The Gardener Within: A look at lower, slower-growing shrubs that fit in smaller yards and require less work.
It used to be that everything came in “supersize” — from extra-large boxes of cereal to cars the size of whales to homes on half-acre lots, and more. Today, of course, it seems like everything is getting smaller, including the areas we have for gardening. Whatever your personal view of these paradigm shifts, there is a bright side: because more homes are being constructed on much smaller lots, combined with a shift back to an appeal for urban living, plant breeders have been introducing new varieties to fit the space-challenged gardener.
Lower, slower-growing shrubs are a good example.
These new, downsized dwarfs don’t need to be snipped and shaped every weekend to stay in bounds. Let’s face it: For many of us, there’s not a lot of time left over for yard work these days.
A dwarf shrub is pretty much anything under 6 feet tall; many are much shorter. Though 6 feet seems pretty tall, these grow so slowly that it takes years for them to reach full height. And that’s the key to understanding the term “dwarf”in the context of plants and trees. While these are usually smaller versions of their larger cousins, another major distinction is their slower growth rate to full maturity.
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Some shrubs have always been small, but needed tweaking. The deutzia tops out at 4 feet, but only blooms for a week or two and then looks ragged and messy the rest of the season. Now the cultivar “Nikko”stays neat and compact all summer, and puts on a great fall show, too.
Like their taller cousins, dwarf shrubs have many choices for bright flowers, interesting fruit, wonderful fragrance and autumn color. Their small size makes their uses in landscape design almost limitless. Flowering dwarf shrubs are great companion plants for perennials, while evergreens provide interesting textures and border backgrounds, and the shortest shrubs can be used to edge borders and walkways. And because they grow so slowly, they change little from year to year, preventing designs from quickly changing or becoming overgrown.
When looking for dwarf shrubs at the garden center, remember that plant names aren’t always reliable indicators. For example: Winged euonymus is 15 feet tall; its “dwarf”cultivar “Compactus” is 10 feet tall at maturity — hardly a dwarf.
Always check the plant tags for heights, and ask if you have any questions. Do your homework. If there’s a specific plant you’re looking for, most independent garden centers will usually be happy to order it for you.
Here are some great little shrubs guaranteed to be dwarfs:
• Golden barberry. Casual mounding shape doesn’t get over 2 feet; retains its golden color all summer; full sun, dry soil; USDA Zones 4-8.
• Cole’s prostrate Canadian hemlock. Rarely grows over 10 inches tall, but spreads 3 to 6 feet wide in 10 years; part shade, evenly moist, acid soil; USDA Zone 3-7.
• Hiryu azalea. Light up a shade garden with vibrant pinks in early spring; part shade, evenly moist, acid soil; USDA Zone 6-9. The Northern Lights series is hardy to Zone 4. At maturity, plants grow to 1 ½ feet tall by 3 feet wide.
• Golden St. John’s wort. Showy, highly textured yellow flowers on 2-foot-tall feathery foliage; full sun to part shade; adaptable to summer heat, humidity and dry, rocky soil; USDA Zones 5-8. The evergreen creeping St. John’s wort reaches only 6 inches tall, and is hardy to Zone 7.
Joe Lamp’l, host of “Growing a Greener World”on PBS, is a master gardener and author. For more information, visit www.joegardener.com.