Image by Kerry Ann Mendez

Celebrating Flowering Shrubs!

by Kerry Ann Mendez March 30, 2016

Celebrating Flowering Shrubs!

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This week’s gardening guest blogger is Kerry Ann Mendez, an award-winning speaker, garden designer and author of three gardening books. Her most recent book, The Right-Size Flower Garden, was released in 2015 and has been a top seller. For more about Kerry Ann, her business Perennially Yours, where she is speaking, and to sign-up for her info-packed e-newsletter, visit her web site at www.pyours.com.

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We’re busy; we’re aging, but we love gardening! Are you swamped with a job and family; or an over 50 gardener who doesn’t move at the same pace as you did years ago; or a city dweller with a passion for plants but little space to work with? I bet you fall into one of the above scenarios. I fit into two of the three.

Blog_I_Para 1_I've_Become_A-Slave_to_my_Gardens For years I enthusiastically kept adding gardens to my landscape. But then things started to change. I felt as if I was becoming a slave to my gardens. I had painted myself into the proverbial garden corner. Everyone loves flowers, but who can tend a garden that demands too much time and energy to keep looking beautiful? And how does one incorporate environmentally responsible gardening in this out-of-control picture?
For me, the straw that finally broke the camel’s back was when my husband broke his neck. By God’s grace, he wasn’t paralyzed but his ability to help with the gardens and lawn as well as many household chores, dramatically changed. I rolled up my garden sleeves and charged forward, wielding my garden spade as a sword. The end result was astonishing! My gardens required 50% less maintenance time and were undeniably more colorful and striking for a full three, if not four seasons. The plants needed less water and fertilizer plus natives and other pollinator-friendly specimens played a much larger role. And just as important – I felt like I had regained my sanity and was doing my part in being a better habitat steward of my little piece of earth. Blog_I_Paragraph_2_SOME_of_my-Gardens_Ballston_Spa_Before_Right-Sizing

My most recent book, The Right-Size Flower Garden (St. Lynn’s Press, February 2015), shares the steps I took to create more gorgeous, habitat-friendly gardens that not only improved my quality of life, but also our property value. The book features exceptional plants, time-saving design solutions and sustainable practices.

Blog_I_Paragraph_3_Gardens_at_my_condominium_July2013 Blog_I_Paragraph_3_Close-Up_Front_Condo_After_Makeover_July_
Blog_I_Paragraph_5_Buddleia_Blue_Chip_PW Mighty-mite flowering shrubs are one of the star players in right-size gardens. For years my first love was perennials. I’m known as a perennial guru to many. I loved creating gardens filled with tried and true beauties as well as funky, unusual, eye-brow raising specimens. Unfortunately, the reality is that most perennials are more demanding than shrubs. Perennials typically need more water, fertilizer and routine maintenance. A single shrub that showcases gorgeous flowers and flattering leaves, with little preening on my part, wins the beauty pageant! Plus one shrub can efficiently hold court in a space that would require numerous perennials. I had a head thumping, ‘I could have had a V-8’ moment and started replacing sweeps of perennials with flowering shrubs. Oh what a relief it was as I swapped demanding perennials for sizzling flowering shrubs.

Below are three spring blooming superstars that may have you digging out ‘their big brothers’ for tidier, more compact replicas. If pruning is necessary, do so right after flowering.


Forsythia is a harbinger of spring but many varieties can quickly overgrow their bounds and sucker aggressively. Breaking this mold is Forsythia ‘Show Off Starlet’, a charming, well-behaved shrub that only gets 2’ – 3’ tall. Its dazzling yellow flowers illuminate the spring landscape. ‘Starlet’ does best in full to part sun and is hardy in Zones 4 – 8. Underplant it with spring blooming bulbs that are deer resistant and naturalize, like Daffodil ‘Minnow’, with fragrant white flowers and buttery-yellow cups. ‘Minnow’ is one of the minor bulbs that only get 5”- 6” tall and is a blooming machine with 3 to 5 flowers per stem.
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Blog_1_Paragraph_8_Abeliophyllum_White_Forsythia_kerry White Forsythia (Abeliophyllum distichum) is a head turner! I first discovered this bewitching shrub when a friend shared a division from her Saratoga Springs, NY garden. Abeliophyllum is a relative of forsythia, but has highly fragrant, almond-scented white flowers that appear slightly before yellow forsythia. Commonly called white forsythia, it is smaller in stature, with a mature height of only 3’ – 5’ tall. Mine is at least five years old and remains at 3.5’. It enjoys sun to part sun and is hardy in Zones 5 – 8. Pair this gem with Checkered Lily (Fritillaria meleagris), a dainty-looking, but tough as nails, naturalizing, spring blooming bulb with purple and white checked flowers or solid white ones. Fritillaria is deer resistant; hardy to Zone 3 and can handle being planted under Black Walnut (I told you it was tough!)
Weigela is another popular spring blooming shrub but many in this family can get pretty big. ‘Crimson Kisses’ is a new, repeat blooming, petite shrub introduced by Monrovia, a premier grower. You can actually shop for plants on Monrovia.com, and have them shipped at no charge to a participating garden center near you! ‘Crimson Kisses’ only gets 3’ tall and 3’ wide, quite different from many weigela that can explode in size. As you may have guessed, the flowers are a brilliant ruby red and attractive not only to gardeners, but also hummingbirds. Weigela does best in full sun and is hardy in Zones 4 – 9. Going along with the above underplanting theme, dig in some Cammasia (Wild Hyacinth) around the base of ‘Crimson Kisses’. The riveting deep blue, starry flower stalks open later than many spring blooming bulbs, which is good as Crimson Kisses doesn’t bloom until later in May. Like the other bulbs, Cammasia naturalizes and is deer resistant. weigela-slinco-trial

A few other noteworthy, spring blooming selections that stay under four feet include Deutzia ‘Yuki Snowflake’; and Bottlebrush (Fothergilla) gardenii; and Japanese Andromeda (Pieris) ‘Cavatine’.

