As temperatures begin to rise and even the most casual of gardeners begin to spend more time outdoors, April is the month when many people turn their attention to improving their gardens.
Carefully selected shrub planting forms the backbone of ornamental planting schemes, whether for low maintenance and contemporary designs, or for more traditional mixed or cottage garden styles. To provide height and structure no garden should be without them, but it’s all too easy to choose poorly. On our nursery, where we sell larger stock anyway, it’s easy for customers to get a sense of how the shrubs will look and will fit into their gardens. Also, since our stock is too large for most customers to simply pick up and take away in their cars, the sales process, whether in person (on the nursery or through an on-site consultation) or at a distance by exchanged emails of photos, etc, involves more in the way of discussion and advice than the normal retail experience. Therefore, it is relatively easy for us to help customers to choose the right shrubs for their situation. To help steer the decision-making process this discussion can generally be broken down into a serious of questions, and would also work just as well for customers to ask themselves if shopping for their gardens elsewhere in the absence of professional guidance:
- What is it for? Is it purely for ornamental purposes, or to provide screening and privacy (in which case it may not necessarily have to be evergreen but you will probably want it to be densely branched), for security you may also want thorns or prickles, for wildlife you may want flowers and berries, and so on. Also consider what type of planting scheme you want as the shrubs you choose for a formal scheme may be more limited in the number of different varieties used but may be those which require regular clipping, eg for topiary, whereas informal gardens would benefit from more “naturalistic” forms and shapes.
- How much space do you have, how large do you want it to get, and what maintenance are you prepared to do? Don’t choose shrubs that will grow too large for the available space unless you’re prepared to periodically prune them.
- What will grow there? Once the position, size and shape of the desired planting bed has been decided, you do of course need to know what will work in the conditions. This is probably the most important factor of all when choosing any plants, not just shrubs, as there is no point setting your heart on something which simply won’t thrive in the conditions on-site. For instance, almost no evergreens will grow for very long in soil which is regularly flooded or waterlogged, and there’s no point in planting ericaceous shrubs such as Rhododendrons in limy soil as they won’t survive unless grown in acid conditions. So, consider soil conditions (wet, dry, clay, chalk, slope, possible contamination by salt or other problems, etc), exposure (wind, temperature, salt spray, etc), aspect (light or shade), competition from nearby trees, proximity to drains and buildings, grazing animals which might eat them, and any other relevant factors.
- How big do I want to plant? Planting larger stock will of course bring faster results, and reduces the temptation to plant too many shrubs for the space, but there are basic logistical matters to consider with bigger plants such as handling and access on site. Also consider that bigger plants will need more watering at first until they can get established; can you get water to them?
- Are there legal issues involved? If not chosen carefully and sympathetically, taking neighbouring properties into consideration, tall evergreens over two metres tall, if two or more are grown together as to form a continuous screen, can sometimes lead to neighbourhood disputes if close to the boundary and might become subject to the “high hedge legislation” under the Anti-social Behaviour Act. Therefore, if tall screening is needed, can it be achieved with deciduous options instead?
- Do you like it? If, after having gone through all the previous steps, you don’t like your remaining options you may want to reconsider some of your initial criteria. If in doubt, seek advice from the experts.
Above and below: Mixed shrub planting provides structure
Remember when selecting shrubs for a shrub or mixed border to ensure interest all year round, making sure to provide some winter structure from evergreens (30-50% evergreens is a good guide), rather than being seduced by the seasonal colours of just what is looking at its peak at the time. This is especially important in mid-Spring when so many shrubs are putting on a fantastic display. Shrubs in flower in April may include showy deciduous varieties of Forsythia, Deutsia, Kolkwitzia, Kerria, Magnolia, some Viburnums, as well as evergreens such as Berberis and Osmanthus (the latter produces flowers with the most amazing scent).
One shrub which you may not be aware of, but one which will be the star attraction of your spring garden, is Amelanchier lamarckii (Snowy Mespilis). This graceful shrub has a light, airy habit providing dappled shade and can be grown into open, multi-stemmed specimens which are equally at home in formal garden designs or in more naturalistic landscapes. Regular clipping will produce a denser shrub for use where space is limited or even as an ornamental and informal hedge. Suited to most soil types, as long as they aren’t too limy, Amelanchier usually produces its magnificent display of star-shaped white blossom in mid to late April but, after such a mild, soggy winter they are flowering early this spring and should be at their peak a little earlier this year. In autumn, if planted where it can receive plenty of direct sunlight, Amelanchier will reward you with a fiery display of autumn foliage splendour.
Above: Amelanchier blossom is one of the highlights of spring.
If you want help selecting shrubs for your garden, whether just to fill some gaps or for a complete garden makeover, we offer a full advisory service. Ordinarily we would invite you to make an appointment for a one-to-one with one of our horticulturalists on the nursery, or to book an on-site consultation for us to come to you. However, in these uncertain times of restrictions and social distancing, during which the nursery is closed, you can also contact us by email to send photos, measurements and your contact telephone number so that we can discuss your requirements with an informal, no-commitment chat.
Jobs to do in April:
- If you haven’t done so already, be sure to start the regular watering of any trees, shrubs or hedging planted within the last two years. If automatic irrigation systems have been installed check them for leaks and re-set timers as required.
- Feed trees, shrubs and hedging with a balanced feed. Flowering specimens can be given a plant food with extra Potash to encourage blooms, such as tomato food or a good rose fertiliser, whereas vigorous evergreens such as laurel, Portuguese Laurel, Photinia and so on will need a feed with extra Nitrogen and ideally some more Magnesium too to restore vigour and a lustrus green to the foliage, especially if planted within the last two years.
- If your Photinias are looking sparse and getting leggy, April is a good time to give them a hard prune, and don’t forget to feed them straight afterwards.
- Only prune hedges now if you are sure that there are no birds nesting in them.
- Early-season shrubs which have already flowered can be pruned now. Cotinus (Smoke Bush) can still be pruned in April and, if they haven’t already been pruned yet, hard-prune Cornus (Dogwood) early in April to produce the brightest-coloured stems for next winter.
- Deal with weeds now as they emerge, especially quick-seeding species before they spread. A little work now will save a lot more later in the summer.
- Edge the lawn – not only will it help to make lawns look tidier but will also help to tidy and clearly define the edges of beds and borders for the coming season.