The structural importance of shrubs in the Florida garden
Typically defined as a multi-stemmed woody plant, shrubs are perennials with branches forming low to the ground. Most shrubs display hues of green through their leaves, which is one of nature’s most neutral colors. Their presence in a garden or landscape allows the eye to rest and serves as a visual break when viewing complex plantings. Green walls of shrubs can even serve as backdrops for intricately designed landscape beds or brightly colored plant materials. Depending on the hue and structure, shrubs can even serve as a focal point.
A shrubbery aha moment
I once managed a small demonstration garden at the UF/IFAS Extension Sumter County Office in Bushnell. Although I spent hours weeding, planting, and maintaining it, I felt unease when I walked into the garden. I couldn’t put my finger on why I experienced this feeling until my co-worker with thirty plus years of horticulture design experience told me, “You have too much yellow, an alarming color, and not enough structural plants.” The record player stopped in my mind. I needed to rethink how I designed landscape beds. Simply planting masses of flowers did not create an organized look. Through this conversation I discovered that green shrubs are the structural backbone in plant design and serve as a neutral for flowering and unusual plants.
Shrubs are low maintenance
In Florida, we have many ‘tough as nails’ evergreen shrubs to use with abandon in our home landscapes. When established as recommended and planted in the right place, many require little, if any fertilization and irrigation throughout most of they year. Once shrubs reach their desired height, pruning is typically needed two to three times per year, with a heavy pruning occurring in early spring and light prunings needed in the following summer months.
Golden dewdrop, a type of Duranta, fits landscape needs as they can serve as a hedge, backdrop, or specimen plant. Their chartreuse color brightens the yard, while their weeping habit adds visual interest. This shrub produces purple flowers rimmed in white and golden pendulous berries. If allowed to grow in a location protected by frost, golden dewdrop can reach heights of eighteen feet. In my home landscape frost, freezes, and pruning maintains it around three and a half feet. Please note that the berries are poisonous to humans, but this lively shrub is still useful to wildlife. Birds feed on the berries and butterflies draw nectar from the flowers.
To add a compact, rounded shrub to the home garden, select Yaupon holly ‘Schilling’s Dwarf’. As a low care plant, ‘Schillings Dwarf’ tolerates a wide variety of light and soil conditions and can be maintained around four to six feet tall. Due to its tight, rounded habit, this shrub defines planting beds and provides a formal English or Japanese look to the garden. Plant it as a backdrop for more naturalistic plantings. A bonus, the spring flowers attract honeybees by the droves.
The coontie palm is not really a palm or a shrub, it is a cycad. No matter how it is defined, its role in the urban landscape should not go unnoticed. Its hardy, visually soft leaves stem from a low trunk making it a perfect substitute for a low-growing shrub, or tall ground cover. When planted in mass, the deep green, Jurassic-like look serves as a beautiful, unifying landscape feature. Plant it in shade or morning sun and afternoon shade and enjoy watching this shrub-like plant as it pushes out new leaves in early summer.
More shrub selection resources
A plethora of easy to grow shrubs exist suitable to central Florida. To help you choose the right one for your yard, download a copy of the Florida-Friendly LandscapingTM Guide to Plant Selection and Landscape Design. You can also visit UF/IFAS Gardening Solutions for their shrub list.
Visit Discovery Gardens at UF/IFAS Extension Lake County for a self guided tour of our 24 themed garden rooms.