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Front Yard Foraging: Using Common Landscaping Shrubs for Floral Design

In the very earliest days of the farm, greenery was an afterthought. Like many new farmers, I was focused on growing as many beautiful blooms as possible, and my seed orders and planting plans included few, if any, varieties grown for their foliage. As soon as I began assembling bouquets and designing arrangements, however, I realized my error. Greenery provides an important foundation in floral design – both visually and structurally – and many, if not most, arrangements look better with greenery in addition to flowers.

These days, we grow a number of plants specifically for their foliage – such as thornless raspberry, scented geranium, and eucalyptus. We've also planted a number of shrubs that do double duty as both foliage and flower producers, such as snowball viburnum, baptisia, and mockorange.

A few of the varieties that grow in our yard or in nearby areas

Before those plants ever produced a single stem of cuttable foliage, however, I turned to an existing source of freely available material: the shrubs growing in the yard and – because we live in a rural area – those rambling freely in the un-landscaped treelines around our property. Using these mature bushes allowed me to harvest the volume of stems I needed right away, without having to wait months or years for new plants to grow large enough to cut from.

Another benefit of front yard foraging is that some of these shrubs produce greenery early in the growing season, which can otherwise be very difficult to find. Lastly, the material we take from the shrubs in the front yard helps keep them in check – many of them would otherwise grow tall enough to block the windows on our house’s first floor, or take over the landscape through their unchecked growth.

Here is a list of a few of the shrubs commonly used for landscaping in our area, and how/when we typically use them. Keep in mind that we are in Zone 7, Virginia, and so what’s growing in your yard – particularly if you live in a significantly different climate – may be different. It’s also worth noting that the deer seem to leave all of these varieties alone, which is a huge plus.

Euonymus foliage in spring bouquets...

1. Euonymus alatus, also known as burning bush:

Euonymus foliage is one of my early and late season favorites. In spring, the foliage is bright green and the branching at the tips of each stem provide a “fan” of foliage. The soft and delicate greenery belies its sturdiness; euonymus foliage can last weeks in the vase.

...and in fall arrangements. Photo credit: Luke Eshelman Photography

At the end of the season, the foliage becomes bright red – giving the bush its common name – and while these gorgeous stems are usually too delicate to use in market bouquets, we use them lavishly in fall wedding arrangements. We rarely use the foliage in the summer, though. The leaves start getting tougher and darker and take on a dull cast, and there are far better greenery options available in the peak of the growing season.

It’s also extremely important to point out that while Euonymus alatus is a ubiquitous landscaping shrub in the mid-Atlantic region where we are located, it can be highly invasive, and it is actually illegal to sell in some northeastern states. I’ve thought about eliminating our bush for this reason (it was planted by the previous owners) but our liberal harvesting, together with its location in a wind-sheltered area that may keep the seedpods from scattering, seems to keep it in check. (I cannot say the same for the Barberry that the previous owners also planted. I ripped it all out long ago but still find baby barberry plants growing all over the place.)

2. Ilex glabra, or inkberry holly:

When most people think about holly shrubs, they picture plants with spiky leaves and vibrant berries. The inkberry variety, however, has smooth leaves whose diminutive size keeps them from looking too large or overpowering in arrangements. That said, their darker color and sturdy leaves aren’t, in my opinion, a good match for spring or early summer arrangements, when more delicate foliage is compatible with the season’s blooms. For that reason, we use it mostly in the fall. One of the best aspects of this shrub is the fact that it remains evergreen and doesn’t lose its leaves in winter. It’s one of my favorite materials for making winter wreaths.

3. Lonicera, or honeysuckle:

Like euonymus, honeysuckle is another variety that I love using in certain designs, but – because the plants that grow on our property are the Lonicera japonica variety, which is invasive in our region – we also find ourselves ripping it out of the treelines. Known for their twining vines and sweetly scented flowers, honeysuckle is one of my favorites for bridal bouquets and I often use it in centerpieces, too. If you’re considering planting honeysuckle, be sure to plant a native variety. In our region, that would be Lonicera sempervirens.

Honeysuckle vines have just the right amount of stiffness to hold their shape and create elongated visual lines in bridal bouquets. Photo credit: Rob Jinks Photography

4. Forsythia:

We mostly think of Forsythia as an early-blooming shrub known for heralding the coming of spring, with its cascading clusters of bright yellow flowers. But forsythia foliage is super hardy and its arching habit and durability make it one of my favorite choices for use in wedding installations. A few long branches do a superb job as the core foundation of greenery on a wedding arbor.

5. Chamaecyparis pisifera, also known as false cypress or just “cypress”:

Cypress, with their flexible, feathery leaves, aren’t commonly used in floral design. The variety in our front yard is a large, pyramidal-shaped shrub with leaves that are green on one side, and gold on the other, and, just looking at the plant itself you would probably never consider it for floral design. But the slender, needle-like leaves are a beautiful contrast to the other shapes and textures in an arrangement. I discovered its usefulness when I needed very early season foliage – a point in time when nothing but the evergreens have any greenery at all. Everything else growing at the time -- the hollies and boxwoods -- screamed “Christmas!” in a way that the cypress didn't. That said, I also love working it into holiday wreaths, for the gorgeous textural element it adds.

Flower girl crowns made with boxwood foliage and ranunculus, from a May wedding. Photo credit: Kayleigh Taylor Photography

6. Buxus sempervirens, more commonly known as boxwood:

Boxwood shrubs are a classic choice for creating neat, structured elements in landscape design. With their small, dense leaves and compact growth habit, Buxus sempervirens or Buxus microphylla are often found in front and back yards. We have several different varieties growing around the farm. Some we use almost exclusively for wreaths and other holiday designs, given their rigid stems and shiny, dark green foliage. But other varieties provide softer shades of green and more flexible stems that work well in spring and summer bouquets or weddings.

Of all these shrubs, I’m not sure I would plant any of them specifically for use in floral arrangements, in large part because my favorites for design work from this list – the burning bush and honeysuckle – are invasive in our area. But, especially in the early days of the farm, before the raspberry, mockorange, viburnum and other shrubs we planted specifically for use in our designs became large enough to harvest from, my front yard foraging trips provided the greenery backbone of most of our arrangements. My point here isn't that you should be growing any of these particular shrubs for your floral designs; it's simply to encourage you to look at what's growing around you and figure out whether/how to use it. Keep in mind that what doesn't seem attractive right now may be perfectly suited to a different season.

What’s growing in your front yard, and how do you use it in your designs?

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