BARBARA Leach: Small Garden Plants

Let’s face it.  Most of us do not live in a sprawling mansion on a large tract of land.  Our landscape needs are for much smaller houses and properties. When designing for a small lot, choosing smaller versions of our old favorites will make maintenance much easier.  Keep in mind the size on the label is usually only projected for about 10 years of growth, so unless you plan on changing the landscape every 10 years, shoot for something that is labeled a little smaller than what will fill your space.

A spring flowering shrub that has long been a favorite in Virginia landscapes, the Snowball Bush, is a classic example of how common names can get us into trouble.  What most folks around here call a Snowball Bush is a Viburnum opulus; a European Cranberry Viburnum.  The species plant can get 12’-15’ high with nearly an equal spread.

While most of the many viburnums have fruit, the snowball bush is usually fruitless.  Hence, the name sterile sometimes appears after Viburnum opulus.  The cultivar ‘Compactum’ is an excellent small version of this plant.  At about ½ size, you can expect it to get about 4’-7’ high and wide.  If it is planted by a house or wall make sure to bring it out at least the radius of the plant plus room to get behind it to maintain the wall surface.  A minimum of 4’-5’ from a wall would be a good idea.

If that is still a little too large for you, consider the cultivar ‘Nanum’.  This dwarf form can be expected to be about 2-3’ high and about 3’-4’ wide.  Again, use your radius, plus a work/air space when judging how far to plant from a wall, fence, or property line.  You want plenty of air space around this plant, as they can get fungal leaf spots in wet years.

The native version, Viburnum trilobum, or American Cranberry bush also has a ‘Compactum’ version; about 6’ or so high and a little more open than its European cousin.  Unlike the European version, it does not have good fall color or the full ball-shaped flower.  It has a slightly domed flower.  If you are interested in native plants, however, this might be a good selection for you.

One of the hydrangeas is sometimes called a snowball bush.  The ‘Annabelle’ hydrangea is a smooth hydrangea with a big ball flower that gets 3’-5’ high, blooms later in the summer and blooms on new wood.  Newer smooth hydrangeas include ‘Incrediball’ (white), ‘Incrediball Blush’ (pale pink), and the ‘Invincibelle’ series, including ‘Invincibelle Spirit ll’ (pink), ‘I. Ruby’, ‘I. Limetta’ and ‘I. Wee White’ (just 1’-3’).  These are noted for blooming on stronger stems than ‘Annabelle’.

Do you think Deutzia is a great-grandmother plant similar in size to a lilac?  Well how about ‘Nikko’ that only gets about 2’ high but spreads to 5’ and makes a great groundcover for a bank?  It heralds the early spring with white bell flowers.  If you are looking for later summer color, there are many Crape Myrtles that truly are small shrubs and make great easy-care substitutes for fussy roses.  Try ‘Chickasaw’, a 2’ lavender-pink introduced by the National Arboretum or another of their selections, ‘Pokomoke’, a 3’-5’ dark pink.  The ‘Razzle Dazzle’ series of crape myrtle includes ‘Cherry Dazzle’, ‘Berry Dazzle’, ‘Dazzle Me Pink’, and ‘Snow Dazzle’.  These are listed as 3’-5’.

The breeding of old-fashioned Weigelas has come a long way and includes green, red, and variegated varieties. Averaging 2’-5’ you will find the best have been chosen as Proven Winners.  A quick search of will give details on the colors and sizes available.  Lastly, consider Abelias.  These old-fashioned semi-evergreen shrubs add a lot of interest to the blooming garden and attract bees, butterflies, and hummingbirds.  A quick search yields a variety of sizes and colors.

While I have only mentioned flowering shrubs, if you see something you like in a needled or broadleaf evergreen, or other type plant that is too large, find out the botanical name.  You can likely find a smaller version of it that will fit in your garden, whether as a specimen, a border, or even in a miniature fairy or trough garden.