is unlikely.
Now, those who want a perfect, pest free landscape and garden may not want the diversity a mixed shrub border will bring. By having a variety of different shrubs, you will have the potential to have a variety of visiting wildlife. If you use more native than nonnative shrubs, you will have the possibility of many different insects, butterflies, and moths using them as a host plant. This will bring in other animals such as birds, snakes, lizards, frogs, and small mammals which feed on the insects.
For the bird lover, a mixed shrub border, will help ensure good nesting sites and populations of birds. The more regionally native shrubs the better. Pick ones that are not selected for double blooms, are male species, or are fruit/seedless. These will NOT help the birds. But, monocultures of yew, boxwood, or holly that are sheared to shape will be against the insects, as well as the birds.
I am certain there are those out there who would prefer a sheared, solid green hedge to a border of mixed flowering shrubs. But I am not one of them. Solid greed is needing in the landscape, and we mostly get it from monocultured lawns, so why do we want it in the plants surrounding our property, drives, and house?
The diversity in flower color, size, and type on the shrubs of the mixed border help draw the eye to outside and lets you see the forest, and the trees. Also, a mixed border of shrubs can provide fragrance, sound reduction, and wind protection within the inner parts of the landscape.
Shrubs of the Mixed Border
Now that we have some reasons to grow a mixed shrub border, what plants do we choose from? There are different ways to go about choosing plants, but first you need to know your landscape. If you do not already know where the sun and shade is; or where the water flows across when it rains; I suggest you study your land to see, before picking out plants.
You can choose to do the shrub border in 2 different ways. 1, plant shrubs of varying heights in random along a linear path along edges of the landscape. 2, plant tall shrubs in the back and shorter ones in front of them for a two-part border, that is thicker and fuller in the end.
Sun Loving Plants for the Back of the Shrub Border – 8 Feet and Taller
- Black Chokeberry (Aronia melanocarpa) – 10 feet tall and wide, sometime bigger, with shiny green leaves which turn orange red in fall. Black berries in late summer.
- Buttonbush (Cephalanthus occidentalis) – 12 to 15 feet tall and wide, with white-ball flowers in summer. Leaves turn yellow in autumn.
- Roughleaf dogwood (Cornus drummondii) – 10 to 20 feet tall and growing in wide thickets. A great plant for birds with its white berries. Leaves turn reddish in autumn.
- Swamp dogwood (Cornus ammomum) – 10 to 16 feet tall and wide, growing more in clumps than thickets. White flowers turn to blue-black berries in midsummer. Leaves turn red in autumn and stems turn red in winter.
- American hazelnut (Corylus americana) – 8 to 10 feet tall and wide. Produces edible nuts in late summer.
- American smokebush (Continus obovatus) – 10 to 20 feet tall and wide. Leaves are whorled, and can be green or purple. Flowers are unique.
- Eastern wahoo (Euonymus atropurpureus) – 10 to 30 feet tall and wide, growing in thickets. Wahoo can be pruned to kept smaller and more shrub like than tree like. Leaves turn red in autumn and there are small red berries.
- Chokecherry (Prunus virginiana) – 10 to 15 feet tall and wide, growing in large thickets. Fragrant flowers give way to clusters of astringent, reddish cherries, which can be made into jelly. Fall color is reddish orange.
- Smooth sumac (Rhus glabra) – 8 to 15 feet tall, growing in large thickets or either male or female plants. Clusters of edible, red berries and orange-red fall color.
- Blackhaw (Viburnum prunifolium) – 10 to 30 feet tall, growing in large thickets. Leaves are shiny green turning reddish in autumn, with edible blue-black berries.
- Wild indigo (Amorpha fruticosa) – 4 to 15 feet tall and wide. Bright purple flower spikes.
- Rose of Sharon (Hibiscus syriacus) – 4 to 20 feet tall by 4 to 10 feet wide. These shrubs bloom best on new growth and can come in a wide assortment of colors.
- Panicle hydrangea (Hydrangea paniculata) – depending on cultivar, can be 3 to 12 feet tall by 3 to 15 feet wide. There are many cultivars with many different flower types and colors. Fall foliage is yellow.
- Beautybush (Kolkwitzia amabilis) – 6 to 12 feet tall and wide with fragrant pink flowers in spring.
- Old-fashioned Lilac (Syringa vulgaris) – 8 to 20 feet tall, growing in wide clumps. Flowers can be white, pink, purple, yellow, or multi-colored and are very fragrant.
- Weigela – grows 3 to 15 feet tall and wide, depending on cultivar. Leaves can be green, maroon, or variegated. Flowers are tubular pink, red, orange, or white. Attracts hummingbirds.
- Korean spice viburnum (Viburnum carlesii) – grows 4 to 15 feet tall and wide, depending on cultivar. Flowers are VERY fragrant pink or white. Leaves turn shades of orange, red, and maroon in autumn.
- Snowball bush (Viburnum opulus) – 6 to 12 feet tall and wide with double, white flowers in the shape of snowballs.
Sun Loving Plants for the Front of the Shrub Border – Under 8 Feet Tall
- Eastern ninebark (Physocarpus opulifolius) – grows 3 to 8 feet tall and wide, with many cultivars. Leaves can be green, chartreuse, maroon, or burgundy. Flowers are pink or white. Fall color is reddish.
- Clove currant (Ribes odoratum) – grows 4 to 8 feet tall and wide. Yellow, tubular flowers are fragrant and attract hummingbirds. Fall color is orange-red.
