Walk down almost any street and you'll see the problem--shrubs treated shamefully, their natural grace gone because they were poorly chosen to begin with and now must be kept in line by frequent pruning. Many of us can blame someone else, since shrubs are often inherited from a previous owner. But if you get the chance to plant--or replant--shrubs, how can you avoid making the same mistakes? We have a suggestion, although it may seem odd: Visit the parking lot at the Huntington Botanical Gardens.
Determined to dignify the intrusion of vehicular presence, the Huntington planted between the aisles what must be the prettiest pallette of shrubs in Southern California. There you will find the best varieties of the best basic shrubs. Since they were planted four to five years ago, you can get a realistic idea of what that little stick in a nursery container will look like in the future--how big it will become (so you do not plant too close together) and its eventual shape (so you can better visualize its place in the garden). And in the process of getting acquainted with these common shrubs, you will see some possibilities for using them with bravado and flair. For example, take a special look in one corner near the employees' parking area and the museum buildings pictured in the two larger photos. As these photographs demonstrate, all shrubs don't have to be green, and they don't have to be bushy, rounded forms. By carefully contrasting or blending the color of the foliage or flowers and the silhouette of the plant, the Huntington's gardeners have created scenarios with enough depth and excitement to inspire any landscape planner.
When we say the best "varieties" of these common shrubs, we are referring to specific cultivars of shrubs. For instance, there is a variety, or cultivar, of Pittosporum crassifolium called Compactum, for obvious reasons. It maintains a dense, globular shape without pruning, and that desirable trait is achieved by propagating plants only from cuttings, never from seed. All the plants at the Huntington are labeled, and the cultivar name usually appears inside single quotation marks. These cultivars of common plants are worth searching out at nurseries because they often have a more interesting shape or color and, increasingly, they are more compact than the ordinary form of the plant. In short, they are superior forms.
A good example of cultivars in action is pictured at far left. Here the bright, light green of a Pittosporum tobira cultivar named Wheeler's Dwarf is pitted against the reddish foliage of an Abelia cultivar named Prostrata, all against a stabile band of tall, medium-green shrubs ( Grewia occidentalis , the lavender starflower). Far back is the reddish-purple foliage of a cultivar of Dodonaea viscosa , named Purpurea (the purple hop bush), which continues the color of the abelia into the distance, effectively increasing the apparent depth of the planting. These shrubs were chosen for their foliage color, a point often overlooked when a shrub planting is planned. Cultivars are also chosen for their flowers; the bottlebrush named Fireburst, or the leptospermum named Jubilee are examples.
You might notice that these common shrubs are given a lot more space to grow in than they usually get in the average garden. Thus they can show off their natural form and grace and don't need frequent pruning. The most common mistake gardeners make when planting shrubs is not giving them sufficient room. It follows that there is a lot of bare earth between these shrubs for the first few years after planting. That can be accepted as the price you pay, or you can cheat and plant twice as many of the same shrub, thinning out every other one as they begin to overlap and grow together. If you decide on the former plan, be sure to scatter a pre-emergent herbicide around the young shrubs to keep weeds from sprouting in the vacant ground, which is what the Huntington did. If you are short of space, there is a third approach, and that is to look for shrubs that are naturally narrow and upright, or compact enough to fit the space, or those that look fine even when they are planted close together and later overlap. Note the narrower planting areas in the Huntington's parking lot and you will find good candidates for small gardens.
The Huntington is open Tuesday through Sunday, from 1 to 4:30 p.m. The City of San Marino requires Sunday visitors to have advance reservations. Send a stamped, self-addressed envelope to the Sunday Ticket Office, The Huntington, 1151 Oxford Road, San Marino 91108.
Be sure to take along a notebook, a pencil--perhaps a camera to record your favorites--and a tape measure so you can get an accurate idea of the space each kind of shrub will need. A copy of the Sunset New Western Garden Book will tell you more about each shrub and whether it will grow in your particular area. So armed, you can gather the information that will help you avoid mistakes. And all in time for spring, a great planting season for shrubs of any kind.