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Shrub Care

  • Caring for Shrub Container Gardens

    When you think "container garden" you probably think of annual flowers, maybe some greens, but shrubs are probably not the first things on your mind. You can use shrubs as your "thriller" plant in a container garden, or you can create a true garden of containers with a different shrub in each pot. If you have a lot of specimen plants, a "container garden" or garden of containers is a good way to display your collection.


    For more about how to design a shrub container garden, read our blog post about container garden design with shrubs.

    Care Tips for Container Gardening with Shrubs

    Once you've designed and planted your garden, you need to keep it healthy! Caring for a shrub in a container over the long run is a bit different than keeping shrubs happy in the ground. Here are some tips.

    Plant Selection: Size and Hardiness

    Happy plants start with proper plant selection. If you know you're going to grow a shrub in a container long-term, select shrubs that have compact growth habits and that stay small. While you can prune back a full-sized shrub yearly, that's not what's best for the shrub or for you. Additionally, shrubs that stay compact on top will stay more compact on bottom (the roots), so you won't have as many problems with the shrub outgrowing the pot.

    Another thing to consider is that shrubs in containers are one zone less hardy than shrubs in the ground. So, if a shrub is considered hardy to zone 6 in the ground, it will be hardy to zone 7 in a container. The roots will get colder over the winter in a container.


    Watering can be a bit more complicated if you plant a shrub in a container with annual plants, as the annuals will need more water. The best companions for shrubs in containers are perennials. Once the shrub and the perennials have settled in and grown new roots, they'll need similar amounts of water, which shouldn't be too much. Unlike annual container gardens that will need water every day or every other day in the summer, shrub container gardens can scoot by with once a week, or twice if it's really hot.


    Shrubs in containers will require fertilizing once a year. Generally after flowering is the ideal time to fertilize. If a shrub doesn't flower (such as evergreens) fertilize when they're pushing new growth in the spring. There's no need to fertilize more than once a year--that will encourage weak growth. But you will need to give the plants their annual shot of food because, being in containers, they don't have access to the nutrition that they'd find in the soil of a landscape bed.


    If you start with compact shrubs, you shouldn't need to do much pruning. However, if you want to maintain size after the first year or two, prune after flowering or after the flush of spring growth. If you're growing evergreen shrubs, read the individual care instructions for the plant because some evergreens respond to shearing or pruning better than others.

  • Spring Shrub Care

    It's heating up! In northern areas of the country, there's something bordering on spring finally happening. In more southerly climes, it's just about summer--in temperature anyway. Now is the time to perform some basic shrub care to keep plants healthy and growing.

    Here are some tips for proper shrub care.

    How To-H-2218Hand-Pruning vs. Shearing/ Hedging

    There are a few ways to prune a shrub. We're going to focus mainly on shape in this post. (Renewal pruning one type of pruning that you would do to rejuvenate an older shrub, but that's not necessarily a "seasonal maintenance" type of pruning.)

    Spring is a good time to hedge shrubs. You use hedge trimmers (pictured, left) to shear or hedge. With this tool you can clip large numbers of thin branches at the same time. You'd trim an evergreen boxwood hedge with this type of tool. Hedging and shearing works best for evergreens with smaller leaves. It is not an ideal type of pruning for deciduous plants because they end up looking boxy and bare. Evergreens with large leaves can look ratty if sheared because the shears can chop the leaves in half.

    When hedging shrubs (whether with a power hedge trimmer or hand shears), point the shears down and away from you. Never hold them above your head! Hold the shears at a slight angle so that, after trimming, the bottom of the shrub is slightly wider than the top (a pyramid shape). That will ensure that light reaches all parts of the shrub and will prevent dieback from the bottom up. How To-H-2193

    Deciduous shrubs respond better to hand-pruning with loppers (pruners with long handles) or hand pruners (pictured, right). Use hand pruners to keep azaleas looking tidy. Grab a branch that is growing out of bounds and cut it back to the center of the shrub. That will allow the other branches to cover up the pruning cut. You can cut back to almost the center of the shrub or cut back slightly inside the outer leaves--just so you don't leave a shaggy end sticking out.


    Here's another picture of hand-pruning for shape:

    How To-D-9836

    Prune any spring-blooming shrubs after they bloom. Azaleas, flowering quince, forsythia, and other early bloomers flower on old growth, which means they will set flower buds for next year this fall. If you want to control the size of these plants the time to prune is now.


    How To-B-0851

    It's starting to get warmer which means you need to pay more attention to watering.

    When you first plant a shrub you'll have to water a little bit every day. That's because the smaller root hairs are regrowing and re-establishing themselves. After a couple of weeks you will be able to cut back to watering deeply a few times a week. Always direct the water at the base of the plant, not on the leaves. Wet leaves are an excellent breeding ground for fungal and bacterial diseases.


    How To-E-9986

    Put a fresh layer of mulch down around your shrubs this spring to keep their roots cool and protect them from string trimmers and mowers.

    Never make a mulch volcano! Pull the mulch away from the stems of the shrub. A three inch layer of mulch is enough to keep the roots cool and moist.



    Most shrubs don't require deadheading but if you remove the spent flowers from rose bushes, butterfly bushes, hydrangeas or other reblooming shrubs, you'll get more flowers and the shrubs will stay tidier.

    When deadheading roses always cut back to just above a leaf with five leaflets, ideally a leaf with a bud that is on the side of the shrub facing out.


    Spring is also the time to fertilize spring-flowering shrubs such as azaleas and rhododendrons. Those are acid-loving plants that will respond well to fertilizing with Holly Tone or another formulas specifically for plants that grow well with a lower soil pH.

    If you have hydrangeas that you want to bloom blue or pink, this is a good time to add lime (for pink blooms) or aluminum sulfate (for blue flowers). (It can take awhile for the pH to adjust.)

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