Small Shrubs and Bushes – Their Importance in a Garden Design

The design question that will almost inevitably arise in most garden situations is that which relates to the space between the hedge or shrubs and trees that border a garden, and the ground plain which takes up the majority of the area. This ground plain usually comprises of a lawn, but an alternative material like a wooden deck is often the desired option particularly in dry climates. Whether a lawn, deck or some other material is chosen, the same question remains – what is to be done in the foreground between it and the hedge or shrubbery? This is where low or dwarf shrubs and bushes come in.

Low shrubs can be classified as woody plants that cover the ground up to a height of about 50cm or so. Their primary function visually, is to fill up the space at this low but not necessarily prostrate height. In this way they cover and hopefully beautify the space between the ground and the point where the larger shrubs or hedging plants start to grow. They should be considered before other design options such as herbaceous and flowering perennials for a number of reasons.

Dwarf bushes provide a low maintenance solution. While herbaceous plants, whether annual or perennial, require constant attention, such as very frequent clipping and pruning, small shrubs generally need only be pruned once or twice a year if at all.

In this way, they serve as a stable element in the garden. Flower beds by their very nature are constantly changing, with plants being cut down, divided and re-planted, or replaced altogether. There is a place for this of course in the garden, and indeed large areas taken up by low maintenance dwarf bushes actually free up valuable time for the proper attention that herbaceous beds require.

Many dwarf shrubs are modest in their water requirements and some can even be defined as water conserving plants. This means that in a typically Mediterranean climate, with an annual rain fall of say 450mm, they can be grown by consuming about 200-300mm of irrigation water per year, i.e. 200-300 liters per square meter. By way of comparison, a perennial bed will need at least 500mm per year, while annuals often gulp up over 1,000 mm, or 1 cubic meter per square meter per year.

By reducing the amount of flowers and concentrating them in smaller, well defined groups in the garden, the opportunity arises of designing flower beds that function as focal points and not just as smatterings of colour in the garden. The creation of focal points should be one of the compositional aims of the design.

So if you’re being overwhelmed by the amount of work needed to maintain your flower beds, or herbaceous borders, then you may wish to consider redesigning some of them by replacing the herbaceous material with low, shrubs and bushes.