Like most garden designers, Wesley Rouse, owner of Pine Meadow Gardens Inc., a sought-after design-build landscape firm in western Connecticut, plays favorites, returning to certain plants that never fail to thrill and that excel in the landscape.
What does it take to turn his head? "All-season performance" tops his list. Here's a lineup of eight reliable, easy-care shrubs he uses for his clients and in his home garden and, in his own words, why they made the cut.
Why he plants it: "For its bulky background foliage year-round, with the perk of spring color."
Details: This massive family of plants contains something for every landscape if provided with moisture and sheltered under trees. Grown mainly for its showy, often fragrant flowers, which come in numerous shapes, sizes, colors, and bloom times, and for the leaves that are evergreen in some species.
Habit: Reaches 6 to 20 feet high, depending on the variety, and up to 25 feet wide.
Care: Grow in moist, fertile, humus-rich acidic soil (pH 4.5 to 5.5), in dappled shade. Surface-rooted, it needs a 2-inch mulch covering to stay evenly moist.
2. Drooping Leucothoe
Zones: 4-7, though some cultivars, such as 'Girard's Rainbow,' are hardy to Zone 9
Why he plants it: "It serves as a deer-proof groundcovering shrub."
Details: One of the finest broadleaf evergreens for naturalizing and perfect for massing under large trees and or on shady slopes. Its fragrant white flowers bloom in spring, and its deep-green, leathery leaves have a purple cast in winter. An excellent companion plant for rhododendron.
Habit: Reaches 3 to 4 feet high and wide.
Care: Grow in well-drained soil rich in organic matter, in partial sun; apply acid fertilizer after bloom. Water regularly during the first growing season to establish strong roots, and provide a 3-inch layer of mulch.
3. Redvein Enkianthus
Why he plants it: "In spring this shrub bears lily-of-the-valley-like flowers; in autumn the foliage is on fire."
Details: A large deciduous shrub of erect habit, with layered branches and small leaves that turn bright red, orange, and yellow in autumn. Best loved for its nodding clusters of small cream or reddish bell-shaped flowers from late spring to mid-summer.
Habit: Reaches 6 to 15 feet high and wide, depending on the zone.
Care: Grow in moist, organically rich, well-drained peaty acidic soil, in full sun to part shade. Blooms on previous year's growth, so any pruning should be done immediately after flowering.
4. Dwarf Korean Lilac 'Palibin'
(Syringa meyeri 'Palibin')
Why he plants it: "This is a mildew-resistant lilac that forms a dense shrub; it is easily clipped into orbs or hedges to look swell even after the spring flowers are finished."
Details: A dwarf spreading deciduous lilac with reddish-purple buds that open to fragrant pale-lilac flowers. Blooms profusely in mid-season, typically mid-May, and first flowers at an early age. Good for use in shrub borders or in groups to form a low hedge.
Habit: Reaches 4 to 5 feet high and wide.
Care: Grow in average, dry to medium-well-drained soil, in partial to full sun, where it blooms best. To increase the following year's blooms, faded flower heads should be removed before seeds set; prune for shape or size, as needed, immediately after flowering.
Zones: 4-9, depending on the species
Why he plants it: "Winter, summer, whenever—these evergreens form a lasting hedge or accent plant."
Details: For functionality in the landscape, few broadleaf evergreens can match boxwood, a large family of plants (more than 90 species). From small, slow-growing English boxwood to modern hybrids bred to adapt to varying climates, there's a cultivar for just about every garden.
Habit: Varies, depending on the species.
Care: Grow in loamy, loose, well-drained soil, in full to partial sun; keep tidy with periodic shearing or let it grow naturally.
6. Blue Mist Shrub
(Caryopteris x clandonensis)
Why he plants it: "A deer-resistant shrub that blooms when you least expect to see blue: in late summer."
Details: The mounding habit of caryopteris makes it perfect as a low border plant in masses and works wonders in dry, sunny spots. Hundreds of blue 1-foot-long flower spikes cover this plant in late summer.
Habit: Reaches 2 to 3 feet high and wide.
Care: Grow in very-well-drained sandy soil, in full sun; thrives on neglect. For a strong, dense shrub, cut back in late winter.
7. Blue Holly
(Ilex x meserveae)
Why he plants it: "It not only gives year-round structure but also serves berries to the birds."
Details: Named for its glossy blue-green leaves, this is a dense, vigorous shrub with shiny red fruit on female plants. Meserve hybrids require a pollinator to set fruit. Plant one male cultivar, such as 'Blue Prince,' for every 10 female cultivars, such as 'Blue Princess.'
Habit: Reaches 10 feet high and wide.
Care: Grow in average moist, acidic, organic soil with good drainage, in full sun to part shade. Good winter hardiness. Prune in early spring just before new growth begins.
8. Butterfly Bush
Why he plants it: "For a long spate of blossoms that bring in pollinators, such as bees and butterflies, by the drove."
Details: Amazingly tough woody shrubs with large fragrant, colorful flowers that attract butterflies and more into your summer garden. A prolific self-seeder, this can be an invasive pest in some areas; check local restrictions before planting it.
Habit: The size varies.
Care: Grow in well-drained, slightly alkaline (pH of 6.0 to 7.0) soil, in full sun, to ensure adequate flowering. Like most shrubs, it benefits from a 2-inch layer of organic mulch. Prune in spring to 2 to 3 feet to stimulate new growth and keep the plant's scale. Deadhead regularly to encourage reblooming.