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An annual love letter to shrubs

Garden Muse

This time of year, as the deciduous shrubs leaf out, I breathe a sigh of relief and say a little prayer of gratitude.

As 'Hedgerows Gold' and 'Gouchaltii' red twig dogwood leaf out, the road disappears, along with yellow school buses and UPS trucks. When the dense branches of a tall mock orange (Philadelphus) cover themselves with green leaves, they erase my view out the office window of the yellow, red and blue play structure next door.

I'm grateful for shrubs that separate the garden into more intimate spaces. Their green walls add body to the borders, forming an understory that links the tree canopy with perennials at ground level.

Foliage and flowers

Their leaves unfurl in an amazing array of color: green in many shades, from grass-green willows to olive-green leatherleaf viburnums. Beds are brightened by golden-leaved forms of barberry, mock orange and shrub dogwood, as well as variegated snowberry and weigela.

Silver pineapple broom and gray-leaved hebes shimmer, while coppery ninebarks such as 'Center Glow,' 'Coppertina' and 'Penny Lane' add deeper tints.

Leaf shapes, too, are so varied, creating interesting patterns: smoke tree foliage round as coins, bold Japanese aralia (Fatsia), with leaves like giant hands.

Spring-flowering shrubs are especially showy. A parade of viburnums welcome the season with lacecap blossoms, pink and white. Purple, magenta and white lilac panicles make me swoon with their heavenly perfume. Even on the freeway, shrubs celebrate spring - driving downtown is a pleasure thanks to sweeps of heavenly pink flowering current (Ribes) adorning the shoulder.

Friendly to clematis

As my clematis collection swells, shrubs already grown to maturity come in handy as trellises. This saves the expense of buying sturdy metal trellises, which can quickly add up. And that's not to mention the shopping time spared.

Unlike my husband, who can pop in and out of a store in 10 minutes with booty in hand, I'm a comparison shopper who enters the store looking for a trellis and departs with plants, fertilizer, and twine - only to drive to another place that might have a better trellis. Thanks to shrubs, I can save time and money.

The best shrubs for supporting clematis have dense twiggy branches for the vines to twine through. A big planting hole at the base of the shrub, enriched with compost and slow-release fertilizer will nourish the clematis. Planted on the shadier side of the shrub, the vine will scramble upward, seeking the light.

I pair spring-flowering shrubs with summer-blooming clematis so that the color keeps coming. Pink 'Duchesse of Albany' clematis rambles through a cutleaf elderberry, while 'Rouge Cardinal' winds its way through a purple-leaved filbert. Darkest purple 'Romantica' climbs a golden smoke bush, and 'Burma Star' with burgundy flowers makes its way up a mock orange (Philadelphus).

Mock orange blooms for only a few weeks in late spring, but the perfume is so divine that I keep three in the garden. In winter, it's a mass of twiggy, bare branches; after it blooms it's a plain green shrub. Adding on summer-blooming clematis brings the shrub back to life with garlands of fresh flowers.

Shrubs for heavy clay

Because I garden on a wetland where the native soil is heavy clay, I've learned which shrubs will take these conditions. Fragrant, late-summer-blooming Abelia chinensis grows happily, with pink 'Comtesse de Bouchaud' clematis weaving through its sturdy branches.

Loaded with big yellow flowers all summer long, Hypericum 'Hidcote' grows lustily in my garden. I cut it back nearly to the ground every other year to rejuvenate it. All the shrubs mentioned earlier, as well as forsythia, rose-of-Sharon, sorbaria and lilacs, are very content in this less-than-ideal soil.

Homes for the birds

While I weed, I love to listen to the birds sing. Mourning doves hoo-hoo, bush tits whistle, hummingbirds buzz, jays screech, sparrows trill. Towhees kick through dry leaves in the back borders, flashing their coppery sides.

When I want to revel in bird song, I head for the bed farthest from the house, where I've planted a thicket of trees, shrubs and ground cover. The dense branches of naturalized hawthorn trees on the neighboring property, together with a tapestry of elderberry, forsythia, viburnum, mock orange on my side, make a perfect home for nesting birds.

Morning and evening are the best times for bird symphonies. I sit on a bench beneath the Bosc pear tree listening to them praise the day, and give thanks for shrubs in my garden.

You can reach Barbara at This email address is being protected from spambots. You need JavaScript enabled to view it. .


Coming events

• Friends of the Ledding Library Seventh Annual Plant Sale, 8 a.m. to 4 p.m., May 8, Ledding Library Pond House, 2215 S.E. Harrison, Milwaukie. Perennials, annuals, vegetables, houseplants, living wreaths, stepping stones, garden art. For complete information, call 503-653-6523.

• 26th Annual Spring Garden Fair, 9 a.m. to 5 p.m., May 1; 9 a.m. to 4 p.m., May 2. Vegetables, shrubs, trees, annuals, perennials, tools, art. Free educational sessions (Ten Minute University), pH soil testing. Clackamas County Fairgrounds, 694 N.E. Fourth Ave., Canby. Admission $3, parking free. For more information, visit www.ClackamasCountyMasterGardeners.org .