While native grasses and forbs are my favorite lazy gardener plants, native shrubs rank as must-haves for an easy and attractive landscape. All native or introduced shrubs are generally carefree when they are well-chosen, thoughtfully placed, and planted correctly. Unhealthy plants have problems. Well, duh!, you might say! Any silly person could tell me that. But often, the solutions are obvious.
Healthy plants start with healthy soil. I know, BORRRING! To some, soil is a ‘dirty’ word that means cleaning up after planting. But instead of an afterthought, the soil must be the first thought.
Soil is a complex, living ecosystem. And like the deepest depths of the oceans or farthest reaches of the universe, the life happening underneath our feet is a relative mystery to most. Fortunately, a Ph.D. in soil science is not necessary to cultivate healthy soil.
The mineral soil, or percentage of sand, silt, and clay, is fixed and cannot be easily changed. Therefore, gardeners should improve soil fertility, structure, and organic matter content. To improve soil fertility, get a soil test and follow the lime and fertilizer recommendations. Improve soil structure using a garden fork or broadfork to relieve soil compaction. Then, add organic matter to really kick things into gear.
Soil organic matter improves fertility and structure by providing food for the organisms living in the soil. The soil organisms cycle nutrients, create pore space, and create ‘microbial glue’ that helps hold soil particles together for better structure. Additionally, organic matter increases the soil’s nutrient and water holding capacity.
Properly sited shrubs do not need pruning. There are a few instances when pruning is beneficial or desirable. Prune shrubs to remove dead, damaged, and diseased wood and crossing branches. Skip the ‘green meatball’ or ‘green box’ pruning. These garden styles are passe and do more harm than good to shrubs. See The Art and Science of Pruning for more information.
Lastly, add mulch around the shrubs. Mulch reduces water loss from the soil, moderates soil surface temperature, minimizes soil compaction caused by rain, reduces weed growth, and adds organic matter to the soil. Use organic mulches like bark, compost, pine needles, and arborist wood chips. There is some confusion about using arborist wood chips. If the wood chips are used as mulch and not incorporated into the soil, they will not cause any problems.
Also, get creative with mulching materials. I use fallen leaves, small cut branches, spent flower scapes from daylilies, trimmings from yellow jessamine, and small twigs as mulch around my shrubs. Apply a 2- to 3-inch layer of mulch from just outside the furthest branches of shrubs to as wide as desired. NOTE: Unlike with trees, placing mulch under shrub branches that are low to the ground is unnecessary. See HGIC 1604, Mulch, for more information.