Shrub Selection for Central Virginia

Question: What are the best shrubs to select for Central Virginia? When and how should I plant them?

These are good questions whether you are designing a new landscape or looking to replace shrubs. October and November are generally the best months to plant shrubs!

First, remember that you will want shrubs hardy enough to withstand occasional temperatures above 90 degrees F and well below freezing. Look for those labeled for Central Virginia (USDA planting zone 7a).

Luckily, there are many species of shrubs from which to choose. There are shrubs of various heights and widths, shrubs that stay green year round or drop their leaves in Fall, shrubs that have showy flowers (such as hydrangea and azalea), shrubs that produce colorful fruit (blueberry and winterberry), and shrubs that produce mainly foliage with inconspicuous flowers (like green velvet boxwood). Consider three key elements: 1) the function of the shrub, 2) the site conditions, and 3) the suitability of the shrub to site conditions and location.

Photo Credit: Plant Image Library, licensed under CC BY-SA 2.0

Shrubs can serve a single function or multiple functions by providing:
• additional aesthetics or beauty
• specimen, focal, or accent plants
• borders or hedges to define areas of a landscape
• foundation plants at the base of a house or other structure
• barriers for privacy, noise buffers, or screens to hide unsightly views
• plantings to prevent soil erosion, form a windbreak, or create shade
• habitats and food sources for birds, insects, spiders, and other animals
• food for human consumption

Understanding the site conditions will be critical to your success. Is the site where you want to plant shrubs mostly sunny or mostly shady? Is the site particularly windy? Do you have good topsoil or poorly draining clay? Is the soil generally moist, average, or dry? Have you tested your soil? Is the soil acidic or alkaline and what nutrient deficiencies exist? For more information on soil nutrient analysis, read the VCE publication Soil Sampling for the Home Gardener.

Select shrubs that will be suited to your site and accomplish your goals. A list of showy, flowering shrubs is available in the VCE publication Selecting Plants for Virginia Landscapes: Showy Flowering Shrubs.

Consider going native. Local native plants are adapted to local temperature and rainfall fluctuations. Once established, native plants often require less watering, compared to non-native species, and they support more wildlife species than non-native plants. Our local government for Albemarle County provides an easy to use online searchable database of native shrubs.

A couple of tips to keep in mind when selecting shrubs: 1) if your landscape is in need of many shrubs, avoid using only one or two species to minimize losses, in case disease or pests target that species, and 2) consider the mature size of the plant to avoid spacing shrubs too close together or too close to doors, windows, and walkways.

October and November are generally considered the best months to plant shrubs. Check the Virginia planting guidelines and specific shrub recommendations referenced below. Planting in well-drained soil is important since wet soils can reduce plant growth and survival. To test for soil drainage, dig the hole for your new plant and fill it with water. If the water doesn’t drain in 24 hours, plant it elsewhere. To plant the shrub, dig a hole at least twice as wide as the diameter of the shrub’s root spread or root-ball. Do not dig too deep; once the plant is placed in the hole, the top of the roots should be level or slightly above level with the surface of the ground. Remove all tags, wires, burlap, or ropes from stems and trunk. These can girdle and kill the plant as it grows.

Watering during dry periods in the first growing season is crucial. This is especially important for plants that are transplanted in the spring. Such plants may not have established roots into the surrounding soil by summer. In fall and early winter, don’t forget to water new trees and shrubs to increase winter hardiness. Continue until the ground freezes.

Place mulch (pine needles, straw, shredded wood, bark chips, or slightly decomposed or shredded leaves) 2 to 3 inches deep around the shrub. Mulch slows water loss from the soil, reduces weed growth around the plant, and protects the shrub from lawn mower and string trimmer injury. Avoid overly deep mulch or piling the mulch up against the trunk of the shrub; this promotes shallow roots, disease, and pest injury.

References

“Problem-free Shrubs for Virginia Landscapes,” Hansen, Mary Ann et al., Publication 450-236, Virginia Cooperative Extension.

“Selecting Plants for Virginia Landscapes: Showy Flowering Shrubs,” Alex X. Niemiera, Publication HORT-84P, Virginia Cooperative Extension.

“Shrubs: Functions, Planting, and Maintenance,” Alex X. Niemiera, Publication 426-701, Virginia Cooperative Extension.

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