As home lots continue to shrink, one of the biggest decisions is what to plant in the landscape. When space is at a premium, every detail counts, which is why proper plant selection is so important. Choosing small plants, or smaller cultivars or dwarf forms of reliable favorites that won’t outgrow the site will help to keep pruning and editing to a minimum. Here are a few suggestions to get you started.

Photo by: Janet Loughrey.

1. Cornus kousa (Kousa dogwood)

Although the average mature size is 15-30 feet high and wide, dwarf forms such as ‘Little Poncho’ and ‘Dwarf Pink’ reach just 8-10 feet tall and wide. Dogwood trees produces creamy white or pink flowers from late spring to early summer, followed by berry-like edible fruits that are attractive through autumn. The glossy green leaves turn brilliant red and purple in fall, while the graceful vase-shaped structure and peeling bronze bark offer winter appeal. Hardy in USDA Zones 5-8, this reliable tree performs best in full sun to partial shade, and is virtually carefree, though regular summer watering is necessary in hotter climates.

Photo by: Iseli Nursery / Randall Smith Photography.

2. Acer palmatum ‘Sango Kaku’ (coral bark Japanese maple)

Japanese maples have long been a staple in home landscapes, and for good reason. With a wide range of leaf colors—from deep burgundy to chartreuse—brilliant fall foliage, and various forms and sizes, there is something for every type of garden. ‘Sango kaku’ coral bark maple is one of the finest varieties for smaller gardens, with upright structure, and pale green leaves tinged with red that turn brilliant shades of yellow and orange in fall. The most outstanding feature is the coral-pink bark, which becomes brighter—almost florescent—in winter. Hardy in USDA Zones 6-9, coral bark maple reaches 20 feet tall and 15 feet wide, and does best in well-draining soil with protection from hot afternoon sun. This versatile tree can be planted in a small courtyard, used as screening, as a container specimen on a deck or patio, or a focal point at the end of a pathway.

Photo by: Janet Loughrey.

3. Hydrangea quercifolia (oakleaf hydrangea)

A carefree shrub with four-season interest, oakleaf hydrangea bears serrated leaves that turn bright shades of scarlet, purple and orange in fall. Elegant white flower panicles bloom in summer, fading to hues of pink and soft beige, lasting well into fall. The attractive cinnamon-colored peeling bark is most noticeable in winter. Oakleaf hydrangeas perform best in sunny conditions, with shade during the hottest part of the day, and require less water than other hydrangeas. Hardy in USDA Zones 5-9, standard varieties such as ‘Snow Queen’ reach a mature size of 4-6 feet high and wide, while dwarfs including ‘Pee Wee’ and ‘Ruby Slippers’ will remain smaller. Use oakleaf hydrangea as a foundation plant, or incorporate into a mixed border.

Photo by: Janet Loughrey.

4. Buxus sempervirens (English boxwood)

Traditional boxwood, which are evergreen staples of formal European landscapes, work with any style garden. In a small space, where smart design is essential, boxwood can serve many important functions: instilling order, defining garden rooms, as edging for pathways, or as stand-alone focal points in containers. Tolerant of a wide range of light conditions, from full sun to shade, these deer-resistant shrubs can thrive in a wide range of soils as long as there is good drainage to prevent root rot. ‘Suffruticosa’, which is hardy in USDA Zones 6-8, is one of the best dwarf varieties, reaching a mature size of just three feet tall and wide, minimizing the need for frequent pruning. For colder climates, try mounding dwarf ‘Green Gem’, or upright ‘Green Mountain’, which are both hardy in USDA Zones 4-9.

Photo by: Iseli Nursery / Randall Smith Photography.

5. Chamaecyparis obtusa ‘Nana Gracilis’ (dwarf hinoki cypress)

Dwarf conifers are a great addition to any small garden, as they are slow-growing, low maintenance, and come in a diverse array of shapes and colors for year-round interest. Their uses are similarly wide-ranging: as screening, border accents, focal points, or as container specimens. Native to Japan, dwarf hinoki cypress is one of the most popular evergreens for its captivating layered texture and deep green foliage. ‘Nana Gracilis’ is exceptionally slow growing, reaching just 6-8 feet tall and 5-6 feet wide after many years. Hardy in USDA Zones 4-8, this pyramidal-shaped conifer performs best in moist, well-draining soil, with protection from hot afternoon sun in warmer climates.

