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Shrubs – your garden’s backbone

Catherine Stewart

Catherine Stewart

June 22, 2012

A few years ago, I was out and about on one of my regular walks through my local suburbs. There’s lots of wonderful gardens around here, and I would always slow down to check out one in particular, as there was always something new to see when my route went by it every few weeks or so. It’s a garden around an old-style home garden, and there was a deep front bed filled with lots of small to quite large shrubs in a somewhat haphazard but still very pleasing combination, with a rhythm of shapes from small and rounded to tall and vase shaped and lower and spreading.

Mixed shrubbery in an old garden

Mixed shrubbery in an old garden

And the flowers – I never knew what was going to appear next. There were quite a few of the usual suspects, like those old azaleas that, with a variety of camellias, form the backbone of lots of gardens. But all sorts of other flowers appeared too, that extended my plant knowledge quite considerably when I finally figured out what they were. In spring with the azaleas, Eranthemum pulchellum‘s bright blue flowers looked fabulous next to a froth of maybush; then right through the summer there was Justicia adhatoda and deep blue Iochroma cyaneum, blending through to the little orange tube flowers of Burchellia bubalina in late summer and autumn. By winter, several cultivars of flowering quince were on show, and the biggest delight was to realise one cold winter day, that the beautiful perfume I could smell came from a gorgeous pink flowering Luculia gratissima, tucked away next to the house.

Then one day when I walked by, I saw something there that really stopped me in my tracks. It was all gone, every single shrub. Gone. I couldn’t believe it, I just stood there and stared uncomprehending at what was there in its place. Instead of that wonderful collection of form and seasonal change, there was this.


A marching row of Magnolia ‘Little Gem’ with a ground cover of Chinese star jasmine. All that variety, seasonal change and beauty cleared out in one swoop and replaced by just two species of plants. Each fine in a garden, but as the whole garden? No doubt to someone’s taste neat, well-controlled and even elegant, but to me, so bland and boring. It made me really stop and think about what had happened here, and the answer was, no doubt, a landscape designer, or landscaper, had been hired to ‘tidy up’ the front and give it a more modern look. Well that had been achieved, but what had been lost?

Tough shrubs

When I was a kid growing up in suburban Sydney, our garden looked like most others in the district. Beneath the remnant eucalypts and rapidly growing deciduous trees there was an array of well-spaced shrubs that defined different parts of the backyard. Planted in the days when irrigation meant putting on a single rose sprinkler at the end of a scorching summer day, these shrubs formed the garden’s backbone. When I close my eyes, I can see a sprawling Bauhinia galpinii, bright red photinia, oleander, abelia, golden euonymus, lavender, several types of conifer, perfumed wintersweet, aromatic diosma, berry laden cotoneaster and hawthorn and big azaleas, and the sadly very weedy, yellow flowering scotch broom.

Bauhinia galpinii

Bauhinia galpinii

My mother would butcher than all down once or twice a year and spend many happy hours at the incinerator burning all the prunings we’d dragged protestingly down the back. Actually, for a long time as a child I thought that was what the word ‘gardening’ meant – chopping things down and burning them. Around the house there were large concrete pots holding almost deathless gold dust plant, shrimp plant and jade plant.

Shrubs become history

In the 1970s those shrubs got a bit of a native makeover with some botttlebrush and grevillias thrown into the mix, but then with the introduction of micro-irrigation in the mid 1980s, everything changed, both in her garden and in many others.


First we had the Decade of the English-style perennial garden. Very pretty, but also very thirsty, high maintenance and a long down time in winter.




That was followed by the Decade of the Box or Leyland Cypress Hedge, with monocultures of the one plant squashed up together as close together as their root balls would allow.






Then came the Half Decade of the Architectural Plant, with flax, cordyline and yucca spiking their way through our gardens




followed by the latest I would describe as the ‘I’ll only Grow It If I Can Eat It’ trend.



As a writer who is both a landscape designer and also a specialist in waterwise gardening, I would like to see a new garden fashion emerge – the Return of the Shrub. I’m not racist about the origin of those shrubs – they can be indigenous or exotic, species or cultivars – but wherever they’re from, they make a unique and important contribution to gardens, and I’ll now explain why.

