Landscape Shrubs

Chicago gardeners have many choices on what kind of garden shrubs to plant in Northern Illinois. Deciduous Shrubs? Evergreen Shrubs? Fast Growing Shrubs? Slow Growing Shrubs? Flowering Shrubs or not?
What about the foliage color and texture of the garden shrub? And the big questions…why? Maybe to hide something else in your yard. And where to plant? In sun or in shade? How will that affect your lawn care? Ahhh, so many decisions…

Deciduous Shrubs

Shrubs that lose all of their leaves in the fall for the winter and re-grow new leaves the next spring. An advantage of the deciduous shrubs are that many of them either flower in the spring or throughout the summer like the Potentilla. The deciduous shrubs I planted are the Potentilla, Quick Fire Hydrangea, Barberry, Spirea, Dwarf Arctic Willow, Red Gnome Dogwood, Ivory Halo Dogwood, Ninebark, Joe Pye Weed, Baby Joe Pye Weed, Sumac and the Golden Elder.

Evergreen Shrubs

Garden shrubs that do not lose their leaves or needles in the fall. They remain green for the winter. The advantage of the evergreen is that if your require wind protection or a privacy screen then evergreen shrubs are sure to do the job. The spreading evergreens I planted are Mugo Pines, Junipers, Euonymus Emerald Gold and False Cypress. Taller privacy evergreen shrubs can be Brandon Cedars.

Why Plant Shrubs

Shrubs can perform many jobs in a landscape such as; privacy, a hedge, hedge-in-wickham park-chicagofoundation planting, hiding an above ground pool or because you want to hide an ugly fence or maybe you just want some bulk and form in your garden.


If privacy is the issue and you are not into garden fencing, garden screens, garden vines, or taller trees, then tall evergreen shrubs like the Brandon Cedar works well. Also, creating a tall hedge works well for privacy. Just remember, if its privacy your after then choose an evergreen shrub. It keeps its foliage all year round.


Unless you are in a tight space, use shrubs that are dense in their growth habit. Good shrubs for hedges are: Spirea, Barberry, Yew, Ninebark or the dwarf Lilac.

Foundation Planting

Almost any shrub can be a foundation planting. It depends on exact location and choice. For instance: A Hydrangea Shrub will grow better in shade/part shade facing east or north. And the Spirea, though tolerates some shade, will grow better in full sun facing south or west. Please see the links below to view all of the garden shrubs I planted and their features.
Planting a shrub tip: Plant in groups of three. Never just plant one shrub all by itself as a foundation planting. It will look lost. And yes, you can mix up the heights. What about the shape of your garden shrubs?

Plant for shape

For instance the spreading evergreens are great for slopes where soil erosion is an issue. Or use them for edging along ponds and flowerbeds. Spreading evergreens are low growing and do not block the view of bi-level or basement windows. Arching branch shrubs such as the Cutleaf Lace Shrub or the Sumac Tigers Eye are great for up against lower retaining walls or at the edge of a stone waterfall. Garden Shrubs such as the Mugo Pine, Globe Cedar, Potentilla or Spirea can be formed into Rounded Shrubs and placed almost anywhere within a flowerbed garden. I have smaller Mugos planted at the edge of my mounded island garden and also in my new flowerbed garden at the back of the waterfall. Spireas, Dogwood, Ninebark, Dwarf Cranberry and Potentillas can be kept in check by regular pruning and look great tucked into a flowerbeds middle section. Erect or taller garden shrubs such as the Brandon Cedars, Joe Pye Weed or the taller Sumac variety are useful for foundation corner planting, against fences or for hedging. Horizontal Spreading Shrubs such as the Elder require a watchful eye. Even though a borer sucked the life out of three main stems of my Golden Elder, the shrub grew back huge and in record time.

Texture and Color

Try planting the Dwarf Arctic Willow with its blue/green, and wispy thin leaves. This willow will eventually sweep over the side of the waterfall and sway in the wind. The dense, soft, deep green and gold foliage of the False Cypress makes an interesting statement with its arching and soft mounding form. The Barberry, while thorny, has remarkable deep purple or lime green marbled foliage. And the Euonymus, a low spreading evergreen, keeps its bright green and gold contrast color throughout the summer and into the late fall.

Fast or Slowing Growing

Unfortunately, living in the prairies and having to survive our cold winters, doesn’t give us much choice when it comes to fast growing garden shrubs (like Bamboo, although I am told that there is now Bamboo variety that will survive a -30F or -36c). However, I’m not in any hurry to hide unsightly objects so the moderate growth of the Dwarf Arctic Willow (1 to 2 feet per year) is satisfactory. Actually, all of the garden shrubs listed are slow to medium growers.


Many of my garden shrubs are planted as background plants in my perennial gardens. They offer the bulk and height needed. Just make sure that you leave at least 2 feet of space in front of the shrubs before planting your annuals or perennials. You will need this space for trimming (most of us don’t purchase mature shrubs.) Also, shrubs require room to grow. Read and keep the plant tags. Planting shrubs are also great for hiding things, like fences, unsightly air conditioners or recycling or garbage bins.

