Compact Shrubs

Why using compact shrubs?

No other group of plants is as sustainable as compact shrubs, which includes small deciduous and evergreen shrubs as well as conifers. These three types of plants combine to beautiful garden scenes offering intriguing foliage colors, textures, flowers, berries, fall colors and winter aspects. Since they don't grow very large, they usually require little or no pruning. Once established, they are very efficient in suppressing weeds, and some of them are excellent, fast-growing groundcovers. They are woody plants, which means they are generally long-lived, and don't require re-planting. However, they do require patience. Some of the compact varieties are dwarf forms of otherwise large trees and shrubs, which means they have slower growth rates. Dwarf plants can take a long time to reach maturity.

When establishing a garden with slow-growing shrubs, it is recommended to prepare for the wait. The open space between the shrubs is best planted with a good, reliable groundcovers, such as Bigroot Geraniums, Pachysandra and Moss Phlox.

The following photo gallery only contains the most reliable compact shrubs for New England. Unusual plants or expensive specimens are not included (a list for these will follow).

Scientific Name

Generic Name, size

description

Acer ginnala 'Emerald Elf'

 

'Emerald Elf' Dwarf Amur Maple, rounded form, reaching 5 to 6 ft.

a vigorous and robust shrub with deep green, healthy foliage during the season, and a brilliant red fall color. Useful in small groups to tone down otherwise very colorful gardens, and larger scale landscape plantings. It is a resilient little plant suited for difficult locations.

Caryopteris incana 'Sunshine Blue'

 

'Sunshine Blue'(R) Bluebeard, a small shrub 2 to 3 ft. wide, is a patented plant.

bluebeard is usually planted for its blue summer flowers, but this variety starts brightening up a garden when it leaves out. The foliage is golden to chartreuse green and can be used in many ways to add contrast and light into shrub plantings and even perennials borders.

Chamaecyparis pisifera 'Filifera Nana'

 

Dwarf Threadleaf False Cypress will grow to a height of 5 to 8 ft., perhaps more, but can easily be controlled by pruning without destroying the character of the plant.

This coniferous shrub adds an interesting texture to a garden, serving more as a focal point rather than being used in a mass planting. The drooping foliage suggests movement, similar to a weeping tree.

Cornus alba 'Ivory Halo'

 

'Ivory Halo' Red Twig Dogwood reaches as height of 3 ft. and a width of 4 to 5 ft., however, its spread can be controlled with pruning.

a medium-sized shrub, much smaller than other red twig dogwoods, with a finer branching structure, variegated foliage and red stems in the winter. The winter color is best if plants are pruned regularly. Cut out the oldest one quarter of stems in the winter.

 

This small shrub is tolerant of light to medium shade, and the white-variegated foliage brightens up a dark corner. I used it in combination with flowering shrubs and evergreens.

  Daphne x burkwoodii 'Carol Mackie'

 

 

The beautiful Daphne 'Carol Mackie' is a small to medium-sized shrub, growing rather fast to a diameter of 3 to 4 ft. The shape is rounded when young, naturally mounding when mature. It is evergreen in mild winters.

 

This plant is famous for dying the sudden Daphne-death, but I found it a very resilient plant once established. It dislikes wet, poorly draining soil. I am sure it would not survive lawn sprinkler conditions for more than two weeks. And as long as it is still in a pot, is suffers tremendously from high temperatures of the roots when the sun heats up the black pot walls. Never keep a container plant unprotected in the sun. And frequently  do forget to water them! Once I figured that out, I had no more casualties.

 

I planted Daphne in full sun or full shade, with equally good success, and I used them in locations with root competition, which they don't seem to mind.

 

The beauty of this plants lies in its foliage as much as in its fragrant flowers. From a distance, it looks like a grey-leaved plant and contrasts well with dark green and purple foliage.

