|Prairie rose (Rosa setigera)|
Many people think of a shrub, or a row of shrubs, or hedge, as a place holder, usually a row of non-native, nursery-industry boxwoods, yews, Japanese privet, or the like, possibly with a couple of Japanese barberry or euonymus for color or as accents. We’ve all seen this. In common practice, hedges and bushes are given crew cuts in spring with electric or gas hedge trimmers—tools I sometimes wish had not been invented (see my post “Power Down”): it’s too easy to do too much damage, whether in the interest of expediency, or misguided aesthetics. Why should we make shrubs, with their complex, individual shapes, conform to our simplified notions of squared-off order?
Wise pruning is a subtle art. Someone once said, “ten men with shovels can do well in a week, what one man with a backhoe can do badly in a day.” I say one or two persons with good sharp loppers, hedge trimmers and pruners—wielded mindfully, at the proper time, in accordance with the shrub’s growth habits—can do well in however-long-it-takes, what a “landscaping crew" can never do.
A healthier concept of a shrub would be: a usually-native woody plant whose roots stay involved in the complex soil ecosystem for years, helping to stabilize the soil and manage water; whose branches provide shelter for birds; whose leaves may be larval food for pollinators while conducting photosynthesis, and help build the soil when they fall and decay; whose flowers offer, besides beauty, pollen and nectar to pollinators; whose fruits offer food for birds, small mammals—and us. Such an entity deserves respect.
Everyone living in an urban area, if at all possible, should plant, not a single-species hedge but a mixed shrub border. Using several varieties enhances biodiversity while offering more interest to the eye. If your yard is small, even one or two thoughtfully-placed shrubs will enliven the place. And not just any shrubs, but shrubs native to their own region that offer the full panoply of ecosystem services.
Most garden centers offer a limited number of non-native species said to be suitable for a large number of situations. Deciding to go native requires more care to make sure you are choosing species that won't outgrow their spot, and that are adapted to the light, soil and moisture conditions of your yard and garden. The best place to get them would be from a nursery that specializes in native plants. The proprietors are experts, passionate and knowledgeable about their subject, not only about the plants but the ecosystem as well. They can offer good advice about what shrubs might be appropriate to your locale and specific garden situation.
As a gardener with an interest in design, I feel native shrubs, placed in a border where they are allowed to express their shrubby natures and perform as full, functioning parts of the ecosystem, are wholly beautiful. Not only that, but they help the gardener garden in his or her local, regional style, avoiding the McLandscape look. And if you can beat the robins to the serviceberries, you can make some tasty jam.
Resources: My two favorite nurseries for shrubs in my region are Prairie Moon, which ships healthy, bare-root stock, and Possibility Place, which you call and then go pick up your container-grown or bagged stock. Both are reputable, reasonably priced and sell all natives all the time.
An Excellent, Timeless Book
The Three Best Things to Do for Birds in Your Backyard