Sunday, February 7, 2016

Native Shrubs for Small Gardens

Fothergilla 'Mount Airy'
Yards are getting smaller. They were already small in many urban areas, but now even suburban homes are being built on ¼ acre lots. Those landscapes can still use native plants and be rich in plant diversity, by planning for it. When it comes to choosing woody plants, you’ll want to look for smaller plants to accommodate the smaller landscape.

Using several smaller shrubs - instead of 1-2 big ones that have to be pruned often – gives you more manageable plants and allows for increased plant diversity. Fortunately there are dwarf forms of many native shrubs to use in smaller spaces:

  • Virginia sweetspire (Itea virginica) ‘Little Henry’ gives mounds of late spring flowers and great fall color.
  • Oakleaf hydrangea (Hydrangea quercifolia) ‘Pee Wee,’ ‘Little Honey,’ ‘Munchkin,’ ‘Ruby Slippers,’ and ‘Sikes Dwarf’ provide big leaf texture in a smaller form.
  • Fothergilla ‘Mount Airy’ and ‘Blue Shadow’ are hybrids between the two species (F. major and F. gardenii) and are slow growing enough that they could be kept lightly pruned to a smaller size. ‘Blue Mist’ is a small cultivar of F. gardenii.
  • Summer-blooming summersweet (Clethra alnifolia) has dwarf forms in ‘Hummingbird’ and ‘Sixteen Candles.’ This shrub is tolerant of wet soils and blooms during June-July.
  • Evergreen yaupon holly (Ilex vomitoria) has long had cultivars ‘Nana’ and ‘Stokes Dwarf’ for that mini-meatball look, but try not pruning it for a softer dome-like shape. It’s a great dense shrub to provide cover for birds.
  • Another twiggy cover for birds would be a wax myrtle cultivar such as Morella cerifera ‘Don’s Dwarf.’ At 3-5 feet in height/width, it may need some light pruning to stay smaller. 
  • Another evergreen choice is mountain laurel (Kalmia latifolia) which has been bred for medium sized cultivars like ‘Olympic Fire,’ ‘Sarah’ and ‘Pristine,’ as well as super small ones like ‘Elf.’
  • A smaller evergreen for shade would be a cultivar of Florida anise (Illicium floridanum) such as ‘Pebblebrook’ or the variegated ‘Shady Lady.’
  • Pipestem (or hobblebush) is a Coastal plain native (Agarista populifolia) and ‘Leprechaun’ is a wonderfully adaptive evergreen dwarf form.
  • Want some colored foliage? Try ninebark (Physocarpus opulifolius) 'Little Devil' or 'Tiny Wine' for burgundy accents.
Clethra alnifolia 'Hummingbird' in July
Hypericum frondosum

In addition, there are woody perennials, sometimes called sub-shrubs, that you can use.

While some of these appear to be what you might call a perennial, they have woody or persistent stems: salvias like Salvia greggii, Georgia calamint (Clinopodium georgianum), St John's wort (including Hypericum frondosum 'Sunburst', 'Blue and Gold' plus others) , New Jersey Tea (Ceanothus americanus), the herb-like dittany (Cunila origanoides), Georgia beargrass (Nolina georgiana) and Yucca.

Red buckeye (Aesculus pavia)

Need a small tree? Consider using a large shrub instead: red buckeye (Aesculus pavia), native azaleas (such as Rhododendron canescens), fringetree (Chionanthus virginicus), blackhaw viburnum (Viburnum prunifolium), and winterberry holly (Ilex verticillata).

All of these can be carefully pruned to mimic a tree form while still being smaller than an actual tree.

How can you get even more diversity in a small landscape? Reduce the lawn and borrow from your neighbors.

  • Reduce the lawn by re-evaluating how you use it. Often people stop actively using lawn for playing but forget to actually downsize the amount of room it takes. Sometimes it is takes up some of the sunniest areas in the landscape – prime territory to reclaim for blooming plants!
  • Borrow diversity from your neighbors – do they have maples and birches? Plant something else in your yard then. The maples and birches in their yard will be as close as if they were in your own yard.

Remember to consider these as suggestions and research the plant names given to see what would be appropriate for you. Consider light requirements (sun/shade) as well as the moisture level (wet/dry) between your space and what the plant prefers (or tolerates).

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