In times past when gardeners added shrubs to their gardens, it would be normal to bring home something that would grow to five or six feet high and wide at maturity. That meant you had to have a space large enough for the shrub or resign yourself to an annual pruning chore.
The good news is breeders have been busy these past few years developing diminutive shrubs. Not immature, but truly dwarf. They must have been reading the tea leaves about the housing trend to downsize. Smaller homes, less property, lower costs, etc. all contribute to this trend especially as baby boomers fully embrace their “retirement years.” But what if you still want to play in the dirt? Add beauty and color to your surroundings? Enjoy the fragrance of flowering plants through the season? Yet you just don’t have the space you once did.
Bam! Problem solved by virtue of an array of shrubs that now come in sizes as small as twelve to eighteen inches. Why shrubs vs. annuals or perennials? Let me count the ways. First, you plant it once, not every year as with annuals. Second, most shrubs need little or no maintenance—read deadheading and staking — as many perennials need. Third, in several cases today’s shrubs are repeat bloomers so you get color for much more than a few weeks. And the color can come from foliage, berries, and stems as well as flowers.
So let’s look at a few of these options. How about a shrub that grows in full sun to part shade, maxes out at 2-3 feet tall, and is hardy to zone 5? Meet Deutzia gracilis ‘Duncan‘ Chardonnay Pearls® You’ll be delighted with the pearl-white flower buds (hence the name) in May that will perfume your garden for about 3 weeks when they open to a profusion of fragrant white flowers. When the flowering ends, you’ve got a plant with attractive lemon-lime foliage for the rest of the season. That foliage can stand on its own or you can enhance it by using it as a backdrop for other seasonal color combinations.
If you have always loved lilacs but lack space for the traditional giant, you’ll love the new Syringa Bloomerang Dwarf® series with either purple or pink flowers. At 30-36 inches high and wide, Dwarf Pink® lilac naturally grows as a small, rounded shrub. The pure pink blooms that cover the plant in late spring reappear throughout summer and fall. Add to that lilac’s reputation for vigorous growth, hardiness down to zone 3, deer and disease resistance and you have a winner of a plant for full sun and average soil. If your taste is more toward purple, seek out Bloomerang Dwarf® Purple lilac. Same size, delicious fragrance, repeat blooming ability, deer resistance, hardiness, etc. What’s not to love?
For hydrangea lovers, be on the lookout for several dwarf options. Hydrangea arborescens Invincibelle Wee White® is a foolproof plant that blooms on new wood to give you mounds of billowy white flowers. Those flowers stay on the plant for the entire season and are joined by new flowers that the plant continues to produce. Invincibelle Wee White® is a tough little plant that’s hardy down to zone 3 and will fill a partly shady space of 12-30 inches in no time.
For other than a white flower, look no further than your options in the Hydrangea serrata Tuff Stuff™ series. Tuff Stuff™ sports lacecap flowers in either bright pink or deep purple-blue, depending on your soil pH. These plants are less affected by cold winters than big-leaf hydrangeas owing to their Japanese mountain heritage. Their lacecap flowers are pollinator magnets plus this dwarf plant needs little to no pruning, freeing you up to enjoy its repeat blooming habit. For a smaller space, try Tiny Tuff Stuff™. It has the same great characteristics of its big brother, but in a much smaller size: 18-24 inches high and wide. If you need to go even smaller, add Tuff Stuff Ah-Ha® hydrangea with its water lily-like double florets. Consistent with other Tuff Stuff™ hydrangeas, it reblooms throughout the summer until frost knocks it down. Flowers will bloom pink or blue, depending on soil chemistry.
For damp soils in part shade to sun, you don’t want to pass up Clethra alnifolia (summersweet) Sugartina® ‘Crystalina’
This native produces extremely fragrant white flowers in mid-summer that last through fall when its glossy foliage turns yellow. Find a small space to accommodate its 30-36 inches high and wide habit.
The last one for you to consider is Leucothoe Fontanesiana (drooping laurel) ‘Leafscape’™ ‘Little Flames’. This native is disease, pest and deer resistant. Consistent with drooping laurels, you get to enjoy the foliage all year long. The color comes from the tip of each stem as the leaves take on a red tint. But the best part is that once the temperatures cool off, the entire plant turns fire-engine red to provide striking winter interest. Find a small space of 12 inches wide to let this plant grow to its height of 20 inches. If you live where it’s colder than this plant’s hardiness zone 6, it conveniently fits into a container so you can easily move it to protect it from extremely cold temperatures.
You can help these and all your new plants get off to a good start by making sure your soil is healthy and alive with microbes. Adding some Coast of Maine Penobscot Blend Organic Planting Mix can do that.
There are lots more where these dwarf plants come from. Be on the lookout on your next visit to your favorite garden center.
Written by Lorraine Ballato, author of Success With Hydrangeas, A Gardener’s Guide