Compact plants for smaller gardens

By Lynette L. Walther | Aug 28, 2014
Photo by: Lynette L. Walther Hydrangea ‘Bobo‘ is small in stature, but mighty big when it comes to flowers. The late-summer blooms cover the compact bush.

My neighbor is establishing the landscape around her new home, with both ornamental and food-producing plants, trees and shrubs. She is not rushing the process. A garden designer, she worked from the ground up — literally. Her No. 1 priority was the dirt in which she planted. Plants, shrubs and trees represent substantial investments, and the savvy gardener knows that it is vital to give them good ground in which to grow. Next my neighbor concentrated on “the bones” as she calls them, a series of trees and shrubs that form the backdrop for perennials and annuals yet to come.

Those “bones” perform another important function, for unlike the perennials that disappear once everything freezes, the trees and shrubs remain to provide some winter interest and maintain the garden’s structure whether they are deciduous or not. My neighbor is already thinking about winter.

It has made me take a hard look at my landscape, and what I discovered is that it has more “fat” than “bones.” In recent years I’ve received several smaller shrubs to test here. They had been planted here and there with little thought to how they fit into the whole. But now I am moving them into perennial beds to provide more off-season structure and balance as well as seasonal contrast.

Compact shrubs are a big part of a trend reported by National Garden Bureau, which says those shrubs are perfect for today's smaller gardens like mine. Compact plants have many benefits for the home gardener the NGB reports, not the least of which is less maintenance. Plant breeders recognize that smaller is often better so in specific classes, they have taken great varieties and are now breeding or selecting for reduced size. Take the Limelight hydrangea for example. Limelight is a robust grower that at maturity, is 7- to 8-feet tall. Little Lime however, is only 3- to 5-feet tall but offers the same green to pink flower coloration, perfect in a less spacious garden when the homeowner wants a hydrangea, but not one they have to prune in order to keep it the correct size for the space.

A little trick to easily finding a plant that is more compact is to look for the words little, dwarf, baby, patio, knee-high or tiny in the variety name, the NGB suggests. Then read the tags or description to get the actual size of the mature plant. Hint: if a plant tag or description says it's perfect for cut flowers, then expect it to be the opposite of compact because long stems are needs for most cut flowers.

Compact shrubs I am currently growing include an exciting new one, ‘Yuki Cherry Blossom’ Deutzia which tops out at 1- to 2-feet tall and produces flowing stems of pink cherry-blossom-like blooms. Viburnums usually mean tall bushy plants, but not two new varieties, ‘All That Glows’ and ‘All That Glitters,’ both of which top out at around 4 to 5 feet. Plus these handsome shrubs have glossy green foliage and showy white flowers in the spring. They also produce berries for wildlife.

Hydrangeas ‘Bobo’ (3 feet tall) and ‘Little Quick Fire’ (both hardy to Zone 3) prove that yes you can have a showy display of hydrangeas in less space. ‘Bobo’ produces mounds of white blooms in mid-summer and ‘Little Quick Fire’s’ lacy blooms are extra early, evolving into a rich red color. Prepare for a thick flurry of lovely white spring flowers with a new and improved pearl bush, ‘Snow Day Surprise’ which grows to about 4-feet tall.

Today’s spireas are nothing like those Grandma grew. Still the incredibly hardy shrubs we remember (good to Zone 3), spirea now includes diminutive and colorful selections such as ‘Glow Girl’ with white spring flowers, lemon-lime foliage and impressive fall color. Expect this one to top out at 3- to 4-feet tall. One of my garden favorites is spirea ‘Double Play Gold.’ This variety only grows to about 2-feet tall, and is easily shaped to a small mound for a double-dose of contrast. Brilliant limy foliage and hot pink blooms ensure that this one is a real garden standout. And there is another new one, Double Play ‘Blue Kazoo’ with blue foliage accented by red and white blooms in late spring. Expect this one to grow to 3-feet tall, and just imagine the things you can do with this colorful selection in the sunny perennial border.

Attract butterflies by the scores with any of the Lo & Behold butterfly bush lineup. Bloom colors include blue, white, lilac and purple and sizes top out at 2- to 3-feet tall. All of these new compact shrubs are part of the Proven Winners ColorChoice series of blooming shrubs.

According to the U.S. Department of Agriculture, blueberry consumption grew more than 500 percent from 1980-2010. Growing edibles is the perfect way to stay healthy, and anyone from young urbanites to seasoned gardeners can grow berries on compact new varieties such as BrazelBerries. They're as decorative as they are productive, offering compact, gorgeous foliage for any small outdoor space. And, all BrazelBerries are self-pollinating, so only one bush is needed to produce fruit. BrazelBerries Raspberry Shortcake, a thornless dwarf raspberry that grows to be 2- to 3-feet tall and produces mid-summer fruit. Grow in zones 5-9. Peach Sorbet blueberry is a four-season showstopper that grows to about 2-feet tall. Blueberry Glaze blueberry looks like a boxwood, but with nutrient-rich black berries. It grows 2 to 3-feet tall.

Interested in growing vegetables but have a small space? There are many compact varieties specifically bred for containers or small spaces that are great choices. ‘Astia’ zucchini is not only a compact variety, but it also produces extra early and in abundance. ‘Topsy Tom’ tomato produces cherry tomatoes over a long period of time, as does ‘Sweet 'n Neat’ and AAS Winner ‘Lizzano.’ Another AAS Winner, ‘Patio Baby’ eggplant, is the most compact eggplant you can grow, and puts out a huge number of small fruit, perfect for grilling. Many peppers do well in containers, but one of the most compact and prolific is ‘Sweet Heat,’ which has just a mildly spicy flavor.

Looking for green beans? AAS Winner ‘Mascotte’ is perfect for containers or in-ground gardens as it produces long, thin tender beans on plants less than 2-feet tall. If your small garden has some shade, consider leafy greens (lettuce, kale etc.) that can still do well with partial shade, as can most herbs, many of which are compact growers.

For perennials, some varieties are bred to be shorter so they are less “floppy." Coreopsis ‘Early Sunrise’ is a great example of compactness that has the bonus of being a first-year flowering perennial.

When buying annuals, if there is a need for a low-growing edging plant, consider the compact ornamental pepper ‘NuMex Easter,’ a recent AAS Winner that only reaches a height of about 8 to 10 inches. Or try the low-growing ‘Snappy’ snapdragons for a more compact version of a classic garden flower. Angelonia is another plant that typically grows up to 3-feet tall but a new series, ‘‘Serenita’, is a more compact version growing to only 24-inches tall; the pink ‘Serenita' is a recent AAS Winner. ‘Senorita Rosalita,’ a short cleome from Proven Winners puts on quite a show in a sunny garden or a container with robust non-stop blooms that do not flop over.

In a small garden, you do have more options than just going with compact plants; take advantage of plants that go up, or down. Try some climbers like Thunbergia (Black Eyed Susan vine), or the classy Dichondra ‘Silver Falls,’ which hangs straight down. ‘Summer Shandy’ ornamental hops (from Proven Winners) is a perennial vine with brilliant yellow-green foliage. A compact vine cucumber like ‘Patio Snacker’ or AAS Regional Winner ‘Pick-A-Bushel’ will climb up to the top of a modest sized trellis but won’t run rampant through the garden.

Lynette L. Walther is the recipient of the Garden Writers Association’s Silver Award of Achievement, and she gardens in Camden. Got questions, or comments? Visit her blog, and join in the conversation at: gardeningonthego.wordpress.com or ”friend” her on Facebook to see what’s new in the garden day-by-day.

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