Why wouldn’t you plant a wall shrub?

By Tamsin Westhorpe

When was the last time you planted a wall shrub? I’m keen that more of us should invest in them as they are the plants that link the house and garden together. They create a gentle fusion between the two and make them one (gosh – I think that was a line from a Spice Girl song!). Joking aside these plants offer so much and can be the perfect solution to adding woody and year-round interest to a small garden.

So, what can a wall shrub offer that a climber can’t? Simple – a wall shrub offers structure. Even deciduous types decorate a wall with a tracery of stems in the dead of winter. Wall shrubs also offer a valuable living climbing frame for more light-footed climbers such as some clematis and annual climbers such as ipomoea.

I’ve often asked garden visitors who admire the many wall shrubs at Stockton Bury Gardens what puts them off growing their own. The response is either that they are slow to establish, or they are unsure as to how to train them. Some are even concerned about damaging walls or choosing the wrong wall to plant them against. All these concerns are valid but easily overcome. It’s true that many wall shrubs will take time to establish so that’s a good reason to plant one now.

The walls shrubs that consistently attract attention in my garden are the Schizophragma hydrangeoides with my favourites being the pink ‘Roseum’ and the white ‘Moonlight’. Not only are these hydrangea lookalikes stunning, they happily grow against a north-facing wall. Although Hydrangea petiolaris is a winner for a north wall it’s great to have something more unusual in your arsenal. As with the climbing hydrangea the schizophragma is self-clinging, so only requires initial training when young. They are often advertised as growing to 10m in height but in my wonderful Herefordshire soil they haven’t reached anything like that. As for pruning I simply deadhead in winter – easy.

Viburnum plicatum ‘Sterile’ (Japanese snowball bush)
Viburnum plicatum ‘Sterile’ (Japanese snowball bush)

Another stunning shrub that can be grown as a successful wall shrub is Viburnum plicatum ‘Sterile’ (Japanese snowball bush). In early summer the pompom flowers that will fill a fist are lime green. Over the coming weeks they turn to pure white. It won’t self-cling but when mature it will stand up on its own against a wall. In my garden I have specimens growing against south, west and east walls. For a slight variation on this theme I can’t jump up and down enough about Viburnum plicatum ‘Rosace’. This is the salmon pink version of ‘Sterile’ and it’s out of this world but hard to come by.

The salmon-pink flowering Viburnum plicatum ‘Rosace’
The salmon-pink flowering Viburnum plicatum ‘Rosace’

Those looking for a brighter colour will be wooed by Fremontodendron ‘California Glory’. This evergreen wall shrub was all the rage in the 90’s but like leg warmers for some reason fell out of fashion! I suspect that it might have something to do with the fact that it’s only hardy to about -10 degrees centigrade. I’d like to offer it up as a great wall shrub for a sheltered city garden as its bright yellow flowers are long lasting and have a wonderful waxy look. It’s perfect for a south or west-facing wall.

A patchwork of wall shrubs – the tall yellow flowering shrub is Fremontodendron ‘California Glory’
A patchwork of wall shrubs – the tall yellow flowering shrub is Fremontodendron ‘California Glory’

Another yellow that you can’t fail to notice is the laburnum. Its chains of golden yellow flowers are a summer treat but don’t forget that this plant is very poisonous – not one for a family garden. Often grown over an arch, but in it can be trained along galvanised wires on a west-facing wall.

On a south-facing wall at Stockton Bury the March and April flowers of Sophora tetraptera are a real treat. This tropical looking plant needs the protection of a wall to flourish and in my garden it stands alone without any supports – stunning. If it’s early flowers that you yearn for then another spring flowerer that enjoys the protection of south-facing wall is Ribes speciosum. This is a prickly shrub with glossy green leaves and tiny fuchsia-like flowers. R. speciosum is a slow grower and only reaches about 1.5m in height, so prefect for a tight space. This semi-evergreen shrub requires no pruning.

Some would argue that wisteria is a climber, but I would argue the case that it’s also a wall shrub. In May there is nothing like it – the scent from the flower’s drifts into the house and after forty years the specimen that wraps around our house is simply breath-taking. For an extended flowering grow two plants – one on a south wall and another on a west (south-facing wisterias always flower first).

Wisteria ‘Burford’ thrives on a west-facing wall
Wisteria ‘Burford’ thrives on a west-facing wall

The last shrub that I want to pin up against a wall is the fig. In my garden we have a Ficus ‘Brown Turkey’ that is over 150 years old. It thrives against a south-facing wall and looks nothing short of wonderful every day of the year. In summer its large leaves drip from every branch and under them lurk tasty fruits. In winter the silver, bare stems are like a piece of modern art. I can’t think of any other masterpiece I’d like hanging on my wall.

The bare winter stems of Fig ‘Brown Turkey’
The bare winter stems of Fig ‘Brown Turkey’

Tamsin Westhorpe

With over 25 years’ experience in the horticultural industry, Tamsin has plenty of practical, hands on advice to share. Her career has seen her edit The English Garden magazine for six years, write scripts for TV gardening, lecture at Kingston Maurward College in Dorset and care for parks and gardens. She is now a freelance writer and curator and gardener of Stockton Bury Gardens, Herefordshire (listed by The Times in the top 20 gardens to visit July 2017). Tamsin is also an RHS Chelsea Flower Show Judge, co-Chair of The Garden Media Guild and a prolific speaker at many high profile events. She has recently written her first book ‘Diary of a Modern Country Gardener’ published by Orphans Publishing and is the voice of the popular Candide Gardening podcast ‘Fresh from the pod’.

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