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At Last: Show Time for Shrubs

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At Last: Show Time for Shrubs

June 5, 2024

Has there ever been a less rock ‘n’ roll category of plant than shrubs, subshrubs, and bushes? A new book, Shrouded in Light: Naturalistic Planting Inspired by Wild Shrublands, makes the case that woody plant communities have some important answers for gardeners trying to figure out how to design naturalistic landscapes in a changing world. Authors Kevin Philip Williams (gardener) and Michael Guidi (ecologist), argue that in the rush to embrace prairies and perennials, shrubs have fallen from grace—and our idea of a bush bears no relation to anything in the wild.

Above: At the Rachel Carson National Wildlife Refuge in Maine, fallow fields are converted into early successional shrubland habitat, through planting shrubs and initial mowing. They are crucial to the survival of dozens of animal species. Photograph by Michael Guidi.

In his excellent essay in the book’s foreword, Nigel Dunnett suggests that shrubland is closer to a natural landscape than prairie grasslands, which remain in an early successional state with grazing and fire. Neglected by us and not much grazed, the year-round, three-dimensional structure of shrubs is appreciated by the creatures that shelter in them, and the smaller plants that they shade and protect.

Above: “Atomic age junipers, neglected and thriving outside an abandoned mid-century modern structure in Denver, Colorado.” Photograph by Kevin Williams.

The cultural journey of clipped shrubs, from Sissinghurst Castle and Versailles to suburban gardens and parking lots the world over, gives them a  kitsch appeal that the authors have fun with. “As society advances into post-capitalism and our hastily produced infrastructure crumbles and is abandoned, the outlines of shrubs with which we have surrounded our homes will flourish and spread, creating shrubdivisions and shruburbs,” they write.

Above: More persuasive captioning: “On wide open dunes, shrubs act as refugia, creating microclimates and windbreaks, stabilizing surfaces and depositing organic matter.” Photograph by Kevin Williams.

Dunes and dune marsh-elder (Iva imricata), make a genuinely stunning combination. Shrubs are caretakers of ecosystems, and the dune marsh-elder is a dune protector, growing close to the tideline on much of the North American Atlantic coastline.

Above: Exciting, under-subjugated patterns in the mountains of Oregon. Photograph by Sean Hogan.

Thriving in places that do not respond to a plough, and generally “under-subjugated” by people, shrublands make their own arrangements of form, color and texture, in the kind of visual patterns that we would do well to try to follow. This one, including Cascade blueberry, western azalea and hoary manzanita, occurs in Josephine County, Oregon.

Above: A dry montane shrubland in Colorado, where a desert bioregion transitions into cooler, higher mountain conditions. Photograph by Michael Guidi.

Shrubs and trees were missing from the New Perennial Movement that took Europe by storm since the 21st century, yet the diverse shrublands of dry montane regions all over the world show gardeners how it can be done. With birch trees in the background, the silver foliage of mountain big sagebrush is mixed with pale yellow buttons of sulphurflower buckwheat and pale pink, sticky geranium.

Above: A chenopod shrubscape, framed by the graphic remnants of an acacia woodland in South Australia. “The limitations imposed on this environment have created a refined composition.” Photograph by M. Fagg.

The word “resilience” occupies an important place in the gardener’s lexicon in this century, and these landscapes, born of inhospitable conditions, offer that, as well as an under-examined beauty. Without referring to the “anthropogenic apocalypse” with quite as much gusto as the authors, we think they’re onto something.

Above: Shrouded in Light: Naturalistic Planting Inspired by Wild Shrublands, was published last week in the US by Filbert Press.

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Frequently asked questions

What is the name of the new book about naturalistic planting inspired by wild shrublands?

The new book is called 'Shrouded in Light: Naturalistic Planting Inspired by Wild Shrublands.'

Who are the authors of the book 'Shrouded in Light'?

The authors of the book are Kevin Philip Williams (gardener) and Michael Guidi (ecologist).

What is the main argument presented in the book 'Shrouded in Light' regarding shrubs?

The book argues that shrubs have important answers for gardeners trying to design naturalistic landscapes in a changing world, and that shrubs have been neglected in favor of prairies and perennials.

What is Nigel Dunnett's view on shrubland compared to prairie grasslands?

Nigel Dunnett suggests that shrubland is closer to a natural landscape than prairie grasslands, with shrubs providing year-round, three-dimensional structure appreciated by creatures and smaller plants.

What is the importance of dune marsh-elder according to the content?

Dune marsh-elder is described as a dune protector, growing close to the tideline on much of the North American Atlantic coastline.

What role do shrubs play in dry montane regions according to the content?

Shrubs and trees play an important role in dry montane regions, showcasing diverse shrublands that offer beauty and resilience in inhospitable conditions.

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