There’s More to Shrubs than Just Hedges

The “bones” of a garden are usually provided with two very different features: hardscape and shrubs. I’ll leave the hardscape to another post and address shrubs for now.


I think the thing I find the most essential in a perennial border or garden space is variety of heights. Even when my garden was very young, I appreciated the completely accidental feature of taller perennials interspersed with masses of low-growing self-seeded alyssum.

Controlled Chaos under the shade of big cedars.

Controlled Chaos under the shade of big cedars.

The garden looks nothing like that now, but I haven’t abandoned that layered look–now it’s achieved with shrubs. Your avian friends will appreciate the varying sized shrubs, some liking to be up high, others liking to just perch a couple feet off the ground. The more heights your garden has to offer, the more species of birds you’re likely to invite.

Tiny (stunted actually) Hydrangea paniculata 'Brussels Lace' in front of Sambucus nigra 'black beauty

Tiny (stunted actually) Hydrangea paniculata ‘Brussels Lace’ in front of Sambucus nigra ‘Black Beauty’.

Separate spaces

Areas in your garden don’t have to be walled off from one another to still create the sense of “rooms”. In fact, just a couple of shrubs may be enough to clearly differentiate one space from another. When I wanted a “secret garden” patio, I thought it should be surrounded by various shrubs so that when I was inside, it was completely private. I planted a lilac (Syringa vulgaris) for fragrance, black Elderberry (Sambucus nigra ‘Black Lace’) for drama, an Italian Plum–for plums!–and Viburnum tinus for evergreen leaves and winter flowers. Then along came the Hibiscus syriacus (Rose of Sharon) because there was space, two rhodos, because I just had to buy them, a hydrangea that liked the area, another lilac cutting from a friend’s garden…

Aaack!–way too much enclosure. The Sambucus is getting “shovel pruned” this summer, the hydrangea, small lilac and both rhodos will be moved, the older lilac pruned back a bit, the Hibiscus limbed up. Aah, now there’s room to breath, yet still fell comfortably “secret”.


But speaking of drama (the Sambucus ‘Black Lace’), a few shrubs with interesting detail, texture, colour, or flowers will contribute a certain je ne sais quoi to your garden.

SAmbucus nigra 'Black Beauty'

Sambucus nigra ‘Black Lace’

Hypericum perforatum 'Albury Purple'

Hypericum perforatum ‘Albury Purple’–used as a perennial, but it’s really a woody sub-shrub. Growing about 24″ high in my garden, and at about 4 years old, it’s grown a bit bigger every year.


Just as a comma or question mark helps define a sentence, so a shrub can help define a garden space. Back to my Sambucus nigra, being very dark in colour, it provides a great backdrop to the white lilies growing underneath, which aren’t in bloom any more, so I can’t show you. But I can show you the Cotinus coggygria ‘Royal Purple’ providing a foil for the shasta daisies. Like quotation marks, perhaps?

Cotinus coggygria 'Royal Purple'--Smoke bush-- with Shasta daisy --Leucanthemum x superbum

Cotinus coggygria ‘Royal Purple’–Smoke bush– with Shasta daisy –Leucanthemum x superbum


For some of us, winter is a long season. Not so much here on the West Coast, but most of the rest of the country. So your garden should still be attractive and inviting for those 4-5-6 or more months between growing seasons. Shrubs will do that for you. Deciduous shrubs still have a network of delicate branches that you can appreciate all the more for not being obscured by leaves. (That sentence is a little like an old friend from a tree-challenged region of Scotland who felt the view as we drove south to England was hidden by too many trees!) And of course, evergreen shrubs provide colour when we most need it, and sometimes even fragrance–like my beloved Sarcococca humilis that blooms in early February, and fills the front entrance of my house with amazing fragrance.

Tiny little flowers, big impact!

Sarcococca humilis–Tiny little flowers, big impact!

If you want to consult RLGS to establish some structure in your garden, go to the About/Contact page.

Create a Welcoming Entryway

5 Ways to Create a Welcoming Entryway

People approach your house in one of only two ways: either they drive up or they walk up. And if they drive up, they still walk to the door. How will you make that approach both welcoming and personal?  If you’re ready to make some changes, and are not sensitive to criticism, try asking friends what they think about your entryway.

1. Open and Airy.

Many homes were landscaped by the builder with foundation shrubs that soon outgrow the space allocated to them. As a result there will be large-to-huge shrubs/trees competing for space with you and your guests around the front door.

This may take more remediation that just a little pruning. Most Rhodos are pretty tolerant of moving. The cedar desperately needs "limbing up".

This may take more remediation that just a little pruning. Most Rhodos are pretty tolerant of moving. The cedar desperately needs “limbing up”.

This tends to make the site feel quite oppressive, and you may remember as I do the fear of walking into spider webs strung from one shrub to another across the walkway. You may be able to prune that shrub back to a shadow of its former self, but there’s a good chance that before long it will have grown back, and even larger than it was at first. When you look at websites to check the mature size of chosen plants, you can safely add 20-50% to the height they give. That rhodo that was planted 10 years ago, and still looked perfect 5 years ago, is now fighting you when you walk up the stairs to the front door. The pyracantha (thornbush) practically takes an eye out when you walk on the path, so you have to skirt it to escape serious injury. You’ve begun to grow accustomed to all the little idiosyncrasies of your site, but your guests aren’t so fortunate.

I love this Houzz picture of a house in San Francisco, but can you see what will happen to those birches in 5 years’ time?

2. Wide and deep

How wide is wide enough? Two people should be able to walk/stand side-by-side (not clutching each other). The path to the front door should be no narrower than 4′, and the landing deep enough for two to stand at the door and not be knocked off the step when the door (3′) is opened.