 

Erica carnea 'December Red' and Erica carnea 'Springwood White'

 

Winter Heather is easier to grow than Calluna and definitely hardier; count on 2 to 3 ft. spread per plant

December Red and Springwood White are two good varieties of Winter Heather that I have in my garden since 10 years without hardiness problems. They have formed dense, weed-free groundcovers of fine-textured foliage. Best used to set of bold textured plants like the Yucca in the picture on the left. Also very good with small rhododendrons and Azaleas, dwarf pines and other conifers, Deutzia and similar shrubs.

Erica blooms in late winter, when they are clothed in pink flowers as the snow recedes. Adorable also with crocuses.

Fothergilla gardenii 'Appalachia'

 

Appalachia Dwarf Bottlebrush Shrub grows 2 to 3 ft. tall. It has a rounded shape and an appealing branching habit in the winter.

 

 

One of the best companions for rhododendrons, Dwarf Fothergilla likes acidic to neutral soil in sun or part shade.

 

It blooms in the spring with slightly fragrant, fluffy white flowers. The disease-resistant foliage is medium green in the summer, and turns brilliant golden, orange and red in the fall. The fall coloration is especially beautiful against an evergreen background.

 

Bottlebrush shrub belongs to the Witchalder family (Hamamelidaceae) and is, as typical for this group, not much bothered by pests or disease.

Hippophae rhamnoides 'Sprite'

 

'Sprite' Sea Buckthorn - while ordinary Sea Buckthorn easily reaches 10 to 20 ft., this dwarf form matures at 4 to 5 ft.

Silvery foliage is always useful to bring contrast into a planting. I can look very festive combined with purple foliage. However, plantings like that should always be toned down by some solid green.

 

Sea-Buckthorn grows well on sandy soil, but is very adaptable, as long as it has good drainage.

 

'Sprite' is a male clone and therefore does not set berries.

Hydrangea quercifolia, in fall foliage

 

In the north-east, Oakleaf Hydrangea does not seem to grow very large. Most plants I know are below 4 ft. and mounding in form. There are compact varieties available, such as 'Pee Wee' and 'Sikes Dwarf'

Unlike other Hydrangeas, Oakleaf Hydrangea usually develops a beautiful fall color, ranging from orange to purple. For me, the value of this plant lies in its bold textured foliage, which I use in contrast to fine-textured conifers, grasses and variegated shrubs. The white to russet flowers are also quite attractive.

This plant is best in moist and fertile soil in part shade. I found it grows best with a handful of lime and some rich compost.

Juniperus chinensis sargentii 'Viridis'

and J. chin sargentii 'Glauca'

 

Sargent's Green Juniper and Sargent's Blue Juniper are low-growing conifers, reaching 18" in height and 5 to 6 ft. in spread

These two cultivars are saturated bright green to dark green, with a tinge of bluish-green in the older foliage. They are resistant to Juniper blight, a disease that can disfigure other creeping Junipers.

 

These plants are perfect groundcovers as they grow thick enough to suppress most weeds. As with other creeping Junipers, their horizontal lines offset rounded or upright plants in their vicinity.

 

These Junipers do not turn copper or bronze in the winter, and the fresh green neutralizes purple and silver-colored foliage of nearby ornamentals.

Juniperus procumbens 'Nana' and 'Greenmound'

Dwarf Japanese Juniper forms a 6" carpet of dense needle-like foliage, spreading 6 to 8 ft. wide

Not only a good Bonsai plant but also excellent as a wide-spreading groundcover. However, make sure you have a cat around, because all creeping Junipers can get gnawed on by voles and mice.

 'Greenmound' has a finer texture and greener color than above

     

Leucothoe fontanesiana 'Compacta'

 

Compact Drooping Leucothoe or Fetterbush is an evergreen, arching shrub. It can reach 3 to 4 ft. in height.

Use this plant for its arching habit and lustrous, medium textured foliage. It combines well with conifers, and also works well as an edging along a driveway or wall.

 

It is supposed to be deer resistant, which means it is eaten only by the hungriest deer.

 

Leucothoe is best used in places with moist, organic soil and protected from drying winds. I would also limit it to part shade, especially if soil conditions are not perfect.

