Small Shrubs for the Perennial Border

Adding structure and an aspect of year-round permanence to any yard, small shrubs are excellent for enhancing the perennial border. Thought of as the spine and bones of good landscaping, small shrubs hold the soft body of flowers together and add consistency between areas. Well-chosen selections integrate with perennials to add interest for more than just one season. Not only do they add support for perennials in late summer but also they provide definition to the bed throughout the year. Though shrubs take longer to reach maturity, their outstanding foliage, lovely flowers and attractive shapes and forms add to the beauty of the garden.

Choose Shrubs That Promise Year-Long Interest

The ideal shrub for the mixed border has outstanding foliage – deep green, purple, gold, silver, or even variegated. Its leaves may be glossy, soft or even fuzzy to touch. Colorful veins or other variations may mark its foliage to seize your interest throughout the seasons. And, certainly, the ideal shrub has flowers. Late-blooming flowers liven up the border during the tired end-of-summer days, while early-blooming varieties add excitement to a garden just bursting into spring. You’ll also want to take into account flower color when working shrubs into a planting scheme. White is a delightful and safe choice because it harmonizes with all other colors. Consider also mellow blues, pinks and other pastel shades to add a peaceful mood to the garden. Bold colors of yellow, orange or red will add a warm, daring feeling and dramatic interest. In fall, colorful leaves cover the ideal shrub before falling to the ground. And in winter, twisted, colorful branches and bright berries provide visual interest even under a layer of frost or snow.

Top Border Shrub Choices


Height Interest

Background and Mid-Border Shrubs

Cornus alba cultivars (red twig dogwood)* 8-10 ft. Variegated or golden foliage; red winter branches
Cornus stolonifera cultivars 7-9 ft. Variegated foliage; red or yellow winter branches (red osier dogwood)*
Cotinus coggygria ‘Velvet Cloak’ or ‘Royal Purple’ (Smokebush)* 10-15 ft. Dark purple foliage
Deutzia ‘Mont Rose’ and ‘Magician’ 4-5 ft. and 6-8 ft. Pink spring flowers; graceful, arching habit
Hydrangea cultivars 4-12 ft. Late summer blue, white or pink flowers, variegated or unusual leaves
Viburnum macrocephalum 6-15 ft. White flowers in spring fading to buff, seed heads
Viburnum plicatum var. momentous  5-10 ft. Bright white lace-cap flowers summer, ‘Summer Snowflake’ (doublefile viburnum) through fall
Viburnum sargentii ‘Onondaga’ 5-12 ft. Dark green or maroon-tinged foliage; ‘Susquehanna’ (Sargent viburnum) late spring flowers; bright red winter fruit
Weigela W. florida 4-6 ft. Golden or purple foliage; late spring, ‘White Knight’ and ‘Wine and Roses’ pink or white flowers

Focal Point Shrubs

Berberis thunbergii ‘Helmond Pillar’ 4-5 ft. Upright form; reddish, purple leaves (Japanese barberry)
Buxus sempervirens ‘Graham Blandy’ (boxwood) 4-6 ft. Narrow, upright habit
Buxus microphylla cvs. (littleleaf boxwood) 3-4 ft. Dense, rounded shape
Ilex crenata ‘Sky Pencil’ (Japanese holly) 4 ft. Extremely narrow, columnar form

Front-of-the-Border Shrubs

Berberis thunbergii ‘Atropurpurea Nana’, ‘Aurea’ 1-4 ft. Golden or purple foliage; dense, rounded form and ‘Bagatelle’ (Japanese barberry)
Caryopteris clandonensis ‘Worcester Gold’ 2-4 ft. Golden foliage; late summer lavender flowers (blue mist shrub)
Fothergilla gardenni 2-3 ft. Creamy flowers stick up like bottlebrushes on bare tips in early spring
Hypericum androsaemum ‘Albury Purple’ (tutsan) 2-3 ft. Purple-tinged leaves; yellow summer flowers; red berries
Spiraea japonica (Japanese spiraea) 1-4 ft. Golden foliage; pink spring flowers
Spiraea ‘Goldflame’ 2-3 ft. Pink flowers, red spring leaves tinged with bronze, changing to gold
Symphoricarpos orbiculatus ‘Foliis Variegatis’ 2-5 ft.

Yellow-edged variegated leaves (coralberry)

*Prune hard in late winter to control height in mid-border positions.