Searching for the perfect shrub requires a little homework. Shrubs are planted for the long term, and they need proper light and soil conditions.

Shrubs are the backbone of the landscape, providing framework, color and texture and, in some cases, fragrance. They are woody plants that branch at the base near ground level and typically don’t have a central trunk like a tree. They can hug the ground or soar skyward. And some are trained or shaped into statuesque geometrical topiaries as living works of art.

They can also provide privacy, prevent erosion of soil conditions and serve as a windbreaker in your landscape.

Unlike perennials and annuals that can quickly fill a shopping cart, shrubs are less likely to be purchased on a whim. Since azaleas and nandina were inherited in my garden, shrub purchases have been limited to a few Hawthorne, sky pencil and hydrangea plants.

Apparently last summer’s drought played havoc on shrubs, and several friends and readers are replacing shrubs. So, a trip through several gardener center shrub yards seemed important. And it was an eye-opener! There are so many choices — large or small, sun or shade, no-bloomers or flowering specimen, foliage that is colorful, striped or ruffled, etc.

After one tour, old friend Bill showed me some of the old favorites growing around the Neumeier homeplace located in the middle of the nursery. Impressive were a tall camellia japonica that produces hundreds of large double flowers each spring; sasanqua camellia that he had pruned into a beautiful hedge; and near the backdoor, a cleyera that has dainty white blooms in spring and fruit that the birds love when it ripens in the fall.

I also saw aucuba that tolerates total shade. One variety has attractive gold specks in the leaves.

Among other shrubs that grow well in our hot, dry Arkansas summers and erratic winters are (in alphabetical order): abelia, azalea, beautyberry, boxwood, euonymus, quince, forsythia, hawthorn, holly, hydrangea, loropetalum, mahonia, mountain laurel, nandina, pyracantha, rhododendron, roses, spirea, viburnum, wax myrtle and weigela.

And in the midst of writing this column, Proven Winners’ 99-page booklet on “Gardening Simplified” arrived in the mail. It contains a lot of useful information.

For example, it advises gardeners to use the tag as “a little owner’s manual” for your new plant. Remove the tag, follow the instructions and store the tag for future reference.

Other good tips:

• For the best advice for warm climate gardeners: shop local. “These people are the real experts on what grows best in your area.”

• Don’t give up on a plant too quickly. Some plants may need more time to come to life, depending on the previous winter weather.

• Don’t be afraid to push a plant’s hardiness with a proper site. In many cases, plants not labeled for Zone 7 (our zone) can make it through the winter if the plant is located in a protected area near a wall that can create a microclimate.

“Gardening Simplified” also reminds us of these basic landscaping rules: plant in groups of three or more, consider the view from indoors, think long-term and plant for all seasons.

If you are like many gardeners who don’t want to spend time pruning, look for shrubs that require little or no pruning. For example, nandina needs pruning only to remove dead or disorderly branches, but boxwood looks better with a haircut every spring.

Most holly cultivars require little pruning. And while all make good specimen plants, the sky pencil (also called box-leaved) holly is attracting a lot of attention for its unique shape and endless possibilities — as a narrow hedge, a standalone ornamental or as an elegant, formal statement in a container. Its leaves lack sharp points and branches grow upward (hence its name sky pencil) without the need for trimming.

These have fascinated me since I first saw them in my grandparents’ native Italy years ago.

Whether you are in the market for one shrub or an entire hedge, read the labels, taking note of growing conditions and common pests.

Friend and White County Extension Agent Sherrie Sanders and others have produced a new guide for diagnosing and treating problems. Complete with wonderful photos of each problem, “Arkansas Common Landscape Problems” covers 26 diseases, such as powdery mildew, dollar spot in the lawn and anthracnose; 30 pests, including whiteflies, thrips and scales; and 28 common weeds, such as chamberbit, nutsedge and henbit. It is available free online at and can be downloaded on your phone or iPad.

While trees are usually planted in late fall, those in containers can be added to the landscape at any time. Planted properly, trees are easy to maintain year after year and are a wise investment for your yard and for your quality of life.

However, there are “10 easy ways to kill a tree,” according to a fact sheet from the University of Arkansas. Among them are:

• Plant tree that will outgrow a small space. Disregard overhead or underground obstructions.

• Plant tree in a small hole and leave the burlap (or container) completely around the root ball.

• Place a large mound of mulch against the tree trunk, or use no mulch at all.

• Use the tree as a bumper when lawn mowing or string trimming. Scrape off the bark and injure the live tissues underneath.

For the entire kill list and instructions (with illustrations) on avoiding these mistakes, Google the following:

Actress Audrey Hepburn once wrote, “To plant a garden is to believe in tomorrow.” This is especially true with shrubs and trees.

Next time, the topic will be: purple — you are in luck if purple is your passion in the garden.

Lucy Fry of Fort Smith is a level 4 Master Gardener and writes the area Master Gardener newsletter. Her column, Gardening for the Record, runs weekly in the Times Record. Send questions to