IT CAN FEEL downright Alice in Wonderland surreal to stroll past compact balls of blueberry bushes or a lilac blooming below the level of your gaze. Breeders are miniaturizing the landscape, downsizing plants from conifers to cucumbers to suit people’s busy lives and smaller gardens.
It’s about time.
Diminutive alternatives give space-challenged gardeners the chance to grow a rich variety of plants without acres of land and loads of time. It makes it possible to garden creatively and productively in window boxes and parking strips, containers and courtyards.
How do smaller-scale plants save you time as well as space? Petite shrubs, genetically coded to grow only a couple of feet high and wide, require little or no pruning. Take, for instance, Syringa x ‘Penda,’ a fragrant, dwarf lilac that blooms repeatedly through the summer. If you do prune this dwarf lilac, there’s no ladder involved. It takes minutes and a hand clipper, rather than hours, muscle and a lopper.
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I love barberries with their intensely burgundy or golden leaves, but their thorns make them a bear to prune. Not, however, if you plant diminutive forms, such as the ‘Crimson Ruby’ Japanese barberry that tops out at a tidy 2 by 2 feet. Dwarf, miniature and compact plants aren’t so likely to outgrow their space or infringe on their neighbors, either, so there’s less transplanting involved. And there’s much less biomass to compost or haul out come spring.
Edibles are part of the trend. ‘Blueberry Glaze’ is a new blueberry that is compact, boxwood-like and can be sheared into a hedge. It grows 2 to 3 feet high and is covered in midsummer with intensely flavored, deep blue berries.
Cherry tomatoes are the ultimate downsized fruit, but there are many more. Tiny pumpkins, like the white ‘Baby Boo,’ are only 2 to 3 inches at maturity. ‘Bambino’ eggplants grow only a couple of inches long, and ‘Baby Asian’ corn produces ears about the length of your index finger. You could grow a crop in a window box.
The shrinking of the plant world is most dramatic when it comes to familiar landscape plants. We expect hydrangeas, particularly the paniculatas with the cone-shaped flowers, to grow tall and leggy, pine trees to tower, and that old standby, evergreen pittosporum, to grow burly with age.
Pinus strobus ‘Blue Shag,’ with its bursts of soft, blue-green needles, gives a big dose of pine tree in a small package. It’s dense and thick, growing only 2 to 4 feet tall. And how about ‘Little Lime’ hydrangea, with chartreuse-turning-pink flower cones on a 3-foot-tall shrub? Pittosporum tobira ‘Turner’s Variegated Dwarf’ makes for a good low hedge or specimen plant, with its yellow-margined leaves and compact habit. It’s pretty much maintenance free, evergreen and grows just 30 inches tall.
But remember that descriptors like “dwarf” and “miniature” mean nothing except in relation to the plant’s original size. A dwarf version of a giant conifer might still grow 30 feet tall over time. So do your research.
Valerie Easton is a Seattle freelance writer. Check out her blog at www.valeaston.com.