Q uestion: We have a very small backyard here in the city. We want to add a few evergreen shrubs that stay fairly small and don’t require a lot of pruning. It doesn’t matter if they flower. Do you have any varieties you can recommend for our garden?
Answer: You’re wise to want to include only compact plants in your small garden. Planting full-sized shrubs in such a petite garden can certainly lead to a lot of maintenance in terms of pruning. Plus, when full-sized plants are constantly trimmed to keep them compact, it negatively affects their overall health and may make them more prone to pests and diseases.
Here are a few great evergreen shrubs with a dwarf growing habit. All of them are fully winter hardy here in Pennsylvania. They require a minimum of six hours of full sun per day and prefer slightly acidic soils. A yearly addition of an acid-specific granular fertilizer, such as HollyTone, will keep them in good shape.
1. Sherwood Compact Mugo Pine (Pinus mugo “Sherwood Compact”): This very hardy, evergreen pine is a true dwarf that has a mounded shape and candelabra-like branch growth. Its stems are covered with long needles, and a slow growth rate means no pruning is necessary to maintain the optimum size and shape. “Sherwood Compact” reaches just 2 to 3 feet tall and wide, and is winter hardy down to -50 degrees F.
2. Soft Touch Inkberry (Ilex crenata “Soft Touch”): “Soft Touch” holly is cold hardy down to -20 degrees F. It’s a mounded shrub that maxes out at just 2 to 3 feet wide and tall; it’s perfect for tiny backyards. The foliage is dark green, and the small leaves make a lovely addition to the garden year-round. Unlike some other hollies, “Soft Touch”s’ leaves do not have spines. Their edges are soft and rounded.
3. Dwarf English Boxwood (Buxus sempervirens “Suffruticosa”): This dwarf boxwood is a prime garden plant for so many reasons. Its compact growth habit (it matures at just 2 to 3 feet tall and wide), slow growth rate and impeccable form make it a great choice for small and large gardens alike. The deer-resistant foliage does need some protection from strong winter winds to avoid winter die-back where winters are very cold, but it’s fully hardy down to -20 degrees. The evergreen, glossy leaves are 1 inch long and quite dense along the stems.
4. Dwarf Hinoki Cypress (Chamaecyparis obtusa “Nana Gracilis”): A compact, extremely slow-growing, soft-needled evergreen with a somewhat pyramidal form, Dwarf Hinoki cypress have fan-shaped foliage that’s lush and dark green and gives the plant an almost feathery texture. Winter hardy down to -30 and reaching 3 to 5 feet tall and 2 to 3 feet wide over the course of many years, this evergreen requires well-drained soil.
5. Compact Maximum Rhododendron (Rhododendron “Maximum Compacta”): A mini version of a traditional rhododendron, this broad-leaved evergreen produces large clusters of pinkish lavender flowers in late spring. A low-growing, bushy plant, it makes a great addition to foundation plantings and shrub borders that receive full to partial sun. Reaching just 3 feet tall and wide, bumblebees love the flowers and are often found buzzing around the blooms. With winter hardiness down to -40 degrees F, there’s no pruning necessary to maintain the shrub’s natural shape and size. Another compact rhododendron worth seeking out is the purple-flowered “Ramapo.”
6. Miniature Japanese Holly (Ilex crenata “Dwarf Pagoda”): This is such a great little plant! Reaching just 3 feet tall and 1 to 2 feet wide at maturity, miniature Japanese holly is super slow growing (it only grows about an inch a year!) and hardy down to -20 degrees F. Preferring full sun to light shade, the tiny, round, evergreen leaves are glossy and dark green, and they’re stacked against each other in rows along the stems, giving the plant a really interesting appearance. Introduced through Rutgers University, this selection looks like a funky bonsai plant and is excellent for rock gardens and patio beds.
7. Little Giant Dwarf Arborvitae (Thuja occidentalis “Little Giant”): Most people think of arborvitae as being tall and cone-shaped, but this compact variety is globe-shaped, reaching just 4 feet tall and wide. Hardy to -40 degrees F, this slow-growing, rounded shrub produces soft, feathery, fan-shaped foliage. Its tidy shape needs no pruning, making it a terrific choice for foundation plantings, low hedges or along garden edges. Another dwarf arborvitae variety worth growing is “Mr. Bowling Ball.”
You may have to do a bit of sleuthing to find these plants on the market. Contact a few of your favorite local nurseries and ask if they have them in stock. If they don’t, ask if they can get them from one of their wholesale growers. Or, purchase the plants from an online plant seller such as kiginursery.com or others.
Horticulturist Jessica Walliser co-hosts “The Organic Gardeners” at 7 a.m. Sundays on KDKA Radio with Doug Oster. She is the author of several gardening books, including “Attracting Beneficial Bugs to Your Garden,” “Good Bug, Bad Bug,” and her newest title, “Container Gardening Complete.” Her website is jessicawalliser.com. Send your gardening or landscaping questions to firstname.lastname@example.org or The Good Earth, 622 Cabin Hill Drive, Greensburg, PA 15601.