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Choosing the best low-maintenance shrubs for your garden

Val Bourne / 04 August 2016

Find out what low-maintenance shrubs to plant in your garden, including evergreens and options for shady gardens.

Physocarpus opulifolius ‘Diabolo’
Physocarpus opulifolius ‘Diabolo’

If you’re not a keen gardener, or you find gardening difficult due to lack of time or perhaps health issues, then it’s worth thinking about planting low maintenance shrubs that just get on with it.

You’re looking for slow-growing compact shrubs that can cope with very little attention, although some things are not completely maintenance-free. They may need a once a year trim, for instance.

Download our free guide to creating a low-maintenance garden

Visit our Home and Garden section for gardening guides, home improvement tips and much more.

What low-maintenance shrubs to plant

An evergreen presence

Evergreen shrubs are very warming in winter when deciduous shrubs have dropped their leaves.

Ilex × altaclerensis 'Golden King’
A rounder-leaved holly that isn’t too prickly, with oval sage-green and dark-green leaves margined in rich mayonnaise. This berries fairly well and makes a lollipop-like roundel roundel in time, eventually making a large shrub some 4m x 4m (13 x 13ft). The bright foliage is good at casting some light in shady spots.

Sarcococca confusa 'Sweet Box'
A compact Chinese evergreen with winter-fragrant, cream-white flowers that are so heavily scented you wonder how such small flowers, mere collections of stamens, can give out so much scent. The foliage is glossy and green and spear-shaped and this makes a small shrub, sometimes with black berries. Up to 2m if happy (6ft) but more liekly a four feet high. (1.2m)

Aucuba japonica, the Japanese Laurel
These are very underrated by gardeners, being easy to grow and quick to establish - even in deep shade. The usual form, ‘Crotonifolia’, is garishly spotted in yellow but ‘Rozannie' has bright-green, jagged-edged foliage. Large red fruits can follow in this compact Japanese laurel. (Up to 1m/ 3ft)

For spring flowers

Scented flowers matter at this time of the year - so position these in warm positions if you can and then the nectar and fragrance will flow.

Viburnum x burkwoodii
An easy to keep viburnum with semi-evergreen, shiny green foliage and domes of lily-scented white flowers held on splaying downy stems. This usually flowers in April and there are named forms including the pink-tinted ‘Park Farm Hybrid’, the white ‘Mohawk’ and the very fragrant ‘Anne Russell’. (Between 2 and 3m/ up to 10ft)

Viburnum x bodnanatense ‘Dawn’
This is a large upright shrub, so put this at the back and it will begin to flower in November on bare stems, smelling heavily of hyacinths, and then continue in fits and starts whenever the weather is warm enough in winter. It will often have a final flourish in March., as the leaves appear. ‘Dawn’ is a selected form with pinker flowers.

Lonicera x purpusii ‘Winter Beauty’
This can flower as early as January in some years, hence the name, and the cream-white flowers are scented. It is a scruffy bush in winter, a tangle of stems, but the early flowers can’;t be beaten - either in the garden or in a vase.

For summer flowers

Summer-flowering deciduous shrubs do need a bit of tweaking after flowering to encourage new wood. Normally a third of the wood, the darkest older wood, is removed to encourage fresh growth.

Philadelphus ‘Belle Etoile’ - Mock Orange
Citrus-scented white flowers appear in summer and each four-petalled white flower is smudged in damson-pink so they never look glacial. This variety id far less-vigorous than most and the flowers stare you in the face rather than nod downwards. (4ft/ 1.2m)

Choisya × dewitteana 'Aztec Pearl’ Mexican Orange Blossom
Finely divided, rich-green evergreen foliage and fragrant almond-scented blush-white flowers in May (and often in late summer too) on an elegantly restrained shrub. Flowers better in warm positions. (2.5m/ 7ft)

Ceanothus ‘Puget Blue’ - Californian lilac
For a warm garden only and best near a sheltered wall. The small crinkled dark-green leaves are topped with dense clusters of dark-blue flowers - but it must have a shletered site. Harsh winds scorch the foliage and cold winters diminish it. (3m/ 9ft)

Weigela ‘Bristol Ruby’
The almost black buds, clusters of wine-red trumpet-shaped flowers and dark, sultry foliage make this a dramatic addition. (1.5m/ 5ft)

For shady gardens

Hydrangea paniculata ‘Limelight’
A shade lover that produces cream-white conical heads in late-summer and autumn. These fade beautifully into autumn, producing lime-green flowerheads, and the flowers can be dried. There are others that have larger flowers, but this one’s beautifully propoprtioned. (Up to 1.5m/ 5ft -but less in poorer soil)

Fuchsia ‘Mrs Popple’
This is a hardy fuchsia with red and purple flowers of substance and it’s very good in shadier positions. It will need a cut back to the lowest shooting buds in spring -once the worst of the winter is over. (1m/ 3ft)

Physocarpus opulifolius ‘Diabolo’
Small shrubs with three-lobed leaves, small pink-tinted creamy flowers followed by small brwon-red berries. Principally grown for foliage though, and much better in semi-shade than full sun. There is also a golden form called ‘Dart’s Gold’. (1.5m/ 5ft at most)

How to plant

Start by clearing your garden, or some of it, and level it and then cover it with black, heavy duty membrane to suppress weeds. Landscapers will be very used to doing this, if it’s too tough for you.

September and March are the best planting months.

Arrange your shrubs in suitable places, making allowances for their eventual size, and then make a cross-like cut into the membrane and plant through it.

Cover up the membrane with a bark mulch and do choose a good bark product, because if you go down the cheap route you’ll get unsightly painted wood chips and lots of weed seeds. Melcourt, who are bark and wood-based compost specialists, will advise about what to use and where to get it.

Read our tips for using ground cover as weed control

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The opinions expressed are those of the author and are not held by Saga unless specifically stated. The material is for general information only and does not constitute investment, tax, legal, medical or other form of advice. You should not rely on this information to make (or refrain from making) any decisions. Always obtain independent, professional advice for your own particular situation.