Superior Shrubs

By Chandra Orr

February 19, 2010 5 min read

Make a statement with stellar shrubs, blossoming bushes and stately hedges. They add a lot of curb appeal without a lot of work.

"Bushes, shrubs and hedges dress up the exterior of homes, and they are very easy to maintain. You need only to water them regularly, trim them yearly and spray for bugs, if needed," says professional landscaper Jan Ornsten, co-owner of American Lawn Corp., in Detroit.

These easy-to-care-for plants soften the harsh lines of a home, quickly fill in gaps in landscaping and mask air conditioners, utility meters and water outlets.

"Bushes, shrubs and hedges are like living statues," says master gardener Jos Zamzow, vice president of TerraLife, a manufacturer of all-natural fertilizers in Nampa, Idaho. "They become the anchors of the landscape. As they grow, they become more dramatic over time -- and, if you pick the right variety, shrubs can require very little maintenance."

The secret to success is in the planting stage. Plant bushes and shrubs in the early spring as soon as the soil is thawed so the plants have as much time as possible to establish their roots before the hot summer months arrive.

"Don't wait until the Fourth of July weekend, when most of the available stock already is root-bound and it is too hot for the plant to establish itself easily," Zamzow says.

Fall is also an ideal time to plant shrubs and bushes. Get them in the ground before the soil freezes and they'll have all winter to get established.

Once the shrub is in the soil, fertilize and water with care -- and be patient. It may take a while to see new growth, but that doesn't mean the shrub isn't thriving.

"Remember that a shrub is spending all of its energy the first year just adapting to its new surroundings," Zamzow says. "We say: 'The first year, shrubs weep. The second year, they creep. The third year, they leap.'"

*Shape It Up

"Trim your shrubs and hedges at least yearly unless they are fast growers. Be sure to use sharp hand shears or electric shears -- and do not scalp them," Ornsten says.

Trim in the late spring or early summer, after the danger of a hard freeze has passed. Once the new growth has hardened and changed color, it's OK to clip, Ornsten says.

For squared-off hedges, use a guide line for a level trim.

"Place stakes in the ground at each end of the hedge. Then run a taut string between the stakes with the line level. Follow the string for hedge-trimming perfection," Ornsten says.

Trimming round bushes and shrubs simply requires a sharp eye.

"There is really no special technique to get a perfect, rounded bush. It truly comes with practice," Ornsten says. "Beginners should trim a little bit of the bush at a time and keep stepping back to inspect their work."

*Add Nutrients

Most bushes, shrubs and hedges require a shot of fertilizer only twice a year, according to Frank Jager, owner of Jager Landscaping, in Oakland, N.J.

In northern climates, avoid fertilizing in the hot summer months, when plants are more active and more susceptible to fertilizer burn. Instead, treat the plants in the spring and in late November, Jager says.

In southern climates, bushes and shrubs can handle fertilizer year-round. Just be sure to space the treatments evenly; every six months is ideal, according to Jager.

With new plants, be sure to fertilize the surrounding area, in addition to the roots.

"If you create an especially nutritious environment around the roots, the root will stay inside the planting hole," Zamzow says. "In a few years, the plant will be completely root-bound. Adding fertilizer to the surrounding soil is like dangling a carrot. It gives the roots an incentive to climb out of the hole."

To encourage slow, healthy growth, Zamzow recommends a 5-5-5 nitrogen-phosphorous-potassium blend rather than a higher-grade fertilizer.

"Avoid encouraging shrubs to grow too quickly. You aren't trying to increase yield, as you might in a vegetable garden," he explains.

Don't worry too much about the watering schedule. Shrubs and bushes do best with less. Think summer downpour rather than light drizzle.

"Longer, less frequent waterings are better than short, frequent waterings, but thoroughly soak the shrub when you water it," Zamzow says.

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