Not only is the concrete walkway too narrow, the depth of the laurel hedge is a good 4'. There are better ways to plant a hedge.

Not only is this concrete walkway too narrow, the depth of the laurel hedge is a good 4′. There are better ways to plant a hedge.

3. Good circulation

How do you get from the street to the front door? How do you get from the car to the front door? Is the front door the door that most people will commonly use? Is there another route to the front door that may be/should be/shouldn’t be/isn’t being used? How would you like to correct this circulation? The main things here are making the walk from “somewhere” to the house entrance obvious and exclusive, and unless your house is architecturally formal, don’t use straight lines to do it. You might line the edges of a concrete pathway with little low shrubs or ornamental grasses, creating a mini “allee”. If there isn’t a clear convenient connection between the driveway and the front entrance, make one, and preferably make it  similar to or the same as whatever other pathways exist–they fulfill the same function, so should look like they do. Still at least 4′ wide. My own front door is almost at the east edge of the house, only 3′ from the edge of the driveway. So the path up to the front door is in fact the driveway. But I added a little swoosh of a concrete pad to connect the two.

Six years ago.

Six years ago.


Today. Winter. Had to edit out some of the winter mess.

4. Public/Private Balance

No one wants to feel like they’re living in a fishbowl, but that doesn’t mean you have to erect some kind of barrier all around the perimeter. If the only open space in fence or hedge to enter the property is the front walk or the driveway, you might as well post a sign saying KEEP OUT (in upper case).



On the other hand, shorter shrubs, below eye level, or deciduous shrubs that are only dense half the year, give a sense of privacy without completely blocking the view in or out. Tall-ish grasses will serve in the same way.

5. Lighting

Be judicious about lighting. It should serve a function, or it’s just light pollution. Or “garden art”.

This front yard is lined with gratuitous solar lights. In fact, here in coastal BC, we seldom have enough sunlight to make these tiny solar panels work. Not sure what the point of the lights are in this yard.

This front yard is lined with gratuitous solar lights. In fact, here in coastal BC, we seldom have enough sunlight to make these tiny solar panels work. Not sure what the point of the lights are in this yard.

Lights for your entryway should be shining down onto the walkway and steps for safety purposes. Lights that shine upwards not only don’t do what they’re there for, but they are blinding to the people walking beside them. Landscape lighting has a different function; some focused spotlights will shine up into trees for dramatic effect, but we still need to be conscious of overuse.

For the front door, a motion sensor light that has two phases (very low light for security, and brighter to guide you or your guests to the door) is a great idea, as long as the brighter phase isn’t blindingly bright–as mine is.

Create Your Welcoming Entryway: Five quick fixes will make a big difference to your visitors’ “first impression”. How many of these can you see yourself implementing?

As always, love you hear your comments, happy to answer your questions. Click on Follow. Like on Facebook.

Mulch Volcanos or How Not to Plant Trees

It seems a lot of people and/or landscapers are under the misapprehension that when it comes to soil, more is better. This is not always the case.

In my neighbourhood

In my neighbourhood.

This volcano of soil is doing a couple of bad things to this poor rhodo. Firstly, stems and trunks should never be buried like this. DSCN2343You’ll see more of this in the next few pics. You should always see the root flare at the junction between the stem/trunk and the soil. You’ll see “bell bottom trousers”.

Here’s a beautiful Blue Spruce in excellent condition

Blue Spruce in the neighbourhood.

LOVE this tree: Blue Spruce in the neighbourhood. You can just about see the root flare if you click on the image to enlarge it then click again.

Secondly, rhodo roots are even more shallow than other woody plants, so adding ANY soil on top of the planting area is going to make your rhodo suffer–from too much moisture and too little oxygen.

Very sad little rhodo in a brand new planting bed--the duplex was just finished in the Fall.

Very sad little rhodo in a brand new planting bed–this duplex was just finished in the Fall.

You can and should still mulch rhodos, just several inches away the the trunk, and only about 2″ of nice light mulch (wood chips or well composted compost), not soil.

The Problem:

Also my neighbourhood.

Also my neighbourhood.

Exactly the same thing above–soil (or in this case bark mulch) mounded up around the trunks of these Thuja (arborvitae).  This causes a number of problems: Too much moisture against the trunk will invite disease and bark splitting. It also promotes root girdling, which is when roots start following a circular path around the trunk instead of heading out perpendicular to the trunk. As those roots grow and fatten they will often pinch the channels that draw water, oxygen, and nutrition up the tree. Root girdling is a very bad thing for your tree.

DSCN2374DSCN2375Two views of the same tree. Here the planter put a rodent guard around the base of the tree, which will also also help reduce moisture against the bark. But the roots will still opt to grow up into the volcano soil causing the root girdling again. And then to hide the look of the mounded soil, they planted creeping raspberry (Rubus pentalobus). In other circumstances I’d say this was a good plant for under the tree, but it will hold the soil there (eroding away would be a better thing) and act like living mulch, which will just exacerbate the moisture problem. (It’s a pretty vigorous plant in coastal BC and will begin to take over the lawn area–not a bad thing maybe.)

I plan to write discreet polite letters to the owners of these trees and shrubs offering to help remediate their plantings. Hopefully they won’t be too offended at the local busybody who thinks she knows everything!

Love to get your comments and questions.

Top 5 Plants

I’m supposed to be posting about 5 Great Container Gardens, but I just found this website: Mike’s Garden Top 5 Plants. It’s an absolute Treasure Trove of information and advice about choosing plants for garden or container. Oh, and BC specific!

Have a look–you won’t be disappointed!