A colorful eastern swallowtail butterfly feeds on the round flowers of a button bush growing along the shore of Moraine State Park as fat bumblebees buzz from flower to flower looking for pollen and nectar.
It’s a wonderful native shrub which attracts pollinators and is just as happy in the wild as it is in our gardens. It thrives in moist areas, but will also grow in average garden soil too. There’s lots of interest in natives as they have been part of the local ecology for hundreds of years, which makes them particularly useful for wildlife.
For some gardeners, natives are the only way to go, in my garden, it’s a mixture of the natives and exotic cultivars. Some plants are included for the beneficial insects, others are grown for their beauty and many varieties provide both. This is the best time to plant shrubs as the short days and cooler temperatures are conducive the root growth, not top growth.
One of the biggest mistakes gardeners make is planting too deep. Be sure to gently brush off the top of the roots and find what’s called the root flare. It’s where the bottom of the plant meets dirt. When planting, make sure that root flare is above grade.
Dig a hole at least twice the size of the root ball, mix in a little compost with the native soil, and get the shrub in place at the right depth. Water right away and mulch around the plant. The mulch should not touch the trunk of the plant and should look like a donut, not a volcano. If rain is scarce be sure to water weekly until the ground freezes, that will get the plant off to a good start.
Always know how big the shrub will get and take that into account when planting. I hear from gardeners every day, who didn’t follow that advice and now have the wrong plant in the wrong place.
Another native is mountain laurel, which is the Pennsylvania state flower. There are pretty varieties, which are the straight cultivar and some which have been worked on by breeders to change the color of the flowers or size of the shrub. As long as the pollinators get what they need from the flowers, that’s fine with me. ‘Nipmuck’ has intense red buds which open to a nice pink flower.
Carolina allspice or sweetshrub also boasts a host of hybrid cultivars along with a straight native species variety. ‘Hartlage Wine’ can reach 12 feet tall and is filled with sweetly scented maroon flowers. It’s easy to grow and beautiful, it can grow in full sun are part shade.
Witch hazel blooms early in the year. I’ve seen native varieties blooming as early as October, but most flower more towards February with yellow, spider like flowers, which creates a stunning contrast against the snow. I’m growing a variety named ‘Diana’ with red flowers.
I was helping some friends shop at a nursery recently and they had the perfect spot for roses. Many of the toughest, new introductions don’t have and scent. There’s a place for them in the garden, but an intensely fragrant rose is an amazing thing. David Austin roses have an old-fashioned look with a strong perfume. ‘Gertrude Jekyll’ has pink flowers and an intoxicating aroma. Although not as disease resistant as newer introductions, the fragrance cannot be beat and is worth the work to have the cultivar in the garden.
Kerria has unfortunately gone out of favor and is not planted as often as it should be. It’s funny how plants come and go, sort of like fashion. The shade lover is deer resistant and reaches about eight feet tall and wide. In the spring, it’s covered with orange/yellow flowers and then throws a few more blooms at the end of the summer. Kerria has a weeping habit and many times when the tips of branches reach the ground, they will root, creating another plant, which can be transplanted to another place in the garden.
Japanese pieris is another deer resistant shade plant with tiny bell shaped, fragrant flowers in early spring, reddish new foliage growth and exfoliating bark for great winter interest. Like Kerria, it’s low maintenance, providing decades of beauty in the garden.
One of my most treasured gifts for the garden is spirea billardii. This unusual spirea has long, pink fuzzy flowers in midsummer, is deer resistant, carefree, and will grow just about anywhere.
Even though rose of Sharon ‘Sugar Tip’ is more tree like, it can be pruned like a shrub. Those that hate rose of Sharon will be excited to hear this cultivar is sterile and there won’t be all the small baby plants surrounding the mother tree. The variegated green and white foliage puts on a show all season and it capped off with wonderful double pink blooms.
The key in choosing the right shrub for the garden is finding something you love. Whether it’s something that a loved one grew or a plant that intrigues you. Pick the right plant, for the right place for a lifetime of enjoyment together.