IF YOU’VE EVER been surprised when a supposedly dwarf shrub outgrows its intended footprint in the garden, you’re not alone. Compact burning bush (Euonymus alatus ‘Compactus’), with growth to 8 to 10 feet, is compact only when compared to its 20-foot parent. It’s relative.

Likewise, it pays to pay attention to the fine print on plant labels. Chamaecyparis obtusa ‘Nana’ and Chamaecyparis obtusa ‘Nana Gracilis’ are both commonly called dwarf hinoki cypress. Yet the latter is a graceful conifer that grows to 6 feet tall, while the former tops out around 2 feet tall — it’s a telling nuance.


Scale is an important factor in a pleasing landscape. An oversized plant in a small garden can be a dramatic stroke of genius or loom like Gulliver among the little people, blocking doorways, paths and windows. Generally, I’m not one for minimizing a plant’s true nature, but plant breeders scored big — or would that be small? — with the following diminutive shrubs that thrive in today’s small-space gardens.

First, let’s get one thing straight: Plants never stop growing. However, a slow growth rate results in a smaller plant, even over time. So, put down the pruning shears, and pick the right plant for lasting garden pictures.

In addition to being suitable for pocket-size beds and borders, the following plants are excellent candidates for container plantings, where their good looks and restrained habit are a low-maintenance dream.


● Golden variegated abelia (Abelia x grandiflora ‘Kaleidoscope’) puts on a show from early spring to late fall. New foliage emerges bright green, with a golden margin ripening to deep green and creamy yellow in summer. Arching stems produce delicate white flowers and dusky pink bracts throughout the growing season, and the entire plant takes on burnished hues with cool weather in fall.

● Twiggy boxleaf honeysuckle (Lonicera nitida ‘Twiggy’) is a golden tuffet of tiny evergreen leaves on a densely branched shrub. A dwarf sport of the larger and rangier ‘Baggesen’s Gold’, ‘Twiggy’ brightens shady parts of the garden, where the foliage will be bright chartreuse. Plants grown in more sun fade to “bleached blond” as summer progresses.

● Compact heavenly bamboo (Nandina domestica ‘Gulf Stream’) is a tidy shrub with year-round interest. Leaves on the densely clothed evergreen shrub emerge bronze with orange tints before maturing to deep blue-green, gold and red, dramatic coloration that holds throughout winter. Unlike other heavenly bamboos that develop lanky canes over time, ‘Gulf Stream’ remains bushy and compact.

● Pee-wee oakleaf hydrangea (Hydrangea quercifolia ‘Pee Wee’) might have a slightly ridiculous name, but this handsome shrub, a scaled-down version of the straight species, is a beautiful addition to the garden. Characteristic lobed foliage emerges bright green in spring. By summer, the dark green leaves provide a foil for pyramidal panicles of white flowers that gradually age to pink. In fall, the foliage takes on bronze, maroon and burgundy tints, holding its color and persisting well into winter on woody stems with striking exfoliating bark.

You’ll find complete growing instructions for these and other small shrubs that live large on the Great Plant Picks website.