THIS YEAR’S THEME from the good plantspeople at Great Plant Picks, “Smart Plants for Small Gardens,” has value for landscapes of all sizes when you consider that anyone with a passion for gardening sooner or later feels squeezed for room. No matter how big or how small your growing space is, an exciting garden comes down to the right combination of plants.

Great Plant Picks is the primary educational program of the Elisabeth C. Miller Botanical Garden. Each year, horticulture professionals from throughout our maritime region volunteer to evaluate and select the very best plants for Pacific Northwest gardens. The pros pick the plants, while GPP staff members organize lists and categories that make up a database of more than 1,000 plants. The website ( is easily accessible and an amazing resource for Northwest gardeners.

The Northwest Flower & Garden Festival returns with all the promising colors, inspiration and hope of spring

I asked Richie Steffen, Miller Garden executive director, what characteristics define the plants on this year’s list. “GPP selections have always leaned heavily on foliage and texture,” he says. “Basically, it’s about making every plant in your garden pull its weight throughout as many months of the growing season as possible.” Fleeting flowers need not apply.

If your garden is limited to a few pots on the patio, you’ll want to check out the “Captivating Containers” category of dwarf conifers, Japanese maples and compact shrubs that bloom for months. “Not only are these good garden plants, but many of the selections have been tested for longevity in containers, unlike annuals that need replacing every year,” Steffen explains.

Other categories include “Urban Sturdy” and “Snug Spaces.” If you’re planting a narrow parking strip, or any number of urban situations, such as shaded lots or cramped conditions, you know how challenging city gardens can be.


Bergenia ciliata ‘Dumbo’ is a star in the garden and containers alike with bold, slightly fuzzy foliage that provides dramatic contrast to smaller leaves. The plant produces pastel pink flowers in spring, but really, it’s all about the 12-to-14-inch leaves.

Other perennials include lilies that can be layered into any garden to introduce seasonal interest. Lilium ‘Scheherazade’, a towering orienpet lily that soars to 6 to 8 feet, is topped by clusters of richly fragrant crimson blooms edged with ivory. Pro tip: Check out the lily vendors at this week’s Northwest Flower & Garden Festival for choice varieties.

With a tidy habit, Fuchsia ‘Dying Embers’ is fully hardy and grows to just 1½ to 2 feet tall and as wide. Lightly shear the dense growth in spring once new leaves appear. Dramatic yet delicate smoky red and deep purple blossoms appear from early summer until first frost.

Steffen also praises Acer circinatum ‘Burgundy Jewel’, a purple-leaf selection of our native vine maple. “Spring leaves emerge green blushed with purple, then ripen to a deep wine,” he says. Summer growth comes in reddish orange before fading to burgundy, followed by reliably consistent fabulous fall color. The list goes on and on, but Steffen specifically extols columnar golden yew (Taxus baccata ‘Standishii’), a slow-growing, vertical accent in the garden. New growth is golden yellow, like a beam of sunlight on a gray spring day.