Unusual shrubs perk up a small garden

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If your garden is small, you may look with envy at gardeners with lots of land. Sizable plots can hold a wide range of woody plants, including large trees and broad shrubs that would quickly outgrow a small garden.

Whether you garden in a small city lot or a suburban townhouse, try to maximize the impact that each plant makes. A small garden doesn't have the room to grow a white pine, with its mature height of 80 feet and 30-foot girth, but it can accommodate a dwarf white pine. The bright yellow flowers of forsythia are welcome after a long winter, However, once the flowers are gone, the plant lacks visual interest. If you have room for only one shrub, perhaps a large green forsythia is not the right choice.

Breeders have broadened the palette of plants beyond the more staid and ungainly species available to gardeners of earlier generations. As always, the dictum of "right-plant, right-place" holds. Be sure to match site conditions with a plant's cultural needs. Know its mature height and width, allowing it to grow gracefully without need of pruning to keep it "the right size."

You're buying a plant, not a couch, and it is the wise gardener who knows that the cute little 4-foot-tall spruce trees beckoning them at the nursery will eventually swallow their entire garden. To that end, each of the following plants has the appropriate size and multi-season attributes that would add excitement to a small (or large) garden:

'Neil Z' Pucker Up! red-twig dogwood (Cornus stolonifera): Unlike its brethren, the foliage of this deciduous shrub is puckered, giving it a distinctive textured appearance. Grow in filtered to full sun and evenly moist soil. Mature size is 3-4 feet tall and wide. If space allows, plant in groups of 3, 5 or 7. Its bright red stems make a stunning display, especially in winter.

'Citrus Swizzle' Forsythia: A deciduous dwarf with gold-variegated foliage that is attractive long after its spring-blooming yellow flowers have fallen. Fall foliage coloration is burgundy-red. Best in full sun to light shade and, like most forsythias, it is tolerant of average soil conditions. Grows to a diminutive 1-1/2-2 feet tall and wide, making it perfect for smaller gardens.

'Kumson' Forsythia viridissima var. koreana: After the yellow spring flowers fade, the foliage takes over; imbedded within the dark green leaves is an unusual and striking network of white veins. This stunning forsythia grows 4-6 feet tall and wide, but it will tolerate light pruning. Grow in full sun and average soil conditions.

'Hokomarevo' Everlasting Revolution Hydrangea macrophylla: This new, deciduous dwarf blooms on old and new wood, but its claim to fame is its spectacular flower colorations. Flowers start out pink or blue (depending on soil pH) and fade to combinations of deep pink, maroon or blue,with green highlights as they age. Grow in sun to partial shade and well-drained, evenly moist soil. Can grow to 3 feet tall and wide.

'ILVOBO' Bobo Hydrangea paniculata: A charming, dwarf panicle hydrangea covered with numerous large white blooms in summer that take on a pinkish blush in the fall. Grow in sun to partial shade and well-drained, evenly moist soil. Matures at 3 feet tall and wide.

'Hegedus' Good Vibrations Juniperus horizontalis: a low-growing, spreading evergreen that is soft to the touch unlike many other junipers. In spring, the foliage is an attractive chartreuse color that changes to bright yellow, then orange in the fall. Grow in full sun and well-drained average soil conditions. Makes an excellent ground cover, growing 1-2 feet tall and 10 feet wide.

'Blue Jay' Pinus strobus: This diminutive evergreen is a cultivar of our native white pine, with a mounded growth habit and beautiful blue-green needles. Grow in full sun and well-drained, average soil. At 2-4 feet tall and 3-5 feet wide, it makes an excellent foundation shrub for a sunny area.

'Farrow' Bollywood Rhododendron: This is a very unusual semi-evergreen azalea with neon pink-red flowers in spring. The leaves make a dramatic statement for the remainder of the season with glossy silver and dark green variegation. Grow in sun to partial shade and well-drained, organically-rich, evenly moist soil. Matures at 1-2 feet tall and 2-3 feet wide.

'Tracy' Double Play Big Bang Spiraea japonica: Spireas are great under-used plants in home gardens. The foliage starts out pumpkin-orange in the spring, changes to yellow-gold in the summer and is topped with exceptionally large (for a spirea) pink flowers. Grow in full sun to light shade and well-drained evenly moist soil. Can grow 2-3 feet tall and wide.

'Huber's Tawny Gold' Taxus x media: This yew is a dense, spreading evergreen with beautiful, tawny-gold needles. The plant has a natural, vase-shaped growth habit, but it can easily be sheared. Best in full sun to light shade and well-drained, average soil. Grows 3-4 feet tall and 4-6 feet wide.

Choose some of these exciting new introductions for your smaller space, then sit and relax in your garden, reflecting upon the extra hours of mowing and weeding a large garden demands.


Steve Piskor is a Penn State master gardener and Pennsylvania certified horticulturist. Columns by master gardeners sometimes appear in place of the Garden Q&A by Sandy Feather, a Penn State Extension educator.


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