A Flowering Shrub Border

A Flowering Shrub Border

One of the most satisfying gardens to plant is a flowering shrub border. With a mix of the right shrubs, you can flowers from late winter into the fall. Shrub borders can be tall enough to provide privacy, or short enough for a foundation planting or making a background for perennials. And best of all, when shrubs are planted in the right location, they require less maintenance than most other flowering plants.

Designing a Shrub Border

Begin planning a border of flowering bushes by deciding how tall you want the plants to grow. If you need to keep the shrubs under the windows, or low enough to see the rest of your yard, for example, that will dictate which plants to choose. But if you could use some screening of a patio or backyard, taller plants can be chosen. So start with the desired ultimate height, and choose your shrubs accordingly.

Next, be sure you have included plants that flower in different seasons. Begin with knowing which months you’ll be viewing your border; if you’re not there in the winter, for example, it doesn’t make sense to put in a witch-hazel that flowers in February and March.

Finally, you’ll want to include plants that have different colors and textures of foliage. By including shrubs that have purple, yellow, or variegated leaves there will always be exciting color in your border, even if a particular shrub isn’t in flower.

Shrubs That Bloom in Spring

Shrubs that bloom in the spring include: Rhododendrons, Forsythia, lilacs, Kerria, and white Spirea.

Lilacs are a favorite spring flowering shrub and there are varieties available in all sizes, from small to tall.

Shrubs That Flower in Early Summer

On Cape Cod, shrubs that flower in early summer include ninebark, Weigela, Viburnum, Deutzia, Diervilla and the pink-flowering spirea. This is only a partial list, of course, but these are some of the most popular shrubs on Cape Cod.

Ninebark (Physocarpus) flowers in June. There are many varieties with colorful foliage, so you can get two-for-one.
Weigela flowers in June and there are many different varieties available. Choose your weigela by the ultimate height of the plant (the variegated one pictured grows to 6′ tall) and what foliage color you want in the garden.
Spirea japonica flowers in June, and there are a number of types with colorful leaves and an assortment of sizes.
There is a Viburnum for every garden! These typically flower in June, and the native varieties support pollinators and birds.

Shrubs That Flower in Mid-Late Summer

On Cape Cod, we love our Hydrangeas, of course, and these have a place in any flowering shrub garden. But in addition to that group of plants, don’t forget about butterfly bush, smoke bush, Potentilla, Vitex, Clethra and button bush.

Buttonbush is native to the Northeast and one of the most interesting flowering shrubs for mid-summer bloom. The flowers look like a 1950’s space-age design, and they attract many different pollinators. In addition to the pretty white flowers, the fruit on this shrub is also ornamental. Buttonbush appreciates regular watering, and it can be planted in a damp spot or rain garden.
This purple-leaf smokebush makes a great background for the Pugster butterfly bush. Pugster is a low-growing variety, perfect for foundation plantings, including in perennial gardens, or in front of taller plants.
Clethra, aka summersweet, is one of the most fragrant of mid-summer flowing shrubs. The flowers attract butterflies, bees and hummingbirds. This shrub is also prized for its brilliant yellow fall foliage.
Rose of Sharon shrubs usually grow tall, so they are perfect on a corner of a house or as a background shrub in a privacy screen. They are also one of the shrubs that flowers late in the summer. Choose double-flower varieties if you want ones that don’t self seed.

Winter Flowering Shrubs and Foliage Color

If you’re on-Cape in the winter, you’ll want to include a witch-hazel in your mixed shrub planting. These bloom between early February and late-March. In addition to the winter flowers, witch-hazel has brilliant fall foliage color. Another shrub that flowers all winter is the male Skimmia. This low, shade-loving evergreen has pink buds all winter long that open into white flowers in the spring. Since it stays low and does well in the shade, male Skimmia is a good choice in many foundation plantings.

Arnold’s Promise is a popular variety of witch-hazel on the Cape, but there are many others that grow well and provide winter flowers.
When planning your border, there are some plants that are worth including for the foliage color alone. This Tiger Eye Sumac is such a plant. It is also drought tolerant, and has even more colorful leaves in the fall.

Placing Plants in Your Shrub Border

When putting plants into a mixed border, it’s a good idea to stagger them in a zig-zag line. Read the tags about how wide a plant will grow, and use that to determine your spacing. But by placing the taller growing shrubs behind, and the shorter bushes in front, you’ll always be able to see the flowers on each variety. Plant some single plants and others in groups of three. This is especially important if you’re looking for a border that is over fifteen feet long. By alternating some individuals and others in groups, you’ll avoid the “line up of the usual suspects” appearance.

If after spacing plants appropriately far apart to accommodate future growth you think that there are too many gaps between your shrubs, plant a few larger growing perennials such as Baptisia, or giant fleece flower in between. These will quickly fill in but won’t become long term problems as the shrubs grow.

Alternate plants according to their bloom time and flower or foliage color. If you need help with designing, remember that Hyannis Country Garden offers both in-store and on-site consultation services. Call for details. 508-775-8703

A yellow leafed Weigela adds flower and foliage color, and the white blooms of Summer Snowflake Viburnum repeat throughout the summer.
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  1. Martha Meier on June 30, 2022 at 7:21 am

    Great article – I am trying to resurrect a rock garden I knew as a child. It was all overgrown so I have cleared this 30’ x 4-10’ deep area as best I can. I was told to let it rest a bit to see which plants might come back now that there is light exposure. It is now getting sun at the front/bottom from 11-4 and the back/top is shaded until 2:00. Any suggestions will be appreciated…I would like some taller growing shrubs at the top.

    • CLFornari on July 4, 2022 at 4:02 pm

      Were there plants in that area that you liked? Native shrubs, for example? What is likely to return quickly are weeds, plus any invasive vines such as the bittersweet, Rosa multiflora, and honeysuckle. So I’m not sure that the advice to wait and see is a great one. In the back use any taller growing, shade tolerant plants such as Clethra, Viburnums, and Rhododendron.

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