- Elderberry (Sambucus canadensis) – grows 3 to 8 feet tall and wide. Large white flowers give way to edible, blue-black berries. Leaves can be green, purple, or chartreuse.
- Rusty blackhaw viburnum (Viburnum rufidulum) – grows 3 to 6 feet tall and wide with white flowers and edible blue-black berries. Fall color is reddish orange.
- Carolina allspice (Calycanthus floridus) – 4 to 8 feet tall in a small thicket. Red flowers are highly fragrant. Fall color is yellow.
- Juneberry (Amelanchier alnifolia) – 4 to 6 feet tall, growing in a small thicket. It has blue edible berries, and orange-red fall color.
- Smooth hydrangea (Hydrangea arborescens) – grows 4 to 6 feet tall in small clumps up to 8 feet wide. White or pink flowers are great for floral arrangements.
- Northern bayberry (Myrica pensylvannica) – 5 to 8 feet tall and wide. Plant is dioecious, and berries on female plants are used to make candles.
- Leadplant (Amorpha canescens) – 1 to 4 feet tall and wide. Silvery-gray leaves, with purple spikes of flowers.
- Beautyberry (Callicarpa species) – 3 to 5 feet tall and wide with arching stems. Tiny pink flower produce small purple berries that last through early winter.
- Cinquefoil (Potentilla fruticosa) – 3 to 4 feet tall and wide with small, yellow, orange, or white flowers.
- Boxwood (Buxus species) – 3 to 8 feet tall and wide, if left unsheared. Evergreen foliage.
- Blue-Mist spirea (Caryopteris species) – 3 to 6 feet tall and wide. Flowers are typically shades of blue, but can also be white. Blooms in fall.
- Mockorange (Philadelphus species) – 4 to 8 feet tall and wide. White flowers are very fragrant in early summer.
Shade Loving Plants for the Back of the Shrub Border – 8 Feet and Taller
- Witch-Alder (Fothergilla major) – 6 to 10 feet tall and wide. Very fragrant, white, bottle-brush flowers in spring, blueish-green leaves turn orange and red in autumn.
- Witchhazel (Hamamelis virginiana) – 10 to 20 feet tall and wide. Blooms very early in spring, with yellow or orange flowers that are fragrant. Fall color is orange.
- Bladdernut (Staphylea trifolia) – 8 to 12 feet tall and wide. Bell-shaped, white, fragrant flowers in early spring. Seedpods are 3 chambered. Yellow fall foliage.
- Spicebush (Lindera benzoin) – 6 to 12 feet tall and wide. Fragrant yellow flowers in early spring, with red to blue edible berries on female plants. Yellow fall color.
- Prickly-Ash (Zanthoxylum americanum) – 10 to 20 feet tall and wide with tiny, maroon flowers. Red berries are used as a spice in Asia. Yellow fall color.
Shade Loving Plants for the Front of the Shrub Border – Under 8 Feet Tall
- Oregon grape-holly (Mahonia aquifolium) – 3 to 6 feet tall, growing in thickets. Fragrant yellow flowers in spring with grape-like purple berries. Leaves are semi-evergreen, turning reddish in Zones 5 and colder.
- Southern bush-honeysuckle (Diervilla sessilifolia) – 3 to 5 feet tall in large thickets. Yellow flowers attract hummingbirds. Fall color is reddish orange.
- Coralberry (Symphoricarpos orbiculatus) – grows 3 to 4 feet tall in running thickets. Tiny yellow flowers produce pink-red berries which are great in floral arrangements.
- Sweetspire (Itea virginica) – grows 3 to 8 feet tall in running thickets. Fragrant white flowers in spring. Fall color is reddish orange.
- Oakleaf hydrangea (Hydrangea quercifolia) – 4 to 8 feet tall and wide. Large white flowers fade to pink. Fall color is purple to red and stems have peeling bark.
- Leatherwood (Dirca palustris) – 4 to 6 feet tall and wide. Fairly rare, with yellow flowers in early spring.
- Sweet pepperbush (Clethra alnifolia) – 3 to 8 feet tall in a small thicket. VERY fragrant flowers are pink or white.
- Slender deutzia (Deutzia gracilis) – 2 to 5 feet tall and wide, sometimes making a small thicket. White, fragrant flowers in late spring. Fall foliage is yellow.
- Japanese spikenard (Aralia cordata) – 3 to 6 feet tall and wide. Leaves can be green or chartreuse. Spikes of white-pink flowers in late spring.
- Japanese kerria (Kerria japonica) – 3 to 6 feet tall and wide in a running thicket. Stems are green, flowers are bright yellow.
- Yew (Taxus species) – 3 to 8 feet tall and wide. Evergreen foliage.
***Species listed in RED are in the author’s shrub borders.***
Why I Love the Shrub Border
The shrub border is the most low-maintenance part of my garden. I do not have to trim it, water it (once established), or care for it. Except for mulching it every other year, I do nothing but enjoy the fragrant flowers, humming bees, and birds nesting in it. Because I let the shrubs grow to their full potential without pruning or deadheading, I get to see the natural beauty of each shrub.
The mixed shrub border, heavy on natives, plays a big role in the health of my garden. It provides fragrant flowers, homes for birds and insects, and blocks off unappealing parts of the neighborhood (neighbor’s driveway). By letting the shrubs grow as they please, I get to see the full beauty of each one. I hope you can find this beauty in your borders too.