Sites for shrub-beds or belts can be found beside drives and paths, on the extremities of lawns, and on that half-way space or no-man's-land which often intervenes between the garden proper and the woodland. One often sees in gardens belts twenty or thirty feet thick of shapeless, graceless trees and tubby shrubs. Not a single tree or shrub in the whole area will bear a moment's inspection, and all the shelter that is provided would be given by a six-foot Laurel hedge. Consider the waste here.
The garden-maker should look out for good sites, and by no means be content to give his choice kinds the fag-end of a mass of Laurels, where the area is limited and the soil impoverished.
The fact that shrubs have to stand for many years should convince the planter that liberal preparation is necessary, and there should be no such thing as planting in poor, shallow ground. The soil should be dug deeply. Manuring is beneficial, but not, as some think, essential if the natural soil is a good loam or clay. The important thing is to provide a deep-rooting area, especially for deciduous shrubs; it is not so important for evergreens. Given this, most shrubs will thrive without heavy manuring. Manure is given with the greatest advantage as a top-dressing or mulching a few years after the shrubs have been planted. A coat spread on every other year has marked effects.
I have noted with an interest not unmixed with surprise, the rapid progress of shrubs on ground much lacking in humus and fibre, in some cases with chalk less than a foot from the surface. The loosening of the chalk is not a laborious process, and deepens the bed. It should be recognised that the great majority of shrubs do not share the dislike of Rhododendrons for limestone. The success of the shrubs in the absence of much manure points a lesson, and I have little doubt that water is more important than manure for the first two or three years. A shrub will not miss manure if it has plenty of water. He who can turn a hose on to a bed of newly planted shrubs in dry spells the first year after planting will do more for their future welfare than can be effected with a whole farmyard of dung. In light, sandy soil manure is beneficial.
When a mistake has been made in planting shrubs too thickly it should be rectified by thinning. The great majority of shrubs "move," as gardeners say, quite well when they have been planted three or four years. Evergreens move better than deciduous kinds. I have no fear whatever of moving most evergreens in summer, provided rainy weather prevails. In a wet August I have shifted numbers of evergreens of various kinds, some so large as to tax the energies of three men, and not a plant showed the slightest sign of flagging, either at the time of moving or later. Long before leaf-fall, big deciduous shrubs have been shifted, and they, too, remained perfectly happy. Shrub-lovers are far too nervous about shifting. It is this fear that leads to overcrowding. When new gardens are being made by people of limited means many good sites which are to be planted eventually with shrubs or herbaceous plants can be filled with annual crops - plain vegetables such as potatoes, perhaps - for three or four years. Such beds as are planted at the outset with shrubs and herbaceous perennials can then be fully furnished at once so as to get immediate effects, and when the things begin to crowd thinning can be practised, and new permanent beds formed. This is an economical way of making a garden and the interest is prolonged.
The reason why shrubs often fail under the shifting ordeal is that insufficient care is taken to lift them with a "ball" of moist earth round the roots. Perhaps, too, the roots are left exposed for some time. See the remarks on this subject in Chapter 10, where the best methods and the best times of moving the most important shrubs are stated.
Mistakes in planting are not more common than mistakes in pruning. In case "mistake" suggests something active, I had better substitute "neglect," for it is the passive attitude towards pruning which is generally responsible for the trouble that ensues. To put it in another way, more shrubs suffer from no pruning at all than from bad pruning. The habit of an ordinary garden Raspberry gives the cue for the pruning of the vast majority of leaf-losing shrubs, and just as the Raspberry forms weaker and weaker shoots as, under neglect, it becomes crowded with old wood, so do many shrubs suffer in their growth if the old stems are not removed periodically. I do not mean that the shrubs do not become thick, indeed, they become masses of wood; what I mean is that the energy of the plant is dissipated on a large quantity of small, thin shoots, none of which is capable of producing good flowers.
The shrub-grower can learn the flowering habit of his shrubs by merely looking at them while they are in bloom. A simple process, surely, and a pleasant. All that he has to do is to see whether the flowers of the spring-flowering kinds are borne on the young or the old wood, and his course is clear. If on the young wood - as most are - all that he has to do is to cut out the old and encourage new wood. The difference in the colour and texture of the bark would serve to distinguish old wood from young, even if the shrubs were not in bloom, but the thing to do is to study the habit of the plants while they are in flower, then there can be no mistake. By "young wood" I do not mean, in the case of the spring bloomers, shoots of the current year's growth, but shoots formed the previous year. This is the wood that gives the season's flowers. The young shoots that spring from the base of the plants will give the bloom of the following year.
From the pruner's point of view, shrub-wood is old directly it has gone out of flower, and there is no reason why it should not be cut away soon after the flowering is over in the case of those kinds which bloom best on one-year-old wood. The longer it is left, indeed, the more risk there is of its being forgotten.
In dealing with long-neglected shrubs, the first thing is to get rid of the accumulations of hard, dark, hide bound wood, several years old, which disputes place with the softer, paler young shoots. In shrubs that are pruned regularly there are no such accumulations, and the bush is always young.
There may be - there probably will be - cases in which cutting away the older wood right to its base means sacrificing a certain amount of young wood that has grown from the upper part instead of direct from the root. Here judgment is necessary. It may be desirable to leave the lower part of an old shoot for the sake of retaining a young shoot growing on it. But, broadly speaking, the old wood should go after flowering in most cases. For details see Chapter 13.
Do many failures arise in consequence of the absence of provision for special composts? I should be disposed to assess this as one of the least common of the causes of failure. The majority of shrubs, whether evergreen or deciduous, do not call for special composts. Rhododendrons like peat, it is true, and they share this liking with their close allies the Azaleas, with Heaths, and with the majority of American shrubs and other members of the Ericaceae; but modern experience goes to show that Rhododendrons, in common with many other peat-lovers, will thrive in loam, provided it is well drained and friable. They are not suited to clay, because this soil is apt to be dense. When, however, clay is made crumbly with additions of peat, leaf mould and wood ashes, it becomes suitable.
The matter of special composts may be considered in connection with hardiness. The rank and file of hardy shrubs and trees thrive in any fairly deep and substantial garden soil, such as loam or clay. The great majority do well on limestone if there is a foot or more of soil above the chalk; and most evergreens, other than the Ericaceae, are quite at home on shallow limestone soils, knitting their roots into chalk contentedly. But there are some kinds of imperfect hardiness in northern climes which are favoured by warm, friable, fertile soil, such as loam lightened with sand or leaf mould. The requirements of particular kinds are noted in Part 4.