Picea abies 'Nidiformis'

 

 

Birdsnest Spruce forms a flat-topped broad shrub, slowly growing to 4 ft. wide, more with age

This dwarf conifer is not cheap, but usually less expensive than other dwarf spruces. It is a maintenance-free plant that takes a wide variety of conditions. Perfect along a walkway, among dwarf rhododendrons, on rocky slopes, even in a perennial border.

Picea pungens 'Gauca Globosa'

and P. pungens 'Montgomery'

Dwarf Blue Spruce

Very festive at the entrance walkway, and striking if combined with purple foliage, such as Heuchera 'Obsidian' or Ligularia 'Britt Marie Crawford'. Use some solid green in the combination, such as Holly, Rhododenron, Birdsnest Spruce or Mugo Pine.

Picea sitchensis 'Papoose'

 

'Papoose' Sitka Spruce

Sorry, this is an expensive plant to buy. However, it is very beautiful with its silvery-green foliage, fine, regular texture and perfect shape. Use in small numbers among fine shrubs, in a prime location.

Pinus mugo var. pumilio

 

Dwarf Mugo Pine vary considerably in size. Good nursery stock will mature at a height of 2 to 4 ft., reaching 3 to 5 ft. in width.

The medium-course texture and dark green color of this shrub are a beautiful background to flowering perennials and shrubs. Adapted to mountain conditions, these plants tolerate wind, drought, rocky soil, and cold.

 

Watch out for Pests: borers and caterpillars can occasionally do some hefty damage to this plant, even killing it. Borers cause entire branches to wilt and die (cut out deep and burn or drown branches). A certain caterpillar eats the needles, often defoliating the plant very suddenly.

Potentilla fruticosa 'Dakota Sunspot'

 

'Dakota Sunspot' Potentilla

Of all shrub potentillas, I find 'Dakota Sunspot' is one of the best. It is slightly denser and more compact than most others, and the flowers are so radiant yellow, one could think they were fertilized with plutonium. 'Dakota Sunspot' blooms denser and longer than other cultivars, at least in my garden.

 

Potentillas are adaptabel, drought tolerant, and resilient, however, they do need to be cut back regularly to look at their best.

Potentilla fruticosa 'Primrose Beauty'

 

'Primrose Beauty' Potentilla

This potentilla has beautiful silvery-green foliage, and I especially like the pale canary yellow color of the flowers. However, compared to 'Dakota Sunspot' it grows quite a bit wider and also develops a scraggly shape. Still one of the better potentillas, but recommended only for pruning enthusiasts, or for those to whom the flower color is irresistible.

Rhododenron 'Checkmate'

 

'Checkmate' Rhododenron

 

This plant resembles PJM rhododendron, but all parts a slightly smaller. It forms a rounded shrub reaching 3 ft. in height.

 

Checkmate has small leaves that are green to olive-green in the summer, and copper-colored in the winter. It blooms very early with magenta-pink flowers.

Rhododenron 'Midnight Ruby'

 

Midnight Ruby is similar to Checkmate, with slightly larger foliage. It is also an early bloomer, with a flower color closer to reddish-purple. Supposed to grow 3 ft. high and wide.

Rhododendron myrtifolium

 

Myrtleleaf Rhododendron forms a low, broad mound

 

It is a rather unassuming plant that reveals its beauty at the second glance. Light pink flowers happily grace the deep green foliage in the spring. The foliage is dense and crisp, making this plant a good companion for everything that needs a green background. Perfect to structure a shade garden, but also tolerates full sun.

I suspect it is fairly deer resistant, since the foliage has a spicy flavor that deer don't appreciate.

Rhododenron 'Purple Gem'

 

 

Purple Gem Rhododenron forms a low, broad shrub, less than 2 ft. tall, and 3 ft. wide

One of the most useful of small rhododendrons, 'Purple Gem' is exceptionally hardy, and not demanding as to soil conditions. It is well suited to mass plantings, but also works in small numbers among conifers, small flowering shrubs, in Japanese gardens, rock gardens, woodlands, even in combination with shrub roses.

