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Top Ten Shrubs for Containers and Small Gardens

Learn which shrubs are great for containers and small garden spaces.

Contributors: Stacey Hirvela

Stuck with small space? It’s a blessing in disguise! Smaller spaces can have the biggest impact in your garden, and it takes less money and time to make them beautiful. The trick is to choose plants that don’t overwhelm the space or create a maintenance chore for you, trying to keep them small. Here are our 10 picks for flowering shrubs to beautify containers and small spaces from spring through fall.

The Lo & Behold® series is the first ever seedless, dwarf buddleia. Before Dr. Dennis Werner bred this plant at North Carolina State University, butterfly bushes were towering behemoths in the garden, growing 10’ tall or more. The Lo & Behold® series gives you the same long-blooming, delightfully fragrant, butterfly-attracting appeal as the older types, but in a compact package! My favorite varieties are Lo & Behold® 'Purple Haze' (love its long, graceful flower spires and rich purple color) and Lo & Behold® 'Ice Chip' (its crisp white flowers look refreshing on hot summer days, and they attract butterflies and moths at night as well as during the day).

True classics never go out of style! Though Little Henry® has been available since 1999, it’s still one of our most popular shrubs. This compact version of Itea, a North American native shrub, reaches just 2-3’ tall instead of the 4-5’ typical in the wild, but it’s the powerfully fragrant white flowers and dramatic dark red-purple fall color that really merit this shrub a place in your garden. It’s a smaller, prettier, more environmentally-friendly alternative to burning bush.

Hydrangeas are kind of our specialty around here, and we work with breeders all over the world to find the very best ones for North American gardens. We discovered the Cityline series of bigleaf hydrangea in Germany where it was being grown as a gift plant – its super strong stems, compact habit, and insanely bright flowers made it perfect for this, and it also happens to be an outstanding garden plant as well. There are six varieties in the series – my favorites are Cityline® Mars, with its unique two-toned flowers that resemble bouquets of violets, and Cityline® Paris which has huge flower heads packed with vivid near-red florets. And since Cityline hydrangeas only get to be 2’ tall, you’ll never have to worry about pruning them and removing those fabulous flowers.

It has a silly name –but this hardy hydrangea is no joke! Most panicle hydrangeas, also known as peegee hydrangeas, reach 6-8’ tall, making them out of reach for many gardeners. But Bobo® stays just 3’ tall and is absolutely smothered in lacy flowers that reach nearly the size of a football. They start out white and fade to a delicate pink as they age, extending the floral display into fall. Really, anyone can grow Bobo® hydrangea – it’s hardy all the way down to zone 3 and heat tolerant all the way up to zone 9, and its small size makes it easy to work into flower beds or landscaping.  Grow it in a container with Supertunias as we did last year and prepare to rake in the compliments!

I have learned so much about hydrangeas since I’ve been working for Proven Winners, and I could go on and on about what makes each of the 33 hydrangeas we offer special. So take my word for it when I tell you that Tuff Stuff is truly special – the first time I saw it in bloom, it was so pretty it made my teeth hurt! Dark green foliage with hints of burgundy, vivid, almost electric-pink flowers, and a very tight, compact habit make it look like it came straight from a Victorian-era floral card. Tuff Stuff is a type of mountain hydrangea, which comes from colder regions than its relative the bigleaf hydrangea, so it blooms much more reliably, even in zone 5. It reblooms, too, so you’ll have blooms from mid-summer through autumn.

Try Tuff Stuff’s little sister, Tiny Tuff Stuff. It offers the same amazing performance in a smaller package!

There are so many sayings about having too much of a good thing – but we’re with Mae West when she said, “Too much of a good thing can be wonderful.” We offer so many reblooming shrubs because, really, who can have enough flowers? Bloom-a-Thon® azaleas are some of our newest rebloomers and they provide up to 20 weeks – that’s five months! – of flowers. The show begins in spring, when they bloom at normal azalea time, but after they take a short rest to put on some new growth, they begin again in mid-late July and continue until frost. There are four fabulous varieties to choose from, but I’ve focused on Bloom-A-Thon® Pink Double because it is such an outstanding performer, has such unbelievably pretty flowers, and it reaches a tidy 3-5’ tall. For a smaller option, consider Bloom-A-Thon® White, which gets no larger than 30” or so.