Shrubs for structure

One of the most important elements in garden design is structure. By that, I mean the way you use mass and void to shape garden spaces. Humans have a strong affinity with enclosure, where the void we prefer to be in, whether that’s dining with friends, or sitting out in the sun with the paper, is tailored to our biological instincts. Too small and we feel cramped, too tall and we feel overwhelmed, too short and we fell oppressed, too broad and we feel exposed – we’re a fussy lot really when it comes to psychological comfort.

Shaping voids in a garden is what American designer Joe Ecke called ‘sculpting the air’, and the way you sculpt air is by using mass to define it. But apart from the existing confines of house walls and fences, where does the mass come from? Traditionally we have planted shrubs for that purpose, those big raw-boned fellas of the garden world, using their bulk to fill up too big spaces, and clipping them into substitute walls of all heights.

Modern design has moved away from that, preferring to use hardscape elements like screens, outdoor furniture and built walls.


Structure from hardscape instead of shrubs

While these are much more expensive, they satisfy our need for instant structure – but there is a cost. Environmentally we’ve got whole of life embodied energy issues in their manufacture, transportation and construction, as well as the absence of plant material with all its physical benefits of earth shading, evaporative cooling, carbon capture and wildlife habitat. The psychological benefits of being surrounded by plants is also well-documented, as they improve our sense of well-being, our ability to learn new things, build more cohesive communities, lessen reported depression and cut down crime and vandalism.

Hedged in

From a design point of view we also have solid, rigid structures which we then feel a need to soften, with trailing plants, vines strung on wires and fluffy plants at their base. A popular alternative to built structures is the clipped hedge which, while better in some ways than a built structure, also has its drawbacks. First you’ve got a monoculture, and the pest and disease implications of that. Mass monoculture plantings of sasanqua camellias has certainly contributed to the now widespread problem of camellia tea mite in Australia, or the boxwood blight that’s wreaking havoc on American hedges. Secondly, you’ve got a huge number of plants crammed into a small area of soil, which means they’re not waterwise, and will need irrigation and fertiliser support to grow properly. Thirdly, all that constant clipping is inevitably not done by hand but by powered machinery, and the clippings then swept up by blowers, with all the noise and pollution that goes with that.

I want a shrubbery!

If we go back to the old ways of using shrubs to give our gardens structure, in what I call in slightly Monty-Pythonesque terms a ‘mixed shrubbery’, we would find a way of low maintenance and low water use but also delightful gardening. We’d be planting those shrubs at the right distance apart so they are able to grow

into a relatively natural shape with some formative pruning. Rather than a monoculture, we would have a variety of complimentary plants, each working with the other to make a beautiful plant picture. Plant picture might be a new term to some of you, but by it I mean grouping plants so they makes a pleasing combination of shapes, colours and textures.

Another big advantage of shrubs is their seasonal variety, which is especially useful if you can’t fit in trees. Flowers at any time of year, perfume, autumn colours, decorative berries – all of these are possible. And even if you’ve got a teeny-weeny garden, you can still use shrubs, as breeders have been working hard to develop dwarf forms of many popular, easy-to-grow ones, like dwarf abelia, euonymus, escallonia, oleander, murraya, tibouchina, lillypilly and lots of different conifers.


One of the trump cards of shrubs in a garden has to be their longevity. The wintersweet (or Akocanthera) I mentioned my mother had planted is still in that garden today, over 50 years later, as are the azaleas. Many shrubs have a productive lifespan of well over 50 years, long after their perennial counterparts have given up the ghost, and with a bit of TLC and good management, rather like us, they can really hold their age well too.

Mixed conifers & cool climate shrubs

Mixed conifers & cool climate shrubs

Waterwise gardening

An old shrub is also one of the most waterwise plants you can have in your garden. Many shrubs will survive with only rainwater once they’re established, and with proper spacing and soil of moderate fertility and drainage, they’ll never need fertilising either. Most will cope with a wide variety of sunshine hours too, which is great for gardens that change over the years. Imagine that – no irrigation, no fertilising, minimal pests and diseases (if you avoid hedging monocultures) and a once-a-year prune for maintenance. That’s why they became so popular during the early 20th century – people wanted to work in their gardens but only on things like vegetable and flower growing, not general garden maintenance. More recently we’ve seen plants like cordyline, flax and succulents pushed as your best low maintenance options, but apart from being more particular about drainage and sun, they’re often full of ‘air’ from a structural point of view, holding no defined mass in their strappy, spiky outlines, so a garden dominated by them looks restless and somehow empty.

