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Deciduous shrubs

Dynamic, ever-changing garden players

Deciduous shrubs are so often overlooked when planning a garden, with people often opting for evergreens instead (unless they’re in flower at the garden centre).

Leafless stems in winter are usually not that decorative, but you have to see the bigger picture.

Deciduous shrubs are dynamic, changing with the seasons and often providing fresh spring foliage, flowers, fruit and autumn leaf colour.

Evergreens are static in comparison. They also blend well into mixed borders, with varieties from knee height to small trees – in fact, many can be shaped to fulfil this role. Here’s my top 10 – easy to grow and source.

Weigela: from 1-2.5m, funnel-shaped flowers May-June. Best varieties: W. variegata – masses of pale pink flowers on arching stems with white-edged, grey-green leaves. Prune if needed after flowering.
W. Bristol Ruby: bell-shaped, deep red flowers open from plum-coloured buds.
W. florida Monet: mini version, reaching just 90cm. Soft pink flowers, variegated foliage – green in the centre surrounded with a deep band of cream, edged with rosy pink. It will tolerate some shade.

Spiraea japonica Goldflame: this all-singing, all-dancing shrub has been around a while. The foliage emerges each spring with a bronze-red flush, but as the leaves mature they turn yellow, then luminous green. In mid- and late summer, clusters of dark pink flowers appear, loved by bees. Compact (1m), deadhead after flowering. In early spring, hard prune the flowered stems to a permanent framework 10-15cm above the ground.

Berberis thunbergii f.atropurpurea: the traditional purple variety – many new variegated forms exist. Red-tinted, pale yellow flowers in spring and rich purple leaves, which turn red in autumn. Tolerates partial shade. It’s also great as a thorny hedge, reaching about 1.5m.

Rhus typhina (stag’s horn sumach): an upright, deciduous shrub or small tree with finely cut dark green leaflets turning orange-red in autumn. Spreads by suckering, so avoid planting too close to a lawn. Conical clusters of yellow/green flowers June-August – on female plants followed by deep red fruit.

Cotinus coggygria Royal Purple (smoke bush): large deciduous shrubs or small trees up to 5m (can be restricted by pruning) with purple leaves, turning red in autumn, and large, plumy panicles of flowers in summer, followed by purple fruit. Excellent backdrop to a ‘hot’ coloured bed.

Sambucus (black elder) Black Lace/Black Beauty and golden elder: glossy, purple-black divided leaves and scented pink flowers in early summer, followed by edible black berries. A pink cordial can be made from the flowers and wine from the berries. Unpruned it will reach 4-5m, but prune to around 1.5-1.8m. Prune hard in late winter for bigger, more impressive leaves. Best foliage colour in full sun.

Chaenomeles (Japanese quince) – C. x superba Jet Trail: pure white cup-shaped flowers on bare stems in early spring from February to May. Ornamental and edible golden fruit ripen in autumn and are suitable for making jelly. Max height 1m, spread 1.2m. Tolerates light shade.

Cornus alba Aurea (golden dogwood): soft golden-yellow leaves in spring and summer, turning pink, orange and crimson in autumn. Glossy red stems are an outstanding feature in winter. Height and spread 1.5-2.5m, but best winter stem colour achieved by pruning up to half the shrub back hard in March.

Buddleja (butterfly bush): don’t let ease or popularity put you off. A brilliant late summer bloomer, loved by butterflies, with attractive grey foliage. Many varieties, including Harlequin (variegated), Black Knight (dark purple), and Buzz (approx 1m tall). All buddlejas benefit from hard pruning in early spring. They flower on new growth, so prune in March, to form a low framework.

Sorbaria sorbifolia Sem: a dwarf suckering shrub to 1m with attractive feathery foliage, with a pink/cream tinge in spring. In summer, plumes of white flowers float above the foliage. Great autumn colour.