Bring Back Shrubs! What to plant for early flowers

Bring Back Shrubs! What to plant for early flowers

Want to know what shrubs to plant?
We've been championing the revival of The Great British Shrub here at MyGardenSchool for sometime now.  Pioneered by Andy McIndoe  (see his online garden design course on shrubs) we don't just want to make this a British phenomonen.  Students from all over the world have begun to revisit the wonder of shrubs in planting design.  The next online shrubs course starts on February 1st.  In the meantime, here's some advice from Andy on great flowering shrubs for early colour in the garden.
What shrubs to plant for Spring Colour
Flowering shrubs contribute so much of the reliable early colour in our gardens. Every year without fail our woody friends burst forth with an amazing display of spring flowers and fresh green foliage. I am always so impressed by how much these garden plants deliver for so little effort. They may get the occasional prune, often in a less than ideal way. They rarely get anything extra in the way of food and drink, and yet we expect them to perform on cue; and perform they do
Bring back the Great British Shrub.

The flowering currants are survivors. Not only do they tolerate virtually any soil or growing conditions, but also they survive the passage of time: Like forsythia they have graced our gardens since early in the last century. The deep pink-red flowers of Ribes sanguineum appear at the same time as the aromatic leaves uncurl. Some claim the flowers and foliage smell of blackcurrants, others smell cats; I often wish that my cats smelt like that. There are a number of different cultivar to choose from but I have had great results with the more recently introduced cultivar Ribes sanguineum ‘Koja’; a reliable performer with large drooping clusters of crimson flowers on upright branches. Position it against light variegated evergreens, such as Pittosporum ‘Garnettii’ or the early purple foliage of cotinus or physocarpus.Ribes 'Koja 2


The creamy white Ribes ‘White Icicle’ is also an excellent choice with large clusters of flowers on vigorous upright stems. It makes a fresh and pretty planting partner for the lime green Euphorbia characias. Ribes ‘Elkington’s White’ is similar. It arose in a Hampshire garden not far from me owned by Patricia Elkington and it has certainly proved popular with gardeners in my part of the world. Ribes flower best in sun or semi shade. Prune some of the stems hard back immediately after flowering to encourage vigorous upright growth that will bloom well next year.



Chaenomeles, the Japanese quince can be grown as a wall shrub or a free standing subject. It does have rather an untidy, sprawling habit but that is part of its charm. Often referred to as Japonica (the specific name of one type of chaenomeles) it has a lovely oriental look when the delicate blooms open on the bare stems in early spring. My favourite is Chaenomeles speciosa ‘Moerloosei’, with delicate salmon pink and white blossoms in large clusters. A chaenomeles in flower always looks like it’s just been painted on a piece of Oriental ceramic.



There are many evergreen Berberis that bloom profusely in spring. Berberis darwinii is one of the finest with a dense, bushy habit and small, dark green holly-like leaves. Left to grow it will reach 3 metres but it can be trimmed and trained and makes an excellent hedge. The orange-red flower buds appear in early spring opening to clusters of clear orange flowers by early April. Berberis darwinii grows on any well-drained soil and succeeds under the light shade of trees, it is also very drought tolerant. For those with small gardens there is a compact form: Berberis darwinii ‘Compactum’. I have been quite successful with this shrub in dry shade; a situation that many gardeners struggle with. Obviously you need to pay attention to the watering while the shrub gets established.



Berberis x stenophylla too is a spectacular early bloomer but it is a big shrub when it matures. The lovely dwarf form Berberis x stenophylla ‘Etna’ is much more manageable and has lovely arching branches and narrow dark green leaves. The flowers are the colour of blood oranges and wreathe the branches in early spring; divine with forget-me-nots and sapphire blue muscari.



The graceful Exochorda x macrantha ‘The Bride’ is one of the frothiest and prettiest spring flowering shrubs. It has arching, almost weeping branches carrying soft green leaves and delicate sprays of clear white flowers with ruffled tissue paper petals. Although light and fragile in appearance, the shrub gradually develops into a soft mound up to 2 metres high, and will be reliably smothered in blooms every spring. It is an excellent choice for chalk soils and makes a striking planting partner for a purple leaved berberis that will just be producing its new leaves when the exochorda is in flower. To extend the season of interest the soft dome of the exochorda makes a good support for a late blooming clematis such as Clematis ‘Royal Velours’



Scent is such a desirable quality in any flower so an easy-to-grow shrub with fragrant flowers is worth its weight in gold. The lovely Osmanthus delavayi is certainly one of the best. It doesn’t grow too large, normally up to 1.2m to 1.5m, 4ft to 5ft and has stiff, arching shoots with small very dark green leaves. Pointed buds open to tubular white flowers that are deliciously scented and will perfume the whole garden, both on a warm spring day and on a cool evening. Osmanthus grows on any well drained soil in sun or light shade.



Viburnum carlesii is another shrub with fragrant flowers that is bound to please. The rounded clusters of flowers appear at the end of the branches at the same time as the purple-tinged leaves unfurl. The loveliest cultivar is Viburnum carlesii ‘Diana’ with slender buds of coral pink opening to tubular flowers that are pale pink on the inside and heavily fragrant fragrant. The shrub is open and somewhat bony in character so is best grow amongst perennials or roses that will extend the interest. Alternatively plant it with Cornus alba ‘Sibirica Variegata’. The variegated leaves of the cornus are freshly emerged when the viburnum is in flower and they will prolong the interest after the flowering period.


This viburnum is usually grafted and can be liable to sucker from the rootstock. If this occurs the stock sends vigorous upright shoots through the centre of the shrub. These should be removed at the base before they take over and smother the plant.


Why not join me on my next on line course Choosing and Using shrubs in Garden Design. The next course starts on Feb 1st It would be great to have you along.