Advice on Buying Shrubs

Buying shrubs is not an exact science. You need some patience and persistence to get the right shrubs for your garden and it can be scary and intimidating if you don’t know what you want. Unlike annuals or perennials, it isn’t so easy to pull out a shrub that isn’t growing as you expected. There is a certain permanence to planting a shrub.

After spending some time last week looking for new shrubs for my renovated foundation plantings, I have five pieces of advice to offer on buying shrubs.

1. Keep an open mind about what shrubs you want to plant. Rarely will you find the exact shrub you are looking for at the local garden center, if indeed there is an ‘exact shrub’ you are looking for. However, if you are looking for a specific shrub and the garden center does not have it, ask if they can order it from their supplier. You may pay more, but you will get exactly what you want.

2. Know something about where you want to plant your new shrubs and don’t be afraid to ask for help. “I am looking for a shrub for the east side of my house that flowers in the spring and won’t get taller than six feet. I have about five feet front to back in the bed and nearly 20 feet of area to plant” gives the garden center staff quite a bit of information to offer you some choices of shrubs that might work.

3. Read about shrubs in advance so you know the basics and can recognize interesting shrubs when you see them. That may be easier said than done, but doing some homework in advance makes you a more savvy shopper. At the very least, read the tags on the plants, and if there isn’t a tag that provides more than the name of the shrub, ask if they have a reference book that you can consult before you buy. A good garden center should have some reference resources that you can use or knowledgeable staff who can tell you more about a particular shrub.

4. Go to the garden center when it isn’t likely to be crowded. You’re more likely to get help if you need it. I went on Sunday during the time of the Indianapolis Colts game. I knew most of the city would be watching the game on TV or listening on the radio, and I was right. The garden center was nearly deserted except for me, a few employees, and a few others customers who also looked like they might be real gardeners. Or the garden center might have been nearly deserted because it’s fall, and people don’t get it that now is the best time to plant trees and shrubs. Either way the staff to customer ratio was in my favor for getting some help.

5. Don’t dismiss a garden center based on one visit. I went to a particular garden center on Thursday and found nothing. I went back on Sunday and found an interesting shrub that I decided would be perfect to plant below a window on the east side of my house. Garden centers get new stock in and rearrange stock to show off different plants, so give them a second or third chance as long as it looks like a place where they generally take care of the plants and provide good customer service.

My new shrub is Rhus aromatica ‘Gro-Low’, the Gro-low Fragrant Sumac. It shouldn’t get too tall, which is what I wanted for the spot below the window where I planted it, though I may have to control the width a bit with some occasional pruning.

I was already familiar with the Rhus genus of plants and what came to mind first when I saw this shrub was “fall color”, and indeed this shrub should have good fall color. The information on the tag told me it had the other attributes I was looking for, or close enough. They had just one, which was all I needed. I swear as I went by, it fluttered its leaves a little bit to get me to notice it. So I purchased it and planted it in its new home on the east side of my house.

And now a bonus, sixth piece of advice on buying shrubs. Don’t call shrubs “bushes”. When someone tells me they need some new bushes, I just cringe. Real gardeners call a shrub a shrub because that’s what they are, they not bushes.


  1. I'm feeling a bit devilish tonight and I like your new bushes....LOL I really mean shrubs! We all have our little peeves don't we? I hate it when people say loam(LOOM) rather than loam(as in roam)! Oh well! Love the new garden and am looking forward to seeing it evolve!

  2. Great info for us all to remember...especially the impulsive group of which I am one! And I am trying hard not to check all my old posts for the use of bush/shrub...I'm scared about what I'd find!
    Your shrub looks and sounds doesn't grow here so I've never seen one.

  3. You're right about shrubs takin more research and study than perennials, annuals, or bulbs. They are just more difficult (generally) and cumbersome to plant and who wants to go through that more than necessary. They are about the only things I check into very thoroughly - oh yes, they are more costly too. I love that little Sumac. Our wild Sumac turn such wonderful colors in the Fall - better than maples! I'll bet your's will be pretty next summer.

  4. carol - like layanne, I'm struggling not to say I LOVE YOUR BUSHES!

    No, really, thanks for the great tips on buying shrubs. As you know, this is very timely for me...

  5. Good advice, but I would add one suggestion to your list. Look around your neighborhood for a full grown specimen of the shrub that you are interested in buying. Then you can decide if you will like how it looks in 5-10 years.

  6. Oh, Carol - you crack me up! Next you'll be wanting my gardening friends to call themselves the Divas of the Soil.

    How do you like this one? If I go to the nursery and pay money for something I want - it's a shrub. On the other hand, if it's been planted by someone else, I don't like it, but I'm stuck with it for awhile ... well that might just be a Bush.

    Annie at the Transplantable Rose

  7. I like Annie's distinction.

    Filling in the gaps is fun, isn't it?

  8. Great advice and I second Vonlafin - check out established bushy shrubs/shrubby bushes in the neighborhood and then visit them at your local public garden too. - You might come away with even more ideas! (Carol, you left the window wide open for all the teasing!)

  9. Thanks for those advice! I've came to that kind of advice along the years, after having move several shrubs because they no longer fit there. The good thing is that I get a new garden without buying a plant :-) But I could have made it more comfortable, for me and for the shrubs :-)

  10. How timely your post is for me. I JUST now wrote about the new stroll garden that Jim and I are planning, with a picture at the end of the post of the layout done in hoses and flags.

    Obviously, all we have done is figure out the shape of it. Now I am spending inordinate amounts of time standing around looking at the shapes, visualizing how it might look with plantings there. We have planned a trip to the botanical garden up in st. Louis where we hope to garner some ideas.

    Thanks for the timely advice.

  11. Layanee... Little peeve? I'm just trying to help gardeners sound like real gardeners!

    Leslie... Thanks, and as long as you promise to refer to shrubs as shrubs from here on out, I won't go back and see if you wrote about 'bushes'.

    Alyssa... I agree, and I hope I get good fall color on this sumac.

    Gina... I hope this helps you when you go out to buy some new shrubs.

    Vonlafin... Excellent advice to look for mature shrubs to see if you like them full grown.

    Annie in Austin... I'm not as picky about soil vs. dirt. But I'd still have a hard time even saying I was pulling out the old bushes to plant new shrubs!

    Me... Filling in the gaps is fun. Any kind of planting is fun.

    Kris at Blithewold... Great idea to go to public gardens to see shrubs, and most should have them well marked as to what they are or would have staff who could tell you.

    Verobirdie... Transplanting shrubs is no easy task!

    Healingmagichands... Happy to know my advice will help you. Have fun at the gardens in St. Louis!

    Thanks all for the comments and gentle teasing. I can take it, really I can.
    Carol at May Dreams Gardens

  12. Smart suggestions, and great teasing from your commentors, Carol. I'm a bit behind in my reading, having been sick for several days, and there's a new tree in my yard waiting to be planted (a Blue Nootka false cypress), but no more shrubs this year. Really. Not buying any more. Well, maybe one or two....


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