This section is from the book "The Gardener V3", by William Thomson. Also available from Amazon: The New Organic Grower: A Master's Manual of Tools and Techniques for the Home and Market Gardener.
Shrubs and shrubberies have become institutions as settled as they can very well be under our regime of recurring cold winters, during which the shrubs are emasculated or shortened over, or entirely cut down. The inventor of shrubberies evidently arrived at the ultimate limit of the average human mind with regard to this question; for he has had imitators without number in past times, and they are as plentiful at the present day. There are, of course, minor features of detail to be found, but the main features are alike and unchangeable. The lines for the proposed shrubbery bed or border are laid down, the ground prepared, and the shrubs planted in regular order and at regular distances, like so many vegetables of uncertain breed. Weeds are kept down with the greatest severity, or allowed to flourish more or less, according to the exigencies of the labour power, until the shrubs themselves put an end to the fitful struggle by smothering the unfortunate weeds. And then they begin amongst themselves to fight the battle of the fittest, until an extra-severe winter recurs and thins out the half-smothered tenderlings; and for a few years longer the Laurels and Yews have peace, and the Hawthorns and the Lilacs revel in plenty, and give an abundant return of sweetest odours, until these now large monsters approach and touch each other, and are choked for want of air above and food beneath; when some day - as no amount of rough pruning will prevent their straggly limbs from being seen - the whole are decapitated, and a fresh lot of youngsters are set in amongst them to fill the spaces, until the rapidly growing giants again assert themselves, and the smothering process is renewed.
With variations these processes are going on throughout the length and breadth of the country. Landscape-gardeners, with their carefully prepared plans,. may fill in their shrubberies with plants, some of which are to be permanent in their occupancy, and the greater number tenants at will; but the worst of these arrangements is that the "padding" is never removed, and the shrubbery when full-grown is only a mass of crowded specimens; and all along the newly planted groups are treated in the light of a portion of the garden, to be kept as tidy as possible through a free use of the hoe, and sometimes of the rake. There are few things which strike one so painfully on an estate as this matter of large shrubs huddled together, and killing each other. There is no reason whatever that it should be so : shrubs are not like a forest of trees grown to produce the greatest amount of saleable produce in a given amount of space; shrubs are grown either as blinds or screens, or as features of ornament, and one and all of these ends can be fully gained without working on the rough-and-ready principle, which has nothing to recommend it other than covering bare soil quickly in the first place. But here again there is no reason for shrubs to grow in a bed of bare soil.
Where thorough preparation of the soil is necessary, by all means let it be made, but not to the length of making and keeping the shrubbery like a small nursery. After shrubs have once got a grip of the soil, they flourish quite as well with ground covered with grass round them and kept mown, as they do when growing in a bed of bare soil. But these matters apart, the principle of crowding shrubs together is not a good one. In old places where this system has been in practice for many years, and where shrubs are grown closely together, change is not easy; but wherever alterations are in progress, or new grounds are being laid down, there is an opening for something better for the shrubs. Shrubs are not treated with sufficient breadth; they are tolerated, as it were, as necessary evils, so much space being marked out for them in certain positions, without thinking of the ultimate effects. They are huddled into corners as blinds, and dibbled together in lines or groups as screens, in as little space as possible, to get them to do well for a few years. The ground for shrubs is as niggardly dealt out in policies of tens or hundreds of acres, as if the whole belongings of the place were included in units.
Why should this be 1 Surely a shrub, healthy and well developed, is in itself an object of beauty, as much as is a tree or a tiny flower. Why, then, not allow more space to our shrubberies, more room to our individual shrubs, dotting them, as it were, in groups of single specimens on lawns, with grass underneath and around them, and space sufficient when well grown to allow us to walk in and out amongst them? and with shrubs as blinds it only amounts to granting a little more space, so that they may not be crushed up against buildings or walls, but allowed sufficient room to develop naturally. There is also this practice to be noted, of planting valuable Coniferae amongst the commoner shrubs. In all such cases, unless the shrubs are entirely cleared out and the Conifers left, this practice means certain destruction to these. Then there is another practice which cannot be recommended, the mixing of dwarf-growing shrubs with those of coarse and quick-growing habit. This is just as bad in its way as the last-mentioned. These refined little fellows should have places by themselves, just as we try to keep our dwarf-growing flowers from getting overgrown by ■coarser subjects.
Flowers in shrubberies are not in their most becoming positions; and though we have them there, besides many other objectionable features to contend with, the thing we should like to see would be an entire remodelling and rearranging of the place which shrubs occupy in the garden. The subject is worth thinking over. R. P. B.