Dig the hole 3 times as wide and as deep as the container
Amend the soil with bone meal, organic matter, compost and peat moss
Add MYKE root stimulator as according to package directions
Place the shrub in the hole and fill in the sides, patting down the soil as you go along to get rid of any trapped air
Apply a water soluble fertilizer (like Miracle Gro Quick Start) once planting is complete and again after 2 weeks. Keep the shrub well-watered
Don’t plant your shrubs too close together. Nothing looks worse then shrubs not being allowed to form their own shape (unless you plant for a hedge) or being crowded and intertwined with another variety of shrub shrub.


The most important comment to be made about pruning shrubs is to start at the very beginning. Meaning that once the shrub is planted, give it a light manicure every season to keep the shape. This way you are never needing to give a hard prune…and less chance of making a mistake. The very best time to prune most shrubs is early spring prior to the burst of foliage (you can really see what you are doing), however spring blooming shrubs must be pruned after the blooms have faded.

Removal of Suckers

This is a common issue for some shrubs like the Ninebark, Sumac (not so much with the Tigers Eye) and others. Suckers can cause a shrub to look untidy. Dig away the soil and cut the sucker off where attached to the root. The exception to this is if you have given the shrub a hard prune and need the sucker growth to give new fullness.
Barberry: Snip out the dead branches, thin or weak branches in the spring (after blooming) and give a light manicure to the desired shape.
Dogwood: Prune Dogwood after the spring blooming period.
Dwarf Arctic Willow: Can be pruned and shaped to required size any time of the growing season.
Dwarf Korean Lilac: Dwarf Lilacs should be pruned each year following the flowering time. While there is no right or wrong time to prune, all spent blooms should be removed right away to encourage more blooms for the following year. This helps conserve the shrubs energy. Trim all dead branches, in-between dead twigs or suckers. Prune or shape lightly by hand to your preference. These dwarf shrubs look best if kept in a rounded form.
Elders: The Elder can be pruned any time during the growing season. Trim to desired size. The Elder is a horizontal spreading shrub meaning that it prefers to grow out sideways, than erect and upright.
Euonymus: Prune if desired, but many enjoy leaving this ‘winged’ shrub as is. I, however, do want the shrub to fit in with my overall flowerbed scheme, so once the shrub has reached the desired size, I prune back. Remember to cut off any green shoots. Leaving them will encourage the shrub to return to an all green color and no longer be variegated. If a more dense/full shrub is desired, prune back 1/3 of the plant.
False Cypress: This slow growing shrub can be pruned anytime of the year to a desired size. Use hand snips.
Hydrangeas, PeeGee: Cut down this Hydrangea to 4″ inches above the ground. Different rule applies to the French Hydrangea. Blossoms bloom on second year wood. Don’t prune new growth. Only prune the spent flower wood.
Juniper: Junipers should be pruned before the springs new growth starts and then prune in a tiered or layered fashion. Meaning the top branches should not over-hang the lower branches. It helps to check underneath the lower branches for diseased, browning (winter-kill) or dead branches. Snip off as needed. Browning tips from winter-kill can also be trimmed.
Mugo Pine: The Mugo Pine is trimmed after the candles (new growth) has started. This pine can be kept compact and shaped by clipping the candles. Otherwise this pine can grow to be quite large, almost tree-like. Browning from winter-kill can be trimmed, but be careful not to leave gaping holes.
Ninebark: Really needs no special pruning time. Can be pruned to desired size and shape.
Spirea: The flowers appear on old wood, so prune after the flowers have bloomed. Like the Barberry, snip out the dead twiggy branches.
Spreading Yew: The Yew should be pruned before the spring growth has started.
Potentilla Gold Star or Goldfinger: Most gardeners will say that that the Potentilla does need pruning from time to time. It can get to look a bit messy. Most of the dead wood or twigs seems to be in the center of the shrub. When I purchase my Potentillas, even prior to planting, I make sure that I have checked the shrub for any damaged stems or dead twigs. I check around the bottom of the shrub as well as the center. Once I have trimmed out the dead wood, I continue with the planting process. Keep in mind that the Potentilla really requires yearly pruning maintenance. The shrub can be sheared if needed and it will grow back nicely. And don’t let the pruning issue deter you from purchasing this shrub. It is a hardy shrub that deserves to be in every garden.

Basic Pruning Tools

Once pruning is completed make sure to wash and disinfect your pruning tools. Also, if you are removing diseased branches or leaves, disinfect the tools prior to moving to another shrub or even within the same shrub.
Hedge clippers (manual), gas, electric or battery
Loppers for trimming larger shrubs with thicker branches such as taller Lilacs
Pruning shears for smaller to medium sized shrubs
A good pair of garden gloves
Safety Glasses Eye protection if necessary