Are Shrubs Really Low Maintenance?
Well, compared to lawn, yes! And compared to typical beds of perennials, yes again!
Lawns require relentless mowing, week in, week out, during most of the growing season. Shrubs do not require anything at all on a weekly basis. Many people feel compelled to water and fertilize their lawns. But with properly selected shrubs—meaning you’ve chosen shrubs that will actually prefer your situation (soil texture, sun, moisture, and pH level)—there is little or no need for watering after the first year, no need to fertilize, and as the plant covers and shades out more of the ground below, less and less need for even occasional weeding.
In gardens where I have been involved with running volunteer groups to accomplish weeding, the areas with low-branching shrubs were the areas that needed the least of our attention to look fabulous. I remember taking note of an area planted with full-size Fragrant sumac (Rhus aromatica), because we never had to do a thing with it. The deer didn’t eat it, and no weeds grew under its dense branches. Meanwhile it was a great place to bring children to look for bird nests, and the area looked neat and tidy in spring with small white bloom, through the summer with its trifoliate leaves and increasingly red berries, and in the fall with brilliant red leaf color.
Examples of shorter stature native shrubs—so handy for planting close to a walkway or the foundation of a house—include Lowbush Blueberry (Vaccinium angustifolium), Inkberry (Ilex glabra), Dwarf Waxmyrtle (Morella cerifera ‘Don’s dwarf’), and Little Henry Sweetspire (Itea virginica ‘Little Henry’).
Native shrubs provide multifaceted benefits, particularly for birds. The leaves host insects that birds can use to feed their young. The branches provide nesting areas and shelter from predators, and the berries are a source of food for migration or winter survival.
[Some of the vase-shaped shrubs, while not as good at preventing weeds as the low-branching shrubs, are also good for landscape design because they are easy to mix into a bed with other plants. Shadbush(Amelanchier canadensi), Winterberry (Ilex verticillata), and Blackhaw viburnum (Viburnum prunifolium) are good examples of this.]