 

The foliage is small and turns copper-green in the winter. Flowers are bluish-purple and bloom together with the crocuses and daffodils.

 

This plant looks especially beautiful in a larger group, and offset by good greens in the background.

Rhus aromatica 'Gro-Low'

'Gro-low' (R) Fragrant Sumac, a patented version of Fragrant Sumac that only grows 2 to 3 ft. tall, and quickly reaches 5 ft. in width

I used this plant in condition where I thought even a rock would die - and they lived. To stabilize and vegetate an embankment consisting of rock boulders and gravel, and with an owner who did not know of watering cans, this plant got established with no fatalities and did its job.

Summer foliage is plain green, but in the fall it makes a show with crimson and burgundy reds.

It does not cause allergies, and it does not spread into your lawn.

Rosa 'Knock-Out', 'Pink Knock-Out' and 'Double Knock-Out'

 

 

These roses are performers!

 

 All Knock-Out roses are extremely disease resistant, vigorous, have a full and dense foliage, and bloom from late spring into late fall.

 

Yes, there is little fragrance to detect, but as a landscape rose, they are unsurpassed. What other shrub can bloom that long - even annuals have a hard time to compete.

 

 

Rosa 'Blushing Knock-Out'

 

'Blushing Knock-Out' Rose, rounded shrub to 4 ft.

It is as vigorous and healthy as all the other Knock-Out roses. The foliage has an olive-green tint to it, at times with a silvery shimmer, which leads me to experiment with foliage combinations.

 

This rose is definitely very elegant in appearance.

Rosa 'Kiss Me' is colorful, fragrant, compact

 

Other good and hardy compact roses:

 

'Kiss Me'

'Macy's Pride'

'Pink Gnome'

FlowerCarpet Roses

'Snow Pavement'

'Frau Dagmar Hartopp'

'Champlain'

'Cuthbert Grant'

 

 

 

Rosa 'Flowercarpet Appleblossom'

 

has beautiful blush color, and is vigorous and low, with healthy dark green foliage

Rosa 'Macy's Pride'

 

elegant, with a distinctive, fine fragrance, compact habit, and healthy dark green foliage that unfolds with tints of copper red

Rosa 'Pink Gnome'

 

 

'Pink Gnome' is listed in one of the large wholesaler's catalog as reaching 1 to 2 ft - which means to my knowledge it is a very compact rose growing 2 to 3 ft tall, but still one of the smallest tough roses out there.

Rosa 'Snow Pavement' or 'Schneekoppe' is one of the better behaved rugosa roses, forming a regular, rounded shrub 2.5 to 3 ft. in width and height. I have not observed suckering.

 

 

Lavender buds open to white flowers tinged lavender - an unusually color that reminds me of sunlight snow fields in the high mountains, and appropriately named after the Schneekoppe Mountain in Silesia (a former German state where my parents come from, and which is today part of Poland).

Like most Rugosa roses, it is disease resistant, adaptable and fragrant.

     
Spirea fritschiana

Fritsch Spirea forms a medium-sized mound, 3 ft. tall and 4 to 5 ft. wide

The foliage of Fritsch Spirea has a nice, medium-fine texture, and foliage color is a fresh apple-green with bluish undertones. Large, flat-topped flower panicles are very attractive. Fall foliage often turns orange to red.

Like most spireas, it is adaptable to a variety of soil conditions, drought tolerant, and easy to maintain. I use it frequently in combination with tall conifers as well as in shrub borders, where it combines well with almost every other ornamental shrub or tree. It is most efficient in groups and mass plantings.

Spirea 'Magic Carpet'

 

'Magic Carpet' Spirea reaches 2 to 2.5 ft. in height

Magic Carpet is the only other Spirea that regularly use in landscaping. It is extremely efficient as a foliage plant between other shrubs and in mass plantings, and looks at its best in the first half of the season.

