The Times They Are a-Changin’

“Come gather 'round people wherever you roam
and admit that the waters around you have grown
and accept it that soon you’ll be drenched to the bone.
If your time to you is worth savin'.

Then you better start swimmin' or you'll sink like a stone
for the times they are a-changin'.”  -Bob Dylan

I’m sure that Bob Dylan wasn't writing about the nursery business when he wrote these iconic lyrics, but nothing better sums up what’s going on in the world of plants and in particular the world of shrubs. Surely, the times they’re a changin'!  To illustrate this change, just get in your car and drive around some neighborhoods, both new and old, and note how the landscapes have evolved in relation to the age of the homes.  With each new generation there has been a dramatic shift in the landscape, the way plants are used and the type of plants being used.

Homeowners want more color. The yews and junipers are gone.

Color has increased; perennials and flowering shrubs have replaced yews and junipers that were once so common.  There’s been an overall increase in plant diversity; the ubiquitous crab apple and blue spruce have been replaced with a myriad of plant species. And as homes have become larger and lots smaller, people no longer have the space for big, old-fashioned shrubs.  At first glace one might jump to the conclusion that shrubs have seen their day, but in light of societal changes and new breeding efforts I believe that shrubs are actually the beginning of a renaissance.

As the Product Development Manager at Spring Meadow Nursery, my search for new plants takes me around the world, and I get to meet a wide array of professional and amateur plant breeders.  I have the rare opportunity to see what will be new four or five years before the rest of the industry. As a plant geek and horticulturist, I get excited when I see that one-of-a-kind new plant.  It’s like searching for buried treasure, but my task requires that I exercise restraint and show good judgment.  I search for plants that meet the needs homeowners.  To sort through all these new plants and to help me make sound introduction decisions, I've developed an internal plant selection criteria that helps me focus on those plants the non-horticulturists would want to buy.  We have a clear vision for shrubs, and our goal is to reinvent the way people view and use them.  Here is a sampling of what I look for when searching for new shrubs.            

Shrubs as Perennials

Shrubs are no longer just the bones of the garden
Botanically speaking, shrubs are perennials - they just happen to have woody stems, but in laymen’s terms people view perennials as herbaceous plants with colorful flowers.  Shrubs, on the other hand, have been viewed as the backbone of the garden: something green to plant in the background. This is not my view.  Plant breeders are developing new shrubs that are blurring our traditional lines of plant classification. MY MONET (Weigela f. ‘Verweig’), LO & BEHOLD® butterfly bushes, and OSO HAPPY® PETIT PINK rose are all examples of miniature shrubs that look more like perennials.  

OSO EASY® PETIT PINK rose is an award winning, hardy rose that stays very small.

Gardeners and landscapers use them like perennials in borders, decorative containers and mass plantings. While these shrubs fill the same niche as perennials, they don’t require the same level of maintenance. There is no need for deadheading, dividing, or staking.  You don’t have to cut them back in autumn or spring.  I recently read an article that described shrubs as the lazy man’s perennial, and there’s truth to that.  People complain about a lack of time in this day and age, so the future for small and miniature shrubs is very promising.

Colorful Foliage

Colorful, and interesting foliage, like you get with LEMON LACE Sambucus adds garden interest.

Some years back, I was responsible for producing over a million perennials.  The goal of the program was to provide retailers with bud and bloom perennials.  Everyone knows that perennials sell a whole lot better when they’re in bloom, but unfortunately, most only bloom for four to six weeks.  It was a very difficult task shipping all these perennials before the blooms had expired while building weekly assortments with sufficient amounts of color.  The lesson I learned was that plants with colorful foliage could be sold every week, all season long.  I could always count on Hosta, Heuchera, Artemisia, and Pulmonaria to ship every week.  These same benefits were passed on to retailers and gardeners – colorful foliage looks good all season long in the garden center and the garden. The same lesson can be applied to shrubs: shrubs with colorful foliage have a longer selling season, and when they do flower, it’s icing on the cake.  

Over the last ten years, we have seen a wide array of new shrub introductions with attractive, colorful foliage. CRÈME FRAICHE (Deutzia gracilis ‘Mincream’), TINY WINE®  (Physocarpus o. ‘SMPOTW'’), BLACK LACE (Sambucus nigra ‘Eva’) and WINE & ROSES® (Weigela f. ‘Alexandra’) are just a few.  Again, everyone benefits from the season-long color provided by these shrubs.

