Great Plants for Small Spaces

Updated Jan 25, 2013

Get maximum impact in limited spaces with these compact versions of popular cultivars

Creating a first-class design for a small garden isn’t simply a matter of using fewer plants than usual. The perennials, shrubs and trees upon which you rely for your other designs may look out of scale in small spaces, and they may take up more than their share of square footage, limiting the variety of plants you can include. Standard-sized selections may also need extra maintenance to stay in their allotted space.

Fortunately, plant breeders have recognized the growing trend toward smaller landscapes, and exciting new compact cultivars are hitting the market every year. Some of these introductions owe their smaller stature to shorter-than-normal stems, which means they’re far less likely to require staking and trimming than their full-sized counterparts. Other cultivars have a more restrained growth rate than usual, limiting their height and spread without the need for frequent division or pruning.

Here’s a rundown of some cutting-edge introductions, along with some time-tested cultivars that are a perfect fit for space-challenged gardens.


Perennials have long been popular for adding seasonal color, but today’s homeowners typically don’t have the space or time for extensive perennial borders. You can still incorporate many traditional border perennials in small gardens, though, if you choose the cultivars carefully.

For sunny gardens, it’s tough to beat the rosy pink daisies of purple coneflowers (Echinacea purpurea), but the plants can reach 4 to 5 feet tall. Scaled-down selections such as Lilliput, Pica Bella and PowWow Wild Berry are barely half that size but offer the same showy flowers. Bold border phlox (Phlox paniculata) another summer favorite, also has received special attention from breeders. They’ve developed cultivars that are both compact and disease-resistant, including the Flame Series and the Volcano Series, in a range of colors.  Bee balms (Monarda hybrids) are magnets for hummingbirds and butterflies, but their height can make them too large for smaller gardens, unless you choose pint-sized selections such as red Fireball, purplish Grand Parade (Acrade) and light pink Petite Wonde 










Shady sites also have their share of space-effective selections: compact perennial cultivars that produce lovely leaves for all-season interest.

Color Flash astilbe (Astilbe x arendsii Beauty of Ernst) reaches 1 to 2 feet in bloom, with pink plumes over green new foliage that takes on reddish and purplish shades as it matures. For a new twist on old-fashioned favorite bleeding heart (Dicentra spectabilis), try the hybrid Burning Hearts: It blooms for months over ferny blue foliage but is barely 1 foot tall.









In small spaces, standard-sized shrubs can serve the purpose of trees, but you still need small- to medium-sized woody plants to provide a transition between the tallest plants and the low, herbaceous layer.

Butterfly bushes (Buddleia davidii and hybrids) bloom for months but can be too big for small gardens unless you choose compact versions such as Adonis Blue (Adokeep), Blue Chip and Peacock (Peakeep). The Cityline Series of hydrangeas and Let’s Dance Series (Hydrangea macrophylla) include low-growing selections of the much-loved mophead and lacecap types Hot pink flowers for spring and deep purple foliage on low, bushy plants make Dark Horse, Midnight Wine (Elvera) and Minuet excellent alternatives to full-sized weigelas (Weigela florida)








Some trees you’d typically think of for larger landscapes now are available in smaller sizes, too, giving you interesting options for seasonal interest.

At 50 to 70 feet tall, river birch (Betula nigra) is too large for a limited space, but you can enjoy the beautiful peeling bark on 15- to 20-foot plants with Little King (Fox Valley) or Tecumseh Compact (Studetec).  Bring the fascinating foliage of a ginkgo (Ginkgo biloba) into space-challenged gardens with Jade Butterflies, Mariken and Spring Grove – they reach just a few feet tall. There are even apple trees that fit in tiny spaces. Columnar varieties such as Scarlet Sentinel and Stark Crimson Spire (Obelisk) can reach 8 to 12 feet tall but only 2 feet wide.









Wholesale Sources

For a complete list of wholesale sources for plants described in this article, go to

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