Shrubs are the Next New Thing: a review of ‘Shrub Features’ by Michael King.

December 18, 2014

in Book Reviews, Reviews

Time to review an ebook – in this case a self published ebook by Michael King: Shrub Features. Many thanks to Sarah Coles for her perseverance and excellent review.

Michael may be best known for his work on grasses and meadows, and is co-author of with Piet Oudolf of one of my most battered and worn out books, Gardening with Grasses, but has recently moved on to consideration of what some people believe will be the next big thing – shrubs.

So this is an important review, because of its format and its subject and author.

And happy Christmas everyone!

Anne Wareham, editor

(the illustrations are not from the book, as I don’t have a copy)

Hydrangea leaves, Veddw, Copyright Anne Wareham

Sarah Coles:    

There’s no society called ‘Men of the Shrubs’. Unlike trees, no shrub has Champion status. The very word is related to the Low German shrubben meaning coarse, uneven, and the sound associates with scrub and scruff. Garden sections of home stores sell bedding plants galore, some trees and perennials, but precious few shrubs.

But is change in the air? ‘Bring back the Shrubs’ says Andy McIndoe, who has just brought out ‘The Creative Shrub Garden’. Why have designers gone soft, insisting on perennials and grasses rather than shrubs? On wet and windy days in late winter spring grasses and perennials can’t compare with a few good shrubs. As McIndoe, who has won an unparalleled series of Chelsea Gold Medal gardens for Hilliers, says, ‘gardens without shrubs tend to look strangely immature and lacking.’ They lack structure.

Now Michael King has produced ‘Shrub Features’, demonstrating their versatility in gardens of every size. His emphasis is on shrubs in the garden as distinctive features rather than grouped in the usual amorphous mass at the back of a border.

Cotoneaster at Veddw, copyright Anne Wareham SAM_8605

This is a book essentially for garden designers, and King wants a revolution. When shrubs are planted to screen a fence or wall, they are effectively cut in half. If brought forward inside the garden they can be viewed in three dimensions, and walked round. Repeating the same shrub through the garden brings harmony, like a motet in music.

Any shrub must work hard for its space, and ideally look good throughout the year. It’s a question of ruthless selection. Go for an evergreen or winter flowering shrub, or one with distinctive stems or twigs, or good foliage, form and colour. The more plus points the better, and be wary of passengers like lilac that only hitch a ride for two weeks of the year. You want a shrub of elegant form, not something that looks boring or like a haystack out of season.

The commonest mistake gardeners – and designers – make, says King, is ignoring the eventual size of the shrub. It invariably grows larger than they imagined or the book says. Don’t waste days pruning and cutting back, forcing the plant out of its true shape, but give it space to spread as nature intends, to display its true character. This also keeps maintenance to a minimum.

King has grown virtually every shrub he mentions – he writes intimately about habits, forms and their plus and minus points.   His illustrations are schematic sketches indicating scale, outline and colour. I could have done with some photos, though, to see how his shrub groupings might appear in actuality.

His preferred style, as you might guess from his eBooks on perennial grasses and prairie meadows, is relentlessly asymmetrical. No avenues, squares or perfect circles here. For inspiration he looks to artists like Kandinsky and Malevich with their patterned shapes, weird and sublime.   His sketched beds are shaped as irregular or oval blobs, or like shards of a broken mirror among grass paths, with the shrubs echoing and balancing each other.

Shrubs Early June 2 017 grey and purple border

This is the naturalistic gardening of today, but as he would agree since gardening is by its very act artificial, no more natural than any other kind. King says this style today brings an emotional resonance which people need ‘because we want to experience the freedom of the open field … that’s far removed from our urban existence.’ He says we need to emulate the feeling of spontaneous nature within the confines of our back gardens and local parks. Really? Some of us find the requisite emotional ping can be struck by a degree of formal symmetry which echoes the innate geometry within all living things. Formality can work in gardens, even today – besides, nature is all too ready to spring its own patterns on the most rigid of schemes.

The latter part of the book is detailed information on his recommended shrubs, and suggestions for grasses and perennials to fill the gaps before maturity is reached, or act as permanent companions.

Holly in berry at Veddw, Copright Anne Wareham

All invigorating good sense, though I did cavil at one or two suggestions. I would avoid like the plague that white stemmed Rubus cockburnianus, which suckers drastically and painfully, and I love the despised golden form of Ribes sanguineum, which makes a brilliant patch in my shady border. Don’t have collections, King says, they are boring except to other collectors. That’s just not true! I have been intrigued and inspired by collections, where related plants enhance one another.

A word of warning to the teccie challenged. Being new to eBooks, though proficient with Kindle, it took me hours to transfer the wretched thing from my computer to the iPad.   Advice forums, written by geeks for other geeks, were useless. I only hope I can manage it better next time.

Sarah Coles

Sarah’s website

Sarah Coles portrait copyright Sarah Coles


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Charles December 24, 2014 at 8:57 pm

Yes, a good review. I wonder if King also flags up the susceptibilities of some shrubs to disease? We had such a wonderful hedge of several different Cotoneasters at the back of our meadow and glorious though they were in Autumn with berry and foliage colour they have nearly all died.

Paul Steer December 21, 2014 at 2:39 pm

Well I always knew I was cutting edge. It makes me smile that what is deemed out of fashion can be suddenly championed as the ‘new’ and so it goes with most design – interior – garden etc. Round and round we go – ever finding those that aspire to be with it – tapping into their anxieties and opening their purses ! I’m with it – I just wait until what I have comes around again. I think that shrubs are by nature structural – but if you prefer not to use them – don’t. Respond to your eye, and spirit and build your sanctuary -and use red or yellow stems for the winter if that is what pleases you.

Angela Tolputt December 20, 2014 at 12:07 pm

Looking forward to giving this a read if it’s anything like as comprehensive as his ‘Gardening with Tulips’ book. I would love to use a greater variety of more interesting shrubs if only they were available in larger pot sizes. I’m frankly sick of Photinia! I would just say that many of the gardens I design do not have the space to put shrubs mid-border.

Julieanne Porter (@GwenfarsGarden) December 18, 2014 at 6:34 pm

Sounds like this book will provide so inspiration for gardeners too. I must admit that i rather ignored shrubs earlier in my gardening years, but in recent times have started to see the benefit of shrubs. So a book that inspires me to explore them further sounds ideal.

Sally Gregson December 18, 2014 at 3:13 pm

At last, a champion of shrubs! Too right the word has somewhat negative connotations, but the actuality brings structure and form to borders in summer, and particularly in winter. Those beautiful perennial and grass borders that are so fashionable, can be pretty depressing in winter. The grass advocates applaud the frosty awns, and rimed seedheads. But the reality is that we do have autumn and winter gales, and they do get knocked over to fall brown and dead across their neighbours.
Insert a few well-chosen shrubs and their woody forms keep the grasses upright in winter – if that’s what you like. And they need very little ongoing maintenance, provided they are chosen with thought to their final position. Unlike perennials which need dividing and re-planting every 5 or 6 years, shrubs keep growing for decades. As a fan of hydrangeas in all their forms, I say bring on the shrubs.

Katherine Crouch December 18, 2014 at 10:00 am

a good review which makes me want to buy the book, although I don’t think shrubs are the next new thing – they never went away, and all the designers I admire use the solid shapes of shrubs as a counterpoint to airy grasses and perennials. I just wish there was more variety in sensibly priced mature stock and more breeding of new small shrubs with personality. I am getting a bit fed up with box cones, balls and baps

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