Buying shrubs is not an exact science. You need some patience and persistence to get the right shrubs for your garden and it can be scary and intimidating if you don’t know what you want. Unlike annuals or perennials, it isn’t so easy to pull out a shrub that isn’t growing as you expected. There is a certain permanence to planting a shrub.
After spending some time last week looking for new shrubs for my renovated foundation plantings, I have five pieces of advice to offer on buying shrubs.
1. Keep an open mind about what shrubs you want to plant. Rarely will you find the exact shrub you are looking for at the local garden center, if indeed there is an ‘exact shrub’ you are looking for. However, if you are looking for a specific shrub and the garden center does not have it, ask if they can order it from their supplier. You may pay more, but you will get exactly what you want.
2. Know something about where you want to plant your new shrubs and don’t be afraid to ask for help. “I am looking for a shrub for the east side of my house that flowers in the spring and won’t get taller than six feet. I have about five feet front to back in the bed and nearly 20 feet of area to plant” gives the garden center staff quite a bit of information to offer you some choices of shrubs that might work.
3. Read about shrubs in advance so you know the basics and can recognize interesting shrubs when you see them. That may be easier said than done, but doing some homework in advance makes you a more savvy shopper. At the very least, read the tags on the plants, and if there isn’t a tag that provides more than the name of the shrub, ask if they have a reference book that you can consult before you buy. A good garden center should have some reference resources that you can use or knowledgeable staff who can tell you more about a particular shrub.
4. Go to the garden center when it isn’t likely to be crowded. You’re more likely to get help if you need it. I went on Sunday during the time of the Indianapolis Colts game. I knew most of the city would be watching the game on TV or listening on the radio, and I was right. The garden center was nearly deserted except for me, a few employees, and a few others customers who also looked like they might be real gardeners. Or the garden center might have been nearly deserted because it’s fall, and people don’t get it that now is the best time to plant trees and shrubs. Either way the staff to customer ratio was in my favor for getting some help.
5. Don’t dismiss a garden center based on one visit. I went to a particular garden center on Thursday and found nothing. I went back on Sunday and found an interesting shrub that I decided would be perfect to plant below a window on the east side of my house. Garden centers get new stock in and rearrange stock to show off different plants, so give them a second or third chance as long as it looks like a place where they generally take care of the plants and provide good customer service.
My new shrub is Rhus aromatica ‘Gro-Low’, the Gro-low Fragrant Sumac. It shouldn’t get too tall, which is what I wanted for the spot below the window where I planted it, though I may have to control the width a bit with some occasional pruning.
I was already familiar with the Rhus genus of plants and what came to mind first when I saw this shrub was “fall color”, and indeed this shrub should have good fall color. The information on the tag told me it had the other attributes I was looking for, or close enough. They had just one, which was all I needed. I swear as I went by, it fluttered its leaves a little bit to get me to notice it. So I purchased it and planted it in its new home on the east side of my house.
And now a bonus, sixth piece of advice on buying shrubs. Don’t call shrubs “bushes”. When someone tells me they need some new bushes, I just cringe. Real gardeners call a shrub a shrub because that’s what they are, they not bushes.