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Now let’s take a peek at some powerhouse winners for summer and fall.

Hydrangeas are the number one googled flowering shrub on the internet. No surprise. But not all hydrangeas are created equal, especially if you live in Zones 6 or colder. As a Zone 5 gardener, my winning vote goes to those in the panicle (paniculata) and smooth (arborescens) hydrangea groups. They’re drought tolerant and highly reliable bloomers, regardless of wicked winter weather. Some of my favorites in the paniculata group are ‘Quickfire’, ‘Little Quickfire’, ‘Limelight’, ‘Bobo’, ‘Dharuma’ and ‘Fire Light’.

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Blog_I_Paragraph_13_Hydrangea_Incrediball_PW Superheroes on the arborescens team are ‘Incrediball’, ‘Annabelle’ and Invincibelle Spirit II (an improvement over the first Invincible Spirit released a few years ago). Invincibelle Spirit II displays darker foliage, stiffer stems and larger, richer pink flowers. Both panicle and smooth hydrangeas bloom well in sun to part sun (smooth varieties can also handle a bit of shade with good results). I’m sure some of you noticed that mophead hydrangeas (H. macrophylla) were not mentioned. This was not a typo or a senior moment. I am fed up with their blooming inconsistency in colder climates. Plus they are water hogs (wilting in afternoon heat) and because I’m into water conservation and saving money on water bills, I say sayonara! To learn more about hydrangeas and their care, check out HydrangeasHydrangeas.com.

Ninebark (Physocarpus opufolius), native to much of Eastern North America, is another must have flowering shrub in right-size gardens. There are many remarkable cultivars in this family, all are drought tolerant with flashy foliage and peeling bark for winter interest. Most ninebark have a graceful, vase-shaped habit. Foliage can be green, burgundy-brown, golden or amber. Button-shaped white or pinkish-white flowers appear in later spring and early summer. The flower buds are set on old wood, so if pruning is required, do so right after they finish blooming. Some of my heartthrobs are ‘Summer Wine’ (chocolate leaves, four to five feet tall); ‘Nugget’ (shimming golden to lime green leaves, three and five feet tall); ‘Amber Jubilee’ (bronze, gold, fiery orange and scarlet leaves, five to six feet tall) and ‘Tiny Wine’ (bronze-maroon foliage, only three to four feet tall). Ninebarks prefer full to part sun.

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Another native, Summersweet (Clethra), not only has pretty pink or white bottlebrush flowers in July and August, but it also doubles as nature’s airwick, emitting an intoxicating fragrance. Summersweet thrives in wet areas, although it is just as happy in well-drained soil. Sandy conditions are not its thing. There are many choices, with height being the defining characteristic. The shortest ones are ‘Sugartina’ (white flowers, 28”-30” tall) and ‘Sixteen Candles’ (white flowers, 3’ tall). ‘Ruby Spice’ (pink flowers) and alnifolia (white flowers) can grow to 8’ tall. Birds, bees and butterflies are also big fans of summersweet. Deer stay away from them. Blog_I_Paragraph_15_Clethra_RubySpiceSummersweet_Kerry

Finally, check out these stunning shrubs for a fall finale and encore.

Blog_I_Paragraph_17_Bush_Clover_Lespedeza_Bluestone_Perennials Bush Clover (Lespedeza thunbergii) deserves more attention. This graceful shrub has a sweet weeping habit with violet purple or pink flowers that appear in late summer. I planted mine along a retaining wall where it cascades over the edge. Breathtaking! ‘Gilbralter’ and ‘Pink Fountains’ both get 4’ – 5’. There is a tiny version, ‘Yakushima’ that only grows about 12” – 18”. In colder climates (Zones 4 and 5), bush clover dies back to the ground in the winter, similar to butterfly bush. If pruning is required in warmer zones, do so in late winter or early spring. Bush clover is attractive to many pollinators but deer tend to ignore it.

Blue Mist Shrub (Caryopteris) parades masses of blue or purple flowers on top of gray-green, yellow or variegated leaves. The shrub typically gets 3’ and 4’ tall and begins stopping traffic in August when blooming begins. ‘Longwood Blue’ (2’ – 4’ tall) is a popular cultivar, selected at Longwood Gardens in Pennsylvania for its standout performance. Proven Winners ‘Petit Blue’ is a little darling, topping out at only 24”-30”. ‘Sunshine Blue’ (3’-4’ tall) and ‘Lil’ Miss Sunshine’ (24” – 30” tall) have glowing yellow leaves and amethyst blue flowers. All of these charmers demand full sun and sharp drainage for best performance. Prune them back to within a foot of the ground in late winter before new growth starts. Blue mist shrub is another amazing choice for attracting pollinators but repelling deer.

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Last but not least, Coral Berry, also called Snowberry (Symphoricarpus), is adored for its colorful white or pink berries. Tiny, bell-shaped white flowers appear in late spring and then transform into plump berries in late summer. ‘Amethyst’ has vivid pink berries and stays more compact than many, growing between 3’ and 5’ tall. Site Coral Berry in sun to part shade and prune them in late winter or early spring. This shrub is native to North America and attractive to pollinators. It is deemed as moderately deer resistant. Blog_I_Paragraph_19_amethyst_symphoricarpos-PW

I hope you’ve discovered a few fantastic shrubs to add to your beautiful, sustainable gardens. If you want more ideas for exceptional plants, garden care tips and time-saving design solutions, please check out my book, The Right-Size Flower Garden available in bookstores as well as Amazon.

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