How to Plant Foolproof Shrubs

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    LESLIE: Well, when you think of shrubs, you might not think of them as the most glamorous plants around. But the fact is that shrubs are the backbone of your landscape design.

    How to Plant Foolproof ShrubsTOM: Yep. But although there are hundreds of shrubs available, you need to make the right choice so they thrive in your local environment. Here to talk us through some great options is This Old House landscaping expert Roger Cook.

    Hey, Roger.

    ROGER: Hey. How are you doing?

    TOM: So, it’s no fun dealing with high-maintenance plants that require constant pruning or suffer from pest problems. So how do you select sort of a reliable, trouble-free shrub?

    ROGER: Well, we’re always preaching, “Get the right plant for the right space.” Sometimes, our maintenance problems are caused by us putting the plant too close to the house or a plant that gets too big. I can’t tell you how many houses I’ve seen with hemlocks, which want to get 60 feet tall, planted next to the front door.

    TOM: So it really is – just like real estate – location, location, location.

    ROGER: Mm-hmm. That’s true. If you’ve got a smaller area, buy a dwarf plant. If you’ve got something that’s high and skinny, get something that’s going to grow up conical so you’re not fighting it all the time.

    LESLIE: And it’s probably most important to also – that make sure that you’re buying a plant that’s right for your climate and your zone. I feel like I always want to put a hibiscus right in front of my house but I live in New York. That’s probably not the best idea.

    ROGER: Yeah. And Leslie, you have a greenhouse for the winter. You’re going to have trouble.

    LESLIE: I do not.

    ROGER: No. It’s an investment. Your plants are an investment, so you want to invest in the right one. You don’t want to put in, like you said, a hibiscus and have it die or have to dig it up and move it to a greenhouse and then bring it back. It comes back to my right plant, right place. If you put the right plant in there, it’ll do well.

    TOM: Now, Leslie, you mentioned your zone. There’s something called the USDA Plant Hardiness Zone Map. Is that going to be the key here? Is that going to be the treasure map that points us in the right direction?

    ROGER: That’s what we all start with so that I know I can’t plant something here in Florida and expect it to thrive. I can’t take a plant from here and go to Alaska and expect it to survive. So, if you go to your local garden center, every plant should have what zone it is on the tag of the plant.

    TOM: Now, you said something to me interesting – very interesting – a couple of years back when you and I were doing some coverage of the Sandy disaster in New Jersey. We were out on one of the islands and you noticed that all the plants that were natural to the island stayed behind and took that torrent of water. But all of the plants that were transplanted died.

    ROGER: It’s living proof of what we’re talking about. Yes, they may have been dinged up and covered with sand but they all came back.

    LESLIE: Now, what about soil type? I feel like soil plays such a big role in how well everything is going to thrive. And even before – I have terrible success in the garden. And so I would plant things by just digging a hole, putting something in, end of story. Once I learned to cultivate the soil and add things in and make sure that the soil was properly prepped, things started to thrive. So, if you’re like me, how do you know where to start to make the soil ready?

    ROGER: The first thing I would do is test the soil. And that starts off by sending a sample out to your local extension service. Now, they’ll not only tell you the pH of the soil but they’ll tell you a lot of different things, like how much organic matter, pH, nitrogen and all those things. So now you can add something – which they will tell you exactly how much to add – to the soil and turn it in. And now you have a great medium for the plants to grow in.

    TOM: That’s, essentially, going to give you the recipe to get that soil just right so that when you put your shrub in, you can be assured that it’s going to grow as expected.

    ROGER: And it’s an investment. You want it to grow well.

    TOM: Now, if you do have that perfect shrub in your garden and it’s growing well, what’s the most important thing to know about maintaining it?

    ROGER: Hopefully, you’ll have to do a minimum of maintaining once they’re acclimated to the site. And so, to get them acclimated over a year or two, you need to keep watering them. Not every day, not every other day but once or twice a week a good soaking. Don’t keep them wet all the time. Let the water drain out and then water them again.

    LESLIE: Roger, I think this is where people get really confused as to prune or not to prune and how much and when. I mean I certainly don’t know how to do it.

    ROGER: Well, the answer to the question is there is no one time to prune everything. They all flower at different times. And you don’t want to be cutting off the flowers that are coming for the next year. So I tell people the best time to prune is a day after the flowers turn brown. And that way there, you’ll be able to prune the shrub and you’ll still have flowers the following year.

    TOM: Roger Cook, the landscaping contractor from TV’s This Old House, thank you so much for being a part of The Money Pit.

    ROGER: Always happy to be here and talk about shrubs.

    LESLIE: Alright. You can catch the current season of This Old House and Ask This Old House on PBS. For local listings and step-by-step videos of many common home improvement projects, visit

    TOM: And Ask This Old House is brought to you on PBS by Gorilla Glue, for the toughest jobs on Planet Earth.

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