Ninebark is a perfect low-maintenance landscape plant: it looks fabulous while asking almost nothing from you. Dark purple foliage keeps it interesting for months instead of just weeks, and clusters of pale pink flowers in late spring give way to interesting seed pods in summer. The only trouble was that ninebarks were a little big for most landscapes, growing about 5-6’ tall and equally wide. Tiny Wine ninebark solves the problem with its considerably daintier 3’ height and narrow, columnar spread of just 18-24”. The plant is smaller, the leaves are smaller, but the impact in the garden is still huge!

Roses aren’t typically plants that you think about just tucking into your beds here and there – but Oso Easy® roses are not at all typical! We worked with a team of talented breeders in England to create this series of disease-free, long-blooming landscape roses that grow no taller than 3’. In fact, Oso Easy® Paprika reaches just 2’ tall and forms a neat and tidy mound. It almost behaves more like a perennial than a typical shrub rose – but its spicy orange-yellow flowers appear nearly non-stop from June until frost, all while remaining untouched by typical rose enemies like powdery mildew and black spot. All of the Oso Easy® roses are super low-maintenance and extra long-blooming, making excellent choices for beginning gardeners and new homeowners.

Looking for a low-maintenance, disease-free landscape rose that doesn’t take the romance out of roses? Try Oso Happy® Petit Pink: Hundreds of petal-packed pink flowers cover this plant all summer long for an old-fashioned look without the old-fashioned care regimens. It’s my personal favorite out of the 16 different roses we offer, and I’m not alone – the American Rose Society gave it an esteemed Award Of Excellence in 2011! If you love the floriferous look of an English cottage garden, or you simply can’t get enough of powder puff pink, you’ll think this hardy, Minnesota-bred beauty is too good to be true, too. It forms a neat, rounded mound and stays under 3’ tall, with each stem ending in a cluster of flowers…it’s almost like it blooms in mini-bouquets!

If you love lilacs (and really, who doesn’t?!) but don’t have space for these normally 8’ tall shrubs, our brand-new Scent & Sensibility lilac is going to come as very good news indeed! This incredibly fragrant lilac is sized for any garden or even a container – it reaches just 2-3’ tall and 3’ wide without any pruning or special care. Plus, its flowers are a rarely-seen cotton candy pink, which, having had the pleasure of smelling it all this season, I can assure you, emit the most powerful perfume, which is really saying something for a lilac! Very disease-resistant and with a very handsome, neat habit, Scent & Sensibility blazes a new trail for this old-fashioned favorite. I’ll let you in on a little secret, too – it reblooms throughout the summer, just not quite as prolifically as our Bloomerang series, but with an even more complex, intoxicating fragrance. Scent & Sensibility won’t be available until the 2014 season, but I promise, it is well worth the wait!

Author Bio:  Though Stacey Hirvela is the Proven Winners shrub specialist, she’s an equal opportunity plant geek who loves to grow a little bit of everything (and a lot of edibles and ferns!).  She works at Proven Winners ColorChoice Shrubs administering their facebook page, taking photos in the trial gardens, running the Invincibelle Spirit hydrangea campaign for a cure, and doing everything she can to help people be more successful in their gardens. A graduate of the New York Botanical Garden School of Professional Horticulture, Stacey formerly served as the horticulturist for the former Tavern on the Green restaurant in New York’s Central Park and a garden editor at Martha Stewart Living magazine.

Patent Info:  Lo & Behold® 'Purple Haze' Buddleia PPAF Can. PBRAF; Lo & Behold® 'Ice Chip' Buddleia PPAF Can. PBRAF; Little Henry® Itea virginica 'Sprich' PP: 10988; Cityline Paris Hydrangea macrophylla 'Paris Rapa' PP: 10906; Cityline Mars Hydrangea macrophylla 'Ramars';  Bobo® Hydrangea paniculata 'ILVOBO' PP: 22782 Can. PBRAF; Tuff Stuff Hydrangea serrata 'MAK20' PPAF; Tiny Tuff Stuff Hydrangea serrata 'MAKD' PPAF Can. PBRAF; Bloom-A-Thon® Pink Double Rhododendron 'RLH12P8' PP: 21477; Bloom-A-Thon® White Rhododendron 'RLH13P3' PP: 21512; Tiny Wine Physocarpus opulifolius 'SMPOTW' PPAF Can. PBRAF; Oso Easy® Paprika Rosa 'ChewMayTime' PP: 18347 Can. PP: 3401; Oso Happy® Petit Pink Rosa 'ZleMarianneYoshida' PPAF Can. PBRAF; Scent and Sensability Pink Syringa 'SMSXPM' PPAF Can. PBRAF;


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