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Beautiful compact shrubs punch above their weight

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by Colour Your Life • Friday October 7, 2016

Smaller shrubs provide the essential structure of most gardens and, as we move into autumn and winter, they deliver much of the visual interest too.  But the value and uses of garden shrubs are more extensive than you might initially think.  Did you know, for example, that oil derived from the Gaultheria shrub (common name checkerberry or mountain tea plant) is used to flavour some toothpastes and chewing gum?   Shrubs like this are also important for bringing biodiversity to the garden.  Birds, insects and small mammals love their flowers and berries. 

Get ready for festive fun!

Gaultheria is a great starting point in our exploration of compact shrubs.  The evergreen leaves and striking red berries are the perfect complement for the festive season, so it makes a great ‘Christmas’ plant. They’re ideal in pots as winter decoration for patios or balconies, but are also excellent as ground cover or for growing beneath larger trees and shrubs. Gaultheria really is an all-year round plant, with its pretty white flowers in June, bright red berries in autumn and their beautiful purple colored leaves. Gaultheria procumbens (an RHS Award of Garden Merit holder) is easy to grow and very hardy, as well as delivering wonderful visual benefits.  You may also want to look at Pernettya – a similar compact evergreen.

Shrubs love to be planted in the autumn when the soil is still warm but their metabolisms are slowing down. This is also the time when garden centres carry their best stocks – so timing is perfect!

The scent of spring – in winter

Skimmia is a fantastic choice of compact shrub. Plant now in time for Christmas, and enjoy the scent of spring before it arrives. Skimmia is distantly related to the lemon and orange, which explains the characteristic citrus fragrance of the leaves.  Another great balcony or patio plant, Skimmia comes in white, cream and pink varieties.  It is the female plants that are berry-bearing, but they must have male cultivars nearby to produce a crop.  Skimmia japonica ‘Rubella’ is a sure-fire winner.

A magical shrub?

It used to be believed that the way that cold intensifies the colours of Leucothoe had to be an indication of magical qualities.  What is for certain is that this evergreen, hardy shrub occurs in many beautiful colours including green, cream , yellow , pink, red and purple.  Low-growing varieties are great as ground cover (e.g.Leucothoe ' Zeblid').  For a taller, border plant look out forLeucothoe ' Walteri'.  Leucothoe is renowned for its beautiful autumn coloring.  Remember that the more sun the plant gets, the more intense are the colours of its leaves. So, plant in moist, well-drained acidic soil, as far as possible in full sun.

Heaths and heathers

Closely related but distinctly different, Calluna vulgaris, or heather, flowers mainly in late summer and autumn, whereas Erica or heath predominantly flowers in winter or spring.  Both grow best in moist, well-drained acidic soil.  Erica carnea f. alba ‘Springwood White’ flowers in winter through to spring and is an RHS Award of Garden Merit plant.  For autumn flowers, go for Calluna vulgaris ‘Beoley Gold’, which is also an AGM plant. 

Explore and investigate this wonderful plant group at your local garden centre and be sure to find space for some of them in your garden.  Remember, even if your soil is not quite right for these acid-lovers, you can work ericaceous compost into your soil or grow in containers.  Either way, beautiful little shrubs like these will bring you enjoyment right through the months when many other plants are sleeping.


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