Shrubs are the backbone of any garden and can take a landscape from blah to brilliant. They provide structure, seasonal interest, and many serve dual function by providing food for you or wildlife (or both!)
Beautiful, Low-Maintenance Shrubs to Plant in Fall
The 20 shrubs highlighted here are tried and true low-maintenance superstars. Consider adding whichever you like, whether you want more blooms or to attract wildlife to your garden. Or, for a true multi-purpose garden that's attractive all year long, add at least one from each category and watch your garden flourish.
Flowering Shrubs to Plant in Fall
Who doesn't love flowers? And getting flowers with almost no work on your part is even better. Aside from adding beauty to your garden, these shrubs also provide a nectar source for pollinators such as bees and butterflies.
The scent of lilac is so evocative of early summer, and the blooms look stunning arching off of the shrub or arranged in a vase. You can find lilacs in gorgeous shades of white, pink, blue, and purple. And while many think of the common lilac, which can be a large, sprawling, suckering plant, there are many cultivars that are compact and don't sucker.
Lilac is hardy in zones three through seven, and bloom in late spring and early summer. They range in size from four to six feet tall for dwarf cultivars, up to twelve feet tall and wide for common lilac. Plant in full sun. Lilacs are not picky at all about soil, growing well in everything from almost pure sand to clay, but it's best to avoid soggy, constantly-wet areas.
Stunning fragrance and loads of small white blooms on arching, graceful branches... mock orange truly has it all. Not a member of the citrus family at all, mock orange (or mockorange) still carries the scent of citrus blooms when it flowers. The only drawback of mock orange is that it only blooms for a week or two in early summer. However, the smooth, dark green leaves and almost fountain-like habit make this a shrub worth growing even when it's not in bloom.
Mock orange is hardy in zones four through eight, and requires very little maintenance. Pruning should be done after it's done blooming because next year's blooms will appear on this year's growth, but otherwise, it's a very easy shrub to care for. Plant in full sun to partial shade, and they do best in moist, well-drained soil.
Forsythia, with its cheery yellow flowers in mid to late spring, is always such a welcome sight after a long, gray winter. Not only do forsythias bloom abundantly, but they're very fast-growing shrubs as well, able to grow two feet or more per year. As with mock orange, they bloom on the previous year's growth, so you'll want to do any pruning shortly after forsythia is done blooming.
Forsythia has a very graceful, delicate form when allowed to grow naturally. It's hardy in zones five through nine, and can grow eight to ten feet tall and just as wide. However, for smaller gardens, it's easy to keep it to a more manageable size with yearly pruning. Plant in full sun to get the most blooms. Forsythia aren't overly picky about soil, but they don't do as well in very wet, waterlogged areas.
Honorable Mentions: Quince and Hydrangea
Fast-Growing Shrubs to Plant in Fall
If you want a nice shrub border fast, consider the plants below. Of course, these shrubs don't just grow quickly; all of them provide beauty, blooms, and food or nectar sources for wildlife as well.
Red Twig Dogwood
Red twig dogwoods truly have it all: they're fast-growing, have delicate-looking white blooms, produce berries that provide food for birds, and provide winter interest thanks to their bright red stems.
Red twig dogwood is hardy in zones three through eight, and grows to around 10 to 15 feet tall and just as wide, though it can be kept smaller through regular pruning. They grow well in full sun to part shade, but, to get the most vibrant red bark, you'll want to plant them in full sun. A spot with fertile, well-drained soil works best for these all-purpose superstars.
This is another plant that's just a marvel. Fast-growing, gorgeous blooms, nice fall color, and berries for wildlife (depending on variety). There are several different types of viburnums, from cranberry viburnums which get bright red berries and have stunning, orange-red fall color, to doublefile viburnums that get masses of white flowers and whose leaves turn deep purple in autumn.
No matter what type of spot you need a shrub in, you're likely to be able to find a viburnum variety that works for you. Most of them grow anywhere from four feet tall to 20 feet tall, depending on variety, and equally as wide. In general, you'll want to plant viburnum in a spot where it has plenty of room to spread (which it will in almost no time) and has full sun to part shade. A spot with moist, well-drained soil works best to keep them growing their best.
Pussy willows, with their fuzzy catkins in spring, are another multi-purpose shrub. They grow quickly (around two feet per year!), provide beauty to the landscape, and are an important nectar source for late spring pollinators. They're also easy to care for and not fussy in the least.
Pussy willows are hardy in zones five through eight, and can grow eight to 15 feet tall, depending on variety. They grow best in full sun, but can withstand partial shade. They grow well in almost any soil, but are happiest and grow fastest in a moist spot or if they get regular watering.
Honorable Mentions: Privet and Beautybush.