The leaves emerge in colors of bright copper and crimson red, and through the spring and early summer these colors are retained in the tips of the leaves. Later on, when the pink flowers develop, the foliage turns a dull green. Fall color can be quite attractive.

Combine with dark greens for best effect. 

 

 

 

Syringa meyerii 'Palibin'

 

Dwarf Korean Lilac, a compact roundet variety

 

One of the smallest Lilacs, but a mature specimen can still reach 6 ft. in height and 8 ft in width.

 

The foliage is small and not bothered by mildew. It is dense and round and looks quite well even when not in bloom. The flowers are a light pink to lavender pink, and they are very fragrant. A good background plant for the compact garden, or useful as a low screen.

 

Syringa 'Minuet'

 

Minuet Lilac is a compact upright variety listed as reaching 6 ft. in height. All parts are slightly smaller, and it is very dense.

Preston hybrids bloom later than the French Hybrids, which enables us to extend the lilac season. They have crisp, medium-green foliage that looks fresh even by the end of summer, and is resistant to mildew.

 

The flowers of 'Minuet' are icy-pink and fragrant.

 

 

 

Vaccinium 'Northblue', 'Northland', 'Northcountry', etc.

 

 

Half-high Blueberry varieties vary in size from 18 inch to 4 ft.

Blueberries are suitable for mass-plantings in acidic, moist soil. They have white to light pink flowers in the spring, and their foliage usually turns a nice warm red in the fall. In the winter, the twigs often turn red and stand out against the snow. Of course there are also blueberries to be harvested, or to attract birds.

Blueberries work well with Rhododendrons and small conifers.

Weigela florida 'Wine and Roses'

 

Wine and Roses Weigela is a 4 - 5 ft. rounded shrub In the last years, many new Weigela varieties have been created. One of the most striking is 'Wine and Roses', with impressive dark purple foliage that contrasts beautifully with green and light green foliage of other plants. The flowers are a rosy-pink and cover the plant in late spring.

This plant is primarily used for foliage effect, combined with Dwarf Korean Lilac, Fritsch Spirea, Roses, even Potentilla. I found it exotic combined with chartreuse foliage of 'Sunshine Blue' Caryopteris and 'Golden Spirit' Smokebush, and extraordinarily elegant with Dwarf Blue Spruce. 

Weigela florida 'Midnight Wine'

Similar foliage use as 'Wine and Roses', but a much smaller plant.

This dwarf purple variety needs favorable soil conditions to develop into a good-looking plant. I used some years ago on top of a wall, in strongly draining, lean soil, and these plants barely stayed alive and never bloomed. Others look decent, and for purple foliage on a small woody plant, there are few choices! The widely spread Crimson Pygmy Barberry is banned from the trade in many states of the North-east, due to it's invasiveness, and this Weigela is a fine replacement.

Weigela florida 'My Monet'

 

'My Monet' Weigela is a tiny shrub, less than 2 ft. tall. This very new variety has done quite well in my plantings. It seems to be more vigorous and hardier than 'Midnight Wine' The variegated foliage on this shrub is exceptionally clear and crisp. the flowers are outstanding - a strong reddish-purple that is not muddy looking.

For me, this plant was "Love on first sight". I will use it in the foreground of shrub borders, as an edger, and even in container plantings. I still have to experiment what it would partner up with. I would like to see it combined with roses (try 'Macy's Pride'), and I already planted some of them in small gardens combined with dwarf conifers. 

Weigela florida 'Fench Lace'

 

'Fench Lace' is a taller Weigela, reaching 5 ft. It can be tamed with pruning.

The yellow and green foliage is outstanding, and so are the reddish-pink flowers. The striking colors of this plant have to be used with care in order to maintain sanity. I use it as an occasional highlight in shrub borders. However, there is space to experiment.

 

Prune Weigelas when young to build strong branches

Weigela florida 'Minuet'

 

Minuet Weigela is a compact, rounded shrub, 3 ft. tall and 4 ft. wide

 

 

 

      

 

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