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Looking for shrubs to replace a lawn?

Home gardeners who replace their lawns are looking for savings of one kind or another, but often have difficulty finding a pleasing variety of species that require only minimal maintenance.

So is it worth it to take out the lawn?

Absolutely. You really will save water, time and effort. And if you love to garden, you'll have an opportunity to work with a wide variety of plants in place of a stretch of turf.

Low groundcovers, as described in last month's column, frequently lead the list of favored plants, but the most attractive landscapes combine contrasting heights, shapes, colors and textures.

Here are some easy-care suggestions for medium-size shrubs that partner attractively with low-profile plants.

Shrubs for structure

Medium shrubs 5 to 10 feet tall may seem quite large if you've never grown this size before, but one or more in any front or back yard lends an appealing focal point and helps define space.

You might choose evergreen escallonia or Pacific wax myrtle (Myrica californica) for hedging or a privacy screen and plant a contrasting species nearby.

A purple-leaf barberry (Berberis) makes a good screen also and contributes beautiful color spring through fall on gracefully arching branches. Its thorns discourage traffic, which can be either a positive or negative factor.

Purple hop bush (Dodonaea) furnishes similar burgundy foliage on a 6- to 10-foot upright shrub that can be used as a singular accent or treated as a hedge, either sheared or unsheared.

All of the above are deer-resistant, as is sun-loving Ceanothus Julia Phelps or similar Dark Star. Both are covered with small leaves and bright bluish-purple blooms in spring. To keep them in best form, trim away lower branches as they age.

Though not proven safe against deer, my current favorite is Ceanothus El Dorado, a strikingly beautiful evergreen species with dark green leaves edged in lime green. In April and early May, 2-inch clusters of blue flowers decorate its spreading branches.

Manzanita Howard McMinn (Arctostaphylos), coffeeberry (Rhamnus californica), and rockrose (Cistus species), all evergreen foliage plants with seasonal blooms, also make interesting accents among low groundcovers and take minimal irrigation and care.

Butterfly bush (Buddleia), which is semi-evergreen, makes a good choice for attracting hummingbirds and butterflies, but it must be cut to the ground each year to remain fresh and attractive.

Shrubs for shade

Camellia has long been a popular choice for planting in shade, but it requires the tedious daily task of picking off faded flowers to avoid an annual attack of petal blight.

A smaller, native evergreen species, bush anemone (Carpenteria californica), is more forgiving as it offers glorious anemone-like white flowers with yellow centers in late spring and summer. In hot microclimates, it needs partial shade as does the broader evergreen Mexican orange (Choisya ternata). It puts out lovely white summer blooms that repeat sporadically throughout the year.

Despite its reputation as a difficult plant, winter daphne (Daphne odora &‘Aureo-marginata) is not at all fussy as long as you give it fast-draining but water-retentive soil in a shaded site and little to no summer irrigation. Its highly perfumed blossoms are sumptuous January thru March and yellow-edged foliage decorates branches year-round.

Sweet Box (Sarcococca) slowly reaches about 5 feet but can be kept a little lower with pruning. Its glossy, dark-green foliage thrives in total shade with little to no water, more valuable features than its small but fragrant white blossoms or red-to-black berries.

Read all of the PD's fire coverage here

More choices

Spring-blooming deciduous shrubs such as mock orange (Philadelphus), beauty berry and beauty bush (Callicarpa and Kolkwitzia), lilac (Syringa), weigela, and spiraea all erupt in spectacular floral shows for several weeks, but have little to offer the remainder of the year.

Kerria japonica, in contrast, provides four-season interest with vibrant yellow blooms, deeply veined leaves that turn yellow in fall, and bright green bare canes in winter. The single-petaled species is far more attractive than K. j. Pleniflora bearing double yellow blooms.

For over five-dozen top shrub choices for local gardens, visit sonomamastergardeners.org and click on Top Plants.

Shop for many of these and more at the Master Gardener's Bloomin' Backyards Garden Tour, Sunday, June 3. Find ticket information on their website or at any Copperfields book store. The tour includes demonstrations and educational booths at each garden site.

Rosemary McCreary, a Sonoma County gardener, gardening teacher and author, writes the monthly Homegrown column for The Press Democrat. Write to her at P.O. Box 910, Santa Rosa, 95402; or send fax to 664-9476.