Good old shrubs...

Last summer, when we were drenched week after week, I saw for the hundredth time in an ‘open garden’, the beauty of shrubs in summer.

These reliable plants are usually spoken of rather derogatorily-as dull of leaf, parsimonious with flowers, necessary, but unexciting out of season.

Nonsense, I shall have none of it!

In the same garden the herbaceous perennials were doing rather badly under the battering of rain. Delphinium blooms had split, browned, and collapsed to the ground like wet moths.

Low growing hostas had their chins in the mud whilst the promising display of roses had balled into mushy pouches.

The wet conditions were really taking their toll on the appearance-and spirit-of the garden.

Moving along, I came to an area filled with plump osmanthus, waxy viburnums, prickly holly, leafy box, camellias, Fatsia japonica, euonymus and variegated eleagnus, among others.

Despite the heavy showers and low light levels, this space was shimmering and glistening jewel-like.

Polished with rain, the leaves of the shrubs reflected back their colours and tones of black-green, blue, yellow and bronze. And then I came to the star attraction in the garden; a hedge of Photinia ‘red robin’.

This evergreen shrub’s main claim to fame is its striking young leaf colour of bright red which gradually become a deep bronze-green before reverting to dark green. Small white flowers are produced in wide panicles in late spring and early summer when mature.

In dimension, it is classed as a compact, rounded, bushy shrub which is totally hardy, except in spring when its young foliage can be damaged by late frosts. Gardeners are naturally anxious to encourage and promote these rich red growths and achieve it by pruning and the diligent training of wayward shoots especially when being grown as a hedge (see illustration).

The big question as always is ‘when is the best time to prune Photinia ‘red robin’? I would suggest mid to late August. Done at this time the bushes will put out new growths which will make a splendid addition to the late September and October garden, and they should be hardy enough by then to last all winter.

The new growth which follows in spring will also be red, thus making for a fine display over many months. And yet many find it difficult to keep ‘red robin’ compact and short-jointed without sacrificing some red foliage during summer.

When queried on this point a nearby grower suggested a gentle ‘tipping’ with pruners or shears whenever the need arises. This makes sense.

A sunny site is also necessary for this fine leathery shrub to come its best. Any reasonable garden soil will suffice but do avoid heavy clay.

The shrub has all the attractions of Pieris (flame-of-the-forest) but with the added advantage that it grows well in neutral and chalky soils.

Cuttings of ‘Red Robin’ may be taken during mid-summer and if placed in an equal parts peat and sand mixture will be rooted by late autumn. However, it could be all of three years before you have a proper plant which can be allowed develop into an impressive thicket.

Grown as a hedge, ‘Red Robin’ will be found to have all the virtues of a low-growing laurel but with none of the vices.


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