Old-Fashioned Shrubs – Memorable Bushes For Old-Time Gardens

Old-Time Garden Style With Purple Flowered Shrubs
old time garden
(Image credit: David Arment)

Make new friends, but keep the old…” This old song applies to heritage shrubs as well as people. Planting vintage garden plants can connect you with beloved gardens from your childhood or provide a wonderful period landscape for a ‘new-to-you’ older home.

To select bushes for old-time gardens, go for the tried and true, the shrubs you remember from grandma’s house. Or pick from our short list of favorite old-fashioned shrubs. 

Why Plant Old-Style Shrubs?

Anyone lucky enough to come into possession of a house built long ago will need to work as hard on the landscaping as on the home renovations. Old-style shrubs and vintage garden plants complete the ambiance only an old home can offer.

Shrubs and bushes were so common in yesteryear that they are considered a traditional landscape planting for heritage houses. If you are wondering how to use bushes for old-time gardens, consider how they were used historically. Generally, this includes foundation plantings, topiaries, and hedging.

Using Old-Fashioned Shrubs

What exactly is foundation planting? The meaning has changed over the years. Originally, foundation plantings were rows of shrubs planted close to a home in order to hide its foundation. Today, that is no longer a thing, since the stone foundations of period homes are considered a wonderful addition and not something to be covered up.

Modern foundation planting means shrubs planted beside a house to soften the landscape lines, forming a “bridge” between the vertical surface of the home’s walls and the horizontal surface of the lawn. Plant old-style shrubs near the corners where the contrast is most dramatic. Shrubs can also be planted as standalones or in clusters to draw a viewer’s eyes to a long vista.

Topiaries are shrubs sheared into fancifully shaped designs. These give elegance or whimsy to a landscape, in contrast to row shrubs that serve as formal or informal hedges.

Hedges are a classic element in a vintage garden and provide “green” barriers to sound and sight.

Favorite Old-Fashioned Shrubs

There are no hard and fast rules about which shrubs elicit that old-fashioned feel, so if you remember some from your grandparent’s yard, don’t hesitate to consider them. However, if you want a few ideas for flowering shrubs widely planted generations ago, here are three favorites to add old-fashioned charm to your garden.

  • Forsythia (Forsythia spp.) – Forsythia is considered to herald spring with an early and stunning display of yellow blossoms; it grows to 10 feet tall (3 m.) in USDA zone 6.
  • Lilac (Syringa spp.) – Lilac was a feature in home landscapes most of the twentieth century, offering fragrant purple or violet flowers on bushes 12 feet (4 m.) tall, in zones 3 through 7.
  • Hydrangea (Hydrangea spp.) – For that old-fashioned look, pick smooth hydrangea with its huge, snowball-white blossom clusters, or bigleaf, with the same clusters in pink or blue based on the soil's pH. They thrive in USDA zones 3 through 8.
Teo Spengler

Teo Spengler has been gardening for 30 years. She is a docent at the San Francisco Botanical Garden. Her passion is trees, 250 of which she has planted on her land in France.