Great Plants for Small Gardens

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A cozy Seattle garden

In late June, I created a plantscape for a client with a very small yard, the smallest one I’ve ever worked on. She has a deck and a lovely set of risers dropping down to a tiny flagstone patio. That’s it for the back yard. The yard faces south and west so it’s hot and dry most of the summer. And luckily has nicely draining soil.

Because the borders are at most five feet deep and more often three, I chose trees, shrubs and perennials that I knew would grow either in a tall, narrow manner or in tight mounds. Here are some of the plants I used:

Physocarpus 'Little Devil'
Physocarpus ‘Little Devil’

Physocarpus opulifolius ‘Little Devil’ (also called ‘Donna May’). Most gardeners are familiar with the larger Physocarpus (or Ninebark) cultivars that grow ten to fifteen tall when happy. They’re wonderful shrubs to use because they come in various foliage colors and if you need to screen something fast, Physocarpus will do the job. They’re also super tough plants.

The problem with Physocarpus is they can take over your border. But recently, some smaller cultivars have debuted and they’re very exciting. ‘Amber Jubilee’ has orangey-yellow foliage, ‘Tiny Wine’ is a dwarf bronzy plant. ‘Little Devil’ tops out at about four or five feet and grows almost as wide. It has gorgeous burgundy foliage and light pink to white flowers. In winter, when the leaves drop, it shows off pretty, peeling bark. A great choice when you want a focal point but don’t want to wrestle with a hedge trimmer every year. It’s also hardy down to Zone 2. Full sun.

Spiraea 'Magic Carpet'
Spiraea ‘Magic Carpet’

Another small shrub I use often for clients (whether they have a large or small garden) is Spiraea ‘Magic Carpet.’ I can not praise this shrub enough. Spiraeas generally are workhorses of the garden. They like full sun, require little pruning, rarely get diseases, and bloom in usually pink or white corymbs that attract butterflies. Plus, in Spring, spiraeas are usually the first shrubs to leaf out and in ‘Magic Carpet”s case, leafs out with new orange growth. The more established leaves are yellow at this time, making for a beautiful contrast. I took this photo in early September. Notice how it’s still held this color combination so late in the season. ‘Magic Carpet’ is handy for any place where you want a low shrub that will grow in a tight mound while adding interest to the landscape.

Buddleia 'Blue Chip'
Buddleia ‘Blue Chip’

Buddleia davidii is now listed as a noxious weed along the West Coast so growers have been creating new sterile varieties and one such variety is ‘Blue Chip’ (also known as Lo and Behold). This is a smaller, more compact version of a regular buddleia but it blooms just as profusely with a light purple color. It too attracts butterflies. And I love that it blooms usually until frost. It just goes and goes. Again, no diseases, needs little pruning (one can cut it back to about a foot every few years if so desired), and doesn’t get leggy or oversized. Loves hot sun. Notice how my client played off its pretty purple color by adding that bold blue gazing ball. It really pops now.

Stewartia pseudocamellia
Stewartia pseudocamellia

One tree I like to plant a lot for clients is Stewartia monadelpha or Stewartia pseudocamellia. I think Stewartias are the most underappreciated trees out there. They can get to about twenty feet after several years but as far as small gardens go, they are the best.

What I like most about them is they grow in a flattish, behaved pattern. They don’t grow out on all sides, they just grow in more of a flattish oval or V shape. Therefore, they’re great for along a fence line or for screening. They can take full sun without missing a beat but also do just fine in part-shade. Mine have always been very drought tolerant. Plus, outside of some dead inner twigs on monadelpha, I’ve barely ever pruned a Stewartia. They get fragrant white flowers in June, then show off their either cinnamon or grayish dappled bark in winter. But the real show stopper is Stewartia’s fall color. It’s a brilliant orange that lasts for weeks!

Ceanothus ‘Dark Star’

I’m a fan of all Ceanothus shrubs that are hardy in the Northwest (and even some that aren’t). One of my all-time favorites is ‘Julia Phelps.’ For this client’s yard though I chose Ceanothus ‘Dark Star’ because of its lower height. There’s a window that we didn’t want to block and ‘Dark Star’ will accommodate this situation by growing wider than tall. It gets to about six feet tall and maybe eight feet wide. In May or June, it blooms in tight dark blue flowers that bees absolutely adore. They will cover it and work their magic. It smells wonderful. ‘Dark Star’ is a bit tender, hardy to Zone 8, but in a warm Seattle garden with well-drained soil it will do just fine over the winter. The only pruning Ceanothus require is the occasional cleaning out of lower dead twigs. But it can be shaped if need be. I like it better left as is, with its wild sprays jutting out. Pairs well with smoke bushes, spiraeas, phormiums, etc. Evergreen.

Loropetalum chinense 'Rubra'
Loropetalum chinense ‘Rubra’

I’d be remiss in talking about smaller shrubs if I didn’t mention Loropetalum. There are several cultivars of Loropetalum but I like Loropetalum chinense ‘Rubra.’

It holds its purple foliage throughout summer the best, I’ve found. (Can you tell I like purple plants?) And pair it with a Spanish lavender or Blue Oat Grass or even that ‘Magic Carpet’ Spiraea and you immediately have a stunning contrast. Loropetalums grow in a cascading mound, getting a bit wider and teeny bit taller every year. To about three feet or so. They’re sort of flopsy but their best quality is the spider-like blossoms (they’re a witch hazel relative) that are hot magenta. Gotta love that.

Two last plants I’ll spotlight, which I don’t have portraits of, are Chamaecyparis nootkatensis ‘Green Arrow’ and Carpinus betulus ‘Frans Fontaine.’ You can see a bit of the ‘Green Arrow’ cedar in the picture at the top of this page. It’s an evergreen that grows in a tight spire but has pendulous branches, making for a Dr. Seuss-like effect. Very cool looking. It only gets about three or four feet wide so if you want something tall but not wide, it’s perfect. It’s also virtually maintenance free and highly drought tolerant.

The ‘Frans Fontaine’ or Columnar Hornbeam is an outstanding deciduous tree that grows in a tight column. Carpinus trees usually have an elegantly spaced scaffolding and this cultivar is no exception. I used this tree to screen out my client’s neighbor’s gas meter. It will grow only to about six feet wide and about 20 feet tall while maintaining its narrow football crown. It likes full sun and if given that, will turn a pretty yellow color in fall.

Other great plants to explore for small gardens are: Weigela ‘Midnight Wine,’ Chamaecyparis ‘Blue Surprise,’ Cistus crispus ‘Sunset,’ and Acer palmatum ‘Sango Kaku.’

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