Buying and planting shrubs

Shrubs form the backbone of any garden. Choose carefully and give them a good start, and they’ll flourish for years.

Shrubs are sold in three forms: container-grown, balled-root, and bare-root. The easiest way to create a garden is with container-grown shrubs. They can be bought and planted all year round as long as the ground isn’t frozen solid or waterlogged, though autumn and early spring are best. Bare- and balled-root shrubs are less expensive, but they are available only in autumn and winter from specialist nurseries and larger garden centres, and are less convenient to handle.

Careful observation

Check your local garden centres and nurseries for the best quality stock and competitive prices.

Notice whether plants are on a free-draining surface – sand, gravel or a slatted bench. If not, water might rot the roots. Container plants dry out quickly on a hot or breezy day; check thev are well watered. Make sure, too, that plants are kept in suitable conditions – shade lovers protected from hot sun, for example.

Check that you get the variety you set out to buy. Plants should be fully labelled. Apart from the name of the shrub, does the label list special needs, give eventual height and spread, and indicate whether the shrub is hardy, deciduous or evergreen?

Correct size

It’s very tempting to opt for large plants to give your garden a mature look, but older shrubs often take longer to settle in than cheaper, vigorous young ones.

Check the shrub is in the right sized pot. A small plant in a large pot may have just been potted on and included in the large plant section at a higher price. Telltale signs are a small root-ball, which a gentle probe will disclose, and loose soil, especially around the rim of the pot. Similarly, avoid a large plant in a small pot. It will either be rootbound – look for exposed, twined roots on the compost – or potbound – its roots will have grown out through the drainage holes.

Planting time

Shrubs that have been carefully planted in the right position in good soil, and well looked after for the first growing season, are almost certain to thrive.

For a shrub to get off to a good start it should be transferred from pot to ground with as little disturbance to the root-ball as possible.

Avoid planting in extremes of weather. Soil should be workable – if you can’t get a spade through because it’s heavy and water-ogged, frozen solid in winter or caked hard in a dry spell, wait until conditions improve.

In hot weather, plant the shrub in the cool of the evening, and prop up something like a piece of cardboard to give daytime shade.

Check the site

Before you plant, double check that the intended site is suitable -it’s easy to underestimate the eventual height and spread of a young shrub. Rather than cramp the shrub, use temporary gap fillers such as annuals or herbaceous plants which can be moved once the shrub starts to fill out.


If you’re planting several shrubs, or the soil is poor, dig over the planting area and fork in well-rotted compost or apply a good slow-release fertilizer a week or two before planting.

Make sure you remove all the roots of troublesome perennial weeds like ground elder. If these are a persistent nuisance, delay buying your shrubs and treat the weed-infested area with an appropriate weedkiller.

Before planting a specimen shrub in a lawn, remove a 60cm (2ft) diameter circle of turf so that the young shrub won’t have to compete for water and nutrition. Preparing for planting Stand the pot or root-ball in a bucket of water to keep the shrub moist until you want to plant it. Dig a planting hole one and a half times as wide and deep as the pot/roots. Pile the soil on to a plastic sheet, remove a third for use elsewhere, and make up the quantity with shrub-planting compost. Mix in a slow-release fertilizer.

A newly planted shrub is vulnerable until its roots become established, so keep an eye on it for a week or two after planting, and make sure it doesn’t dry out for the first season. Apply a mulch around the roots in autumn.

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