Most people with small gardens want the same thing: a beautiful, dynamic garden that looks good yet also marks the passing of the seasons with flowers and fall color. What they don’t want is a garden overwhelmed with plants too big for the space. One sees it all the time—the holly that was so petite at the garden center has now taken over an entire postage-stamp garden. Or one spends all their spare time trimming back overlarge azaleas and viburnums to the point that they become shapeless blobs.
Finding plants that can scale into small spaces can be a challenge. More often than not, the solution lies not with popular nursery shrubs. I've found success with a combination of evergreen and reblooming perennials, well-behaved varieties of ninebark and deutzia and finally, a boxwood alternative.
Start with Multiseason Perennials
Given their thick, lustrous evergreen foliage, remarkable cold tolerance (to at least USDA Zone 4) and increasing popularity, no garden seems complete without hellebores. A hellebore bloom is quite similar to one of its cousin, the buttercup: shiny petals (technically sepals) surround showy nectaries, stigmas and stamen. Sepals can be freckled or pure, in shades of white, pink, red or even black (‘Onyx Odyssey’ or ‘New York Night’). Did I mention they are deer resistant?
Helleborus orientalis is the true Lenten rose, but H. x hybridus offers more varieties that also tend to have more upright blooms (others are nodding, making the plant less showy). Leaves are dark green, mottled and have thickly serrated margins. Cousins include H. foetidus, or stinking hellebore, which has showy, deeply divided leaves and, as one can guess, a fetid odor; and H. argutifolius, or Corsican hellebore, with leathery, thick leaves and a taller habit.
Bearded irises are perhaps a little old fashioned. Even as rendered in Disney’s Alice in Wonderland, Iris germanica (Zones 3–10) is stuffy and aloof. But the plant’s silvery, swordlike foliage and its blossom’s ruffled falls are reasons enough to reexamine this plant. To add to its list of advantages, look at varieties such as ‘Clarence,’ ‘Immortality’ and ‘Pure As Gold’, all of which bloom in the spring and once more in the fall. I don’t mean a few straggling blossoms, easily overlooked as mums and kale are being planted. I am talking about a bevy of fall blossoms, in white, yellow, purple, ombre and more, brightening up gray autumn days and surprising friends and passersby alike.
Bearded iris can be hard to find, in part due to the rhizomes from which the foliage and blooms emerge. Rhizomes like to be thinly mulched and to grow near the surface of the soil. With such preferences, they don’t behave well for propagators. Top-heavy specimens can practically jump out of containers, if they establish there at all. It’s best to seek these plants out in the fall as bareroot rhizomes and plant them with your allium and daffodil bulbs.
Once they are in your garden, bearded iris thrive on benign neglect. Don’t mulch them, don’t baby them, don’t overwater. They will multiply quickly, allowing you to harvest pieces and replant them in any sunny spot where a less hardworking plant met its demise.
A relatively new addition to the long list of lavender varieties, Lavandula xintermedia Phenomenal (‘Niko’) is bred for cold tolerance and an ability to withstand, hot, humid summers, making it a must-have for mid-Atlantic gardens. A common misperception is that lavender is not cold tolerant. That’s not exactly true. Lavenders do not tolerate having cold and wet feet. Put them at a bottom of a slope and they may not survive a cold snap in October. But plant them in soil that’s been amended with sand, and perhaps backfill the plant pit with loose gravel, and the plant can survive Zone 5a, and possibly Zone 4. If the fragrant blossoms and aromatic foliage aren’t reasons enough to use this plant, remember it is also evergreen and deer resistant. Like iris, it shouldn’t be babied. Put it somewhere sunny and well drained and only water it when absolutely necessary.
Add Double-Duty Shrubs
With small gardens, foliage is possibly more critical than blooms for building year-round interest. Perennials bloom for a few weeks, but plants with interesting foliage provide color throughout the growing season. With this in mind, check out Tiny Wine ninebark (Physocarpus opulifolius ‘SMPOTW’) and Chardonnay Pearls deutzia (Deutzia gracilis ‘Duncan’).
Like the more popular ‘Diabolo,’ Tiny Wine is a red-leaved ninebark with light pink rosettes in spring. The burgundy foliage, which turns bright red in fall, allows small gardens to have more depth and interest. Tiny Wine reaches three to five feet tall and three to four feet wide and grows in Zones 3 through 7.
Chardonnay Pearls deutzia is a small shrub, growing to two to three feet tall and wide and hardy in Zones 5 through 8. Like the more popular ‘Nikko,’ it has bright white flower buds that are as showy as the star-like blossoms that quickly follow. But what makes Chardonnay Pearls compelling is its chartreuse foliage. A lime-yellow color, it brightens shady spots and pairs beautifully with the burgundy foliage of the above-mentioned ninebark or a purple coral bells (Heuchera).
For an evergreen option, try sweetbox (Sarcococca). While a single shrub may not make a powerful contribution to a garden, sweetbox planted in multiples is a must-have for small spaces. A member of the boxwood family, sweetbox tolerates shade, resists deer and offers the added bonus of a light, sweet fragrance. Flowers are diminutive—you will smell them before you see them—which makes the plant feel like a well-kept secret.
Traditionally, S. hookeriana var. humilis was the species available in the marketplace, though a bit of a rarity. The plants’ stoloniferous habit made it slow to establish in containers and thus an unreliable plant for propagation. However, two new cultivars have been gaining traction, in part because they are easier to propagate: Fragrant Valley (‘Sarsid1’) and Fragrant Mountain (‘Sarsid2’). The former stays low and small, maxing out at 18 inches high, while the latter can reach about two and a half feet in height. Both are hardy to Zones 6 through 8.
While it’s related to boxwood, sweetbox is not mired in a seemingly existential battle with blight. Consider it as an alternative to low, spreading boxwoods like ‘Justin Brower’s’ or ‘Vardar Valley’, consider it as an alternative to groundcovers like pachysandra—whatever you do, consider it!
The cultural requirements of the plants listed here vary, all of them have something in common: they are workhorses that provide flowers, structure and interesting foliage, for a modicum of precious space.
'Immortality' iris: Anne Adrian/CC BY 2.0
Phenomenal lavender: Walters Gardens
Ninebark and deutzia: Proven Winners