Shrubs in Your Homescape
by Laurel Schiller Dan Walton
Large shrubs (6 to 15 feet) are underutilized as homescape accents. We think of trees, low growing shrubs, lawn and groundcovers, but forget the middle story shrubs. Although often used as walls to frame landscapes, they can do much more. Larger shrubs shade walls and air-conditioner units and they block views and muffle sound. Wildlife feed, nest, and shelter in them more than in trees or on the ground. Larger shrubs provide lasting color and texture.
Large shrubs need to be chosen carefully. Final height is a big consideration. Many exotics, such as sweet viburnum or podocarpus, are large trees in their place of origin but are planted as shrubs here in Florida. This works well initially because they grow quickly but in a short period of time they become very woody and suffer from the restrictive pruning necessary to keep them from outgrowing the space provided for them. Make sure you know how large the shrub you are planting will become and plant it where it can grow with no or minimal trimming. This is especially true under windows and in the front yard. Constant pruning is constant wounding which may lead to the introduction of fungal and viral diseases. Constant pruning also encourages new growth. Leaf sucking insects prefer tender, new foliage that may weaken the shrub and/or provide another avenue for the introduction of plant diseases.
Because large shrubs can block views, you need to decide whether you want to see the street and, conversely, if you want to be seen from the street. Visibility is very important to some people. The uniform lawn, low shrub, palm, or well- pruned tree look is their hallmark. This is primarily for security reasons but also for "vistas". To see out in all directions with nothing that intentionally obscures the view.
Unfortunately, most backyard vistas in urban areas are of the neighbor's pool cages, swing sets, air-conditioning units, or patios. In the front we see houses, driveways, streets, cars, etc. Some folks do not wish to look out at artifacts of civilization. They surround themselves with vegetation and wish their neighbors would do the same. These folks see the ideal neighborhood as one in which the houses are tucked back into a setting of green foliage that buffers each house from the next. They don't want to see or be seen.
It is not necessary to use large shrubs as a "green" wall similar to a wooden fence, or a stone/concrete wall. Rarely will you use the outer 20 feet of your property. You can kill the lawn in this area and then plant a large number of the same kind of shrubs three feet apart and then prune them forever to the height you want. It might be more interesting, however, to plant a variety of different shrubs that obtain varying heights to create a natural border. By carefully placing large shrubs amongst smaller ones you can block views in both directions without creating an impenetrable fortress look. The result is a beautiful border from either direction (looking out or looking in). It will be exciting to look at through the seasons as birds and butterflies and other wildlife move in and out to feed on berries and/or nectar. Yet, such a homescape will buffer your property from the street and give you something more interesting to look at than the street, parked and passing cars, your neighbor's driveway, or into your neighbor's living room.
Small shrubs (less than 3 feet) have a different purpose in a landscape. Mostly they take up space that would be in lawn. By using repeating patterns of small shrubs of the same species you can create beds of contrasting green textures. Smaller shrubs don't require pruning and they don't have to be mowed. They become low maintenance green. Work with numbers like seven or eleven specimens of the same kind and repeat this to reduce long expanses of lawn. Use random spacing to create a natural look. Spots of annual color or short-lived intermixed perennials will break up the green on green look.
By using a combination of both tall and small shrubs you can have a more interesting wildlife-friendly homescape.