Shrubs for Fall Interest
Lots of shrubs offer colorful foliage in the fall, but the ones highlighted here are absolute showstoppers, and are attractive during the rest of the growing season as well
Burning Bush (Euonymus alatus) is an attractive, large shrub that has medium-green leaves for most of the growing season, which makes it a nice backdrop for annuals, perennials and bulbs. But fall is when this shrub really shines, as its leaves turn a bright, vibrant red shade that seems to light up the whole garden. In spring, it has small white flowers that eventually mature into berries, which birds seem to enjoy.
Most burning bushes are large shrubs, growing up to 15 feet tall and nearly as wide. However, you can look for compact cultivars, such as 'Rudy Haag,' which only grows to around five feet. Or you can prune heavily in late winter or early spring to keep the plant's growth in check.
Burning bush isn't picky about soil conditions, and it grows well in full sun to part shade. It's hardy in zones four through eight, but it's best grown in cooler regions, since it can become invasive in warmer areas.
Witch hazel is another amazing multi-purpose shrub. It grows quickly and is low-maintenance. It's also one of the earliest plants to bloom in spring, sometimes even blooming when there is still snow on the ground. Most types of witch hazel are hardy in zones four through eight, and grow up to 20 feet tall and wide. American witch hazel often blooms around December, while others bloom more toward spring.
The leaves, which are a medium green through the spring and summer, turn shades of deep, burnt orange in autumn, adding a nice pop of color to the garden. Witch hazel grows best in full sun or filtered shade, and needs regular moisture, since dry conditions will result in fewer blooms.
This is one of those plants people either seem to love or hate, but there's no denying that its intense foliage brings plenty of color to the garden. Smokebush can grow quite tall, 15 feet or more, unless it's pruned every year in spring. It's the blooms that seem to divide people. Its feathery, wispy blooms make it look like there's purple smoke wafting from the ends of the branches. However, when the blooms start to drop, the wispy remains of them can blow around everywhere. So this is maybe not the best choice for those who like a very tidy garden (though you can always deadhead the blooms before they fall off, or even before they fully bloom if you don't like the look of them.)
The foliage is the true star here, though. The leaves are usually dark green in summer, but then turn a deep shade of reddish-purple in the fall, and this deep, intense tone adds so much interest to the fall garden that it's usually worth the bit of extra maintenance smokebush might require. Smokebush is hardy in zones four through eight and needs full sun to light shade and average garden soil.
Honorable Mention: Fothergilla and Sumac.
Shrubs for Wildlife
If you want to invite more wildlife into your garden, be it birds, bees, butterflies, or all of the above, there are several shrubs that can provide nectar, pollen, berries, and shelter for them.
Elderberry is a must-have in any garden. In spring, these large native shrubs bloom, their flat umbels of white flowers perfuming the air all around them in a scent that practically shouts "summer!" As the season goes on, the blossoms drop, turning into green, then purple, then almost black, small berries. Birds absolutely love elderberries, and if you leave them on the plant, they're a welcome food source in late summer for your local birds. Butterflies and bees are attracted to the blossoms, and you'll find your elderberry blossoms covered with them while it's in bloom.
And, if you're into making your own herbal remedies and concoctions, there's even more reason to love elderberry: the flowers and berries can be turned into wine, syrups, and other items.
Elders need full sun to filtered shade and average garden soil. You'll have to water them in very dry weather until they're established, but after that, they pretty much take care of themselves.
Like elderberry, currants (black, red, white, or pink -- any currant is a good currant!) are multi-purpose shrubs. These large shrubs bloom in panicles of delicate white flowers in late spring, which soon develop into small, tart fruits. If you leave them, your local wildlife will thank you for it, but you can also harvest some of it for your own use. Currants make delicious syrups, jellies, jams, and fruit leathers.
Currants are hardy in zones three through eight and need full sun to light shade (though they produce more fruit in full sun.) They're tolerant of pretty much any type of soil and grow very quickly, reaching a maximum height of three to six feet wide and tall.
Serviceberries are related to cherries, and can grow into a large shrub or small tree, depending on variety. In late spring and early summer, they bloom, forming white, almost lilac-like panicles of blossoms. These soon form small green fruits that turn bright red as they mature. The blossoms are like magnets for many pollinators, and the berries are a favorite of wild birds.
This is yet another plant that has multiple uses: pretty, pollinator-friendly blooms, attractive green leaves in summer, and fruit that's good for either people or wildlife (or both, if you feel like sharing.) The fruits can be turned into jellies and jams and have a taste similar to tart cherries.
Serviceberry is hardy in zones two through nine and will grow well in any soil that isn't waterlogged. For optimal blooming and fruiting, they should be planted in full sun.
Honorable Mention: Hawthorn and Spicebush
Fall Is the Perfect Time to Plant Shrubs
Whether you want spring blooms, fall interest, wildlife habitat, or all of the above, there are plenty of shrubs to plant in your garden in fall. A well-placed shrub can make your garden look brand-new and can provide color and structure all year round.