Photo by: Tesselaar Plants.

6. Rosa Flower Carpet® (landscape rose)

Roses, America’s most beloved flowers, have a reputation for being fussy and high-maintenance. Many varieties introduced in recent years have been developed for disease-resistance, easy care, increased vigor, and longer bloom time. Some of the most versatile are the ‘Flower Carpet’ series, which grow to just 2-3 feet tall and wide. These tough, virtually maintenance-free plants can be used as hedging, to spill over a low wall or hillside, at the edge of a border or path, or in containers. Hardy in USDA Zones 4-11 or 5-10 depending on the variety, these reliable performers bloom from late spring through fall in shades of pink, red, white, coral or gold. Roses perform best with at least 6-8 hours of full sun, and when planted in rich, loamy soil.

Photo by: Janet Loughrey.

7. Clematis x ‘Nelly Moser’

One way to maximize the use of a small space is to grow vining plants vertically up a wall or trellis. Clematis, known as “queen of vines,” are revered for their range of flower forms, colors and season-long interest. It’s hard to pick just one, but the hybrid ‘Nelly Moser’ is a classic favorite, with large, eye-catching striped flowers that bloom in spring and again in late summer, and showy seed heads that last until frost. Hardy in USDA Zones 4-9, ‘Nelly Moser’ is also shade-tolerant, making it a good choice for small courtyards or entryways that receive part day sun. To get the most out of a clematis garden, grow several types together, such as alpine, Jackman and Texensis that bloom at different times over the growing season. Many can be successfully grown in containers on a deck or patio.

Photo by: Janet Loughrey.

8. Heuchera spp. (coral bells)

Few perennials are as diverse in foliage color, or as versatile in the garden as coral bells. With ruffled evergreen foliage in tones ranging from deep burgundy, silver red, orange, gold and chartreuse, and some with variegation or stain glass patterning, there’s something for every personal taste. The flowers that appear in late spring, some more showy than others, last well into summer. These enchanting plants, most of which grow to 12-18 inches high and wide, are invaluable for edging pathways, as accents in a mixed border, or as container specimens when combined with other small perennials or annuals. Coral bells thrive in a wide range of light conditions, from sun to shade, and perform best in well-amended soil with good drainage. Most varieties are hardy in USDA Zones 4-9, and will benefit with protection from hot afternoon sun in warmer climates.

Photo by: Janet Loughrey.

9. Helleborus x hybridus (hybrid Lenten rose)

Much attention has been given to this spring workhorse in recent years, and for good reason. Hellebores are one of the first perennials to bloom in early spring, with flower bracts that hold their color for several months. Modern hybrids such as ‘Winter Jewels™’ and ‘Winter Thriller™’ come in a dazzling array of colors, from white to deep burgundy, in speckled or picotee patterns, and single and double forms. Hellebores tolerate a wide range of soil and light conditions, and the leathery foliage stays attractive throughout the growing season. They need very little care once established; a light dressing of compost, and shearing of the old leaves is all that's needed to keep them looking great. Most hybrids are hardy from USDA Zones 4-5, to Zone 8. To best enjoy their nodding blooms, plant hellebores on a raised wall, in containers, or along a walkway near the front entrance of a home where they will be regularly enjoyed.

Photo by: Janet Loughrey.

10. Hakonechloa macra ‘Aureola’ (Japanese forest grass)

Smaller ornamental grasses can add season-long texture and foliage color, with many needing little or no care. One of few varieties suitable for woodland gardens or other shady areas is Japanese forest grass, with brilliant golden foliage that lights up even the darkest of spaces. Use these versatile grasses to edge borders or create repeat patterns with complementary colors of purple or brown. They are also stunning when planted in containers in an entryway, or as an eye-catching focal point. Hardy to USDA Zones 5-9, Japanese forest grass forms neat mounds up to two feet high and wide and performs best in rich, well-draining soil.

Here are a few other pointers for selecting plants for a small space:

  • Plants with multi-seasonal interest including foliage, flowers, berries, bark and structure will allow homeowners to get the most out of their space.
  • A diverse mix of trees, shrubs, perennials and vines is key to creating an engaging living tapestry that can be enjoyed year-round.
  • By choosing plants that thrive in a wide range of growing conditions and are easy to maintain, there’s more time to relax and enjoy the yard.

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