Shrubs with Unique Architecture

The narrow architecture of SUNJOY® GOLD PILLAR Berberis opens up new uses in the landscape.

Some years back, I received a call from Gary Koller, a well-respected garden designer in the Boston area. Gary urged me to find and offer more shrubs with narrow, columnar growth habits. In his opinion, we needed plants with a smaller footprint that took up less space in the landscape.  He also felt these shrubs added interesting architecture to gardens.  The trend toward smaller home lots dictates the need for smaller and/or narrower shrubs.  After all, who has the space for a Spiraea x ‘Vanhouttei’ in their garden anymore?  

NORTH POLE® Thuja is a very narrow, fast growing evergreen. 

Narrower shrubs have another great benefit: they require less care and maintenance. Growers spend less time spacing and pruning them which saves them money. Homeowners also benefit from these shrubs as they save them both time and effort.  SKY POINTER® (Ilex crenata ‘Farrowone’), CASTLE WALL (Ilex x meserveae ‘Hechenstar’), FINE LINE® (Rhamnus frangula ‘Ron Williams’) and NORTH POLE® arborvitae (Thuja) are a few narrow plants that have seen increased popularity over the last few years.  I suspect this trend will continue.  

Multiple Seasons of Interest

For most people, the yard and garden space has become much too valuable for plants that only shine a few weeks of the year.  People want and expect more than three to four weeks of flowers.  Colorful foliage addresses this need quite well, but shrubs with interesting fruit and fall color fit the bill. BRANDYWINE (Viburnum nudum ‘Bulk’) is a good example of a shrub that earns its keep.  It has extremely glossy green foliage, attractive white flowers, rich burgundy red autumn foliage, and an outstanding fruit display that starts out green, changes to pink, then transforms to blue. And while the species typically requires a second cultivar to cross pollinate in order to fruit, this cultivar does not.  Its flowers are self-compatible, and thus it fruits abundantly without a pollinator.  It’s a work-horse of a shrub that gives season long pizzazz.

Flowers, fruit, form and fall color make BRANDYWINE Viburnum a plant with seasons of interest. 

Shrubs that rebloom, by their very nature, offer multiple seasons of interest.  With the success of plants like ‘Stella d’Oro’ daylily and Endless Summer® hydrangea, we have continued to look for shrubs that rebloom.  BLOOMERANG® Lilac (Syringa x. ' Penda’) starts blooming in May, rests in June, starts flowering again in July, and continues non-stop until frost. SONIC BLOOM weigela blooms and reblooms continuously without dead-heading. It just keeps on flowering! 

Superior Performance and Ease of Care

It should be noted that no matter how colorful, how sexy, or how big the flowers, everyone expects that a plant will perform.  Long gone are the days when people were willing to spray their plants to keep them healthy.  Just look at the rose market - Knock Out®, Oso Easy®, and Home Run® roses do not have the big, showy flowers of a ‘Queen Elizabeth’ rose, yet they’re in high demand because they’re easy to grow.  People want plants that are going to live – and that they can count on.  Sure there will always be die-hard gardening enthusiasts who enjoy the challenge of growing Himalayan blue poppies, but according to the National Gardening Association, 81% of the population is comprised of casual, reluctant, and non-gardeners.  It’s unfortunate, but most of these people do not know how to prune a shrub or amend soil pH, and they have no desire to learn.  If we want to sell plants to the majority of the population, we have to give them plants that are easy to grow. New shrub breeding is providing just that.

PINK HOME RUN® roses add lots of color with little effort.

The Future looks Very Bright

As you can see, plant breeders are reinventing shrubs to meet the needs of today’s growers, retailers, landscapers, and gardeners.  European breeder rights laws, as well as U.S. plant patents, have given breeders greater incentive to develop new shrubs, and the pace is quickening, but new is not necessarily better. The patent books are full of plants that no one wants.  It takes a lot more than larger flowers to be successful in today’s market.  People are demanding more.  And like Bob says, “The times they are a-changin,” and so are shrubs. In my view, they’re no longer just the bones of the garden – new shrubs are changing the way we grow, sell, garden, and landscape. The future looks very bright indeed!