History and heritage

Apart from the design and environmental attributes of shrubs in the garden, there’s something else you should consider, and that’s heritage. I’ll preface these comments by saying that, as a designer, I don’t like the idea that all gardens have to stay as some sort of time warp tribute garden to the period in which they were originally created. I think that garden owners should be able to modernise and change their gardens, BUT, I think that those gardens still need to be respectful of the plants that are already there, the architecture they surround and the streetscape they’re a part of.

However, gardens as fashion accessories and symbols of wealth mean that some are going to get a major makeover every 5-7 years, as ownership and fashions change, and that’s a lot of wasted plants. I think it’s quite possible to do old in a modern way, a bit like interior design trends which marry new with old, like funky fabric on a Louis Quinze style chair. What really does upset me though, is seeing what happened to the garden I talked about at the beginning, the one where all the plants had been indiscriminately ripped out. Did that landscaper or garden owner know what they were throwing away? I doubt it. Is that a loss? Yes it is.

Many old gardens hold a treasure trove of unique genetic material as well as old cultivars that could be useful in breeding new disease resistant or re-sized plants, and shrubs that no longer exist in the retail market. With plant quarantine so strict these days, it is very difficult and very expensive for plant breeders to bring in new material from overseas, as plant quarantine is essential for our biosecurity. Often the breeders suspect that the plants they want might still exist somewhere in old gardens from 20th century or even 19th century importations, but those old stocks are disappearing at a fast rate as we work over our gardens.

So hold on to your shrubs, as you never know when they might be needed.

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11 years ago

What a terrific read. I really enjoyed your history of gardens in the last 40 years, well illustrated by your photos. Thanks, Catherine.

10 years ago

Great article Catherine. As a garden consultant I am constantly being asked to plant instant screens with no thought to the future comfort of the particular plant being used. Try as you might sometimes the client wins and your vision of a garden full of diversity goes out the back gate. People are so concerned now with covering up their neighbours or their associated eyesores that they lose sight of what a garden should be or could be.
Brisbanes old gardens are full of gorgeous old shrubs such as Mussaendas, Rondelitias, Camellias and Hydrangeas, it is a shame not to be able to incorporate them into our new gardens. Well I will keep on trying.

Kate Wall
Kate Wall
10 years ago

Wonderful article! As a professional gardener I am constantly “fixing” landscaped gardens which are full of yukkas, magnolias or lomandras and recreating them as beautiful places full of a variety of appropriate plants. Many of these shrubs you mentioned have become quite hard to find and yet as you say, they are the tried and true performers. I also have a passion for using climate appropriate plants – in particular for Brisbane the subtropicals. There are so many gorgeous and exciting plants to choose from, including many that flower in the shade, but finding them can be hard. Luckily I have a local lady busily propagating for me!

9 years ago

Great article – I really enjoyed reading it. It also reminded me of an experience I had which was very similar to yours. We had an old couple living next door and when they moved into a retirement village, a young family moved in and promptly ripped out every camellia, rhodo, and every other exotic, all of which had flowered magnificently every year. Even the prolific lemon tree next to the back door went. They replaced these lovely, mature shrubs with natives which are now half-dead and look quite unhealthy. They would have had very little maintenance if they’d left the beautiful old shrubs in place. Such a shame!!

I’m told the landscapers who removed the shrubs did so carefully and onsold them to other clients so at least someone benefitted from the destruction.

7 years ago

Whenever I see well established trees or shrubs ripped out I wonder about the birds that have come to rely on those plants for food and shelter. Along our foreshore masses of exotic tea trees have been removed without a thought for the masses of little wrens who lived in and amongst them

5 years ago

Another thing about “mixed” plants: When we moved from the country back to the inner city, my old poodle sometimes would wake me at three in the morning wanting to go out. He was looking for plants to medicate himself and would run up the street (me trailing behind) and look in all the gardens until he found what he wanted. He’d sniff and reject and take a little here and there. What could an animal do now in the city?
Thank you for your article!