Neil Sperry

These spring-blooming shrubs are the best at showing off

Want to plant a garden but aren’t trying to rip up your whole yard at once? Try this strategy

Learn a simple, add-as-you-go strategy for building a backyard oasis.
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Learn a simple, add-as-you-go strategy for building a backyard oasis.

It’s always a pleasure to introduce people to plants they may not have grown, particularly when those plants are megastars in the making. Such is the plant I put before you today.

And the curious thing is that this plant is one our great grandmothers grew. You’ll see it in older neighborhoods, but you rarely see it being planted in new garden designs.

So I’m setting up shop to promote its use starting right now. Of course, it may be sold out when you stop by your local independent retail garden center and ask for it, but perhaps they can order it in for you. It’s worth asking for.

And now to our featured plant.

They don’t make spring-blooming shrubs any showier than this one. If I told you it was native to China, and if you took one look at its flowers, you could name this one in an instant. Yep: Chinese snowball. Botanically, it’s Viburnum macrocephalum, but to those of us who have it in our gardens, it’s that big plant with the gloriously white flowers somewhere around Easter each year.

Chinese snowballs grow to be 12 or 14 feet tall and almost that wide. They do best in morning sun with shade in the afternoon. They need deep, highly organic garden soil that can be kept uniformly moist at all times. In that context, they fit in well with other shrubs such as azaleas, hollies, bridal wreaths and nandinas that you might be using in massed plantings around the sides or at corners of your landscape.

These will be the anchoring plants, much as you might use tall crape myrtles in a large bed if the planting were in full sun. These are the equivalent for part sun where crape myrtles might not bloom nearly as well. Plus, Chinese snowballs bloom so much earlier, they give a much longer flowering season to your garden design.

Since Chinese snowballs are deciduous, it’s best to surround them with dark green, evergreen shrubs. That’s where plants like Needlepoint and dwarf Burford hollies work especially well.

Then, if you want to create a “white garden” by planting other flowering shrubs that will bloom white at the same time, include mock orange (Philadelphus), bridal wreath, white azaleas and white Lady Banksia roses elsewhere in the garden.

Continue the white theme on into late spring and summer by including oakleaf hydrangeas, maybe one gardenia (be careful – they’re tender in our winters), white rose-of-Sharon and a lovely white crape myrtle such as Acoma (arching) or Kiowa or Sarah’s Favorite White (both superior to Natchez).

Maintaining Chinese snowball viburnums

This task won’t be difficult. They’re happy to have a chance to perform their magic whenever invited into your gardens. If you give them that deep, organic garden soil and keep them uniformly moist at all times they’ll respond with good growth.

Like any plants, Chinese snowball plants will benefit from a couple of feedings per growing season. The first should come immediately after they finish blooming in spring and the second should come at the beginning of September to take advantage of a second short growing season as weather improves in the fall. Unless you’re in an extremely sandy soil, an all-nitrogen, lawn-type fertilizer with half of its nitrogen in slow-release form will be best. Apply one pound per cumulative inch of trunk diameter each time and water it into the soil with a deep soaking.

No regular pruning is required to maintain Chinese snowballs, but erratic branches can be removed as needed. It’s best to do any major reshaping immediately after the plants finish their spring bloom cycle. Above all, don’t prune them in winter as they’re setting their young buds for spring bloom.

So here’s hoping I’ve stirred your curiosity in this outstanding landscaping shrub or small tree enough to give it a try in your garden. It does require a bit of space, but if you have the room, and if you’ve been looking for something fairly unusual and equally spectacular, this might just be the one.

You can hear Neil Sperry on KLIF 570AM on Saturday afternoons 1-3 pm and on WBAP 820AM Sunday mornings 8-10 am. Join him at www.neilsperry.com and follow him on Facebook.

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