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Small Shrubs for Small Spaces

By Mary Frei, Colorado Master GardenerSM, Colorado State University Cooperative Extension, Denver

Whether you're landscaping your yard for the first time, or you simply need to replace aging plants that are past their prime, small shrubs might be just what you need.

Shrubs provide the structural backbone of a garden. With their colorful foliage, flowers, fruits, decorative bark and elegant forms, shrubs supply interest and variety throughout the year. They also can be a low-maintenance choice for gardeners, especially when you select plants appropriate for their site and growing conditions.

Early spring planting provides shrubs a full growing season to adjust before winter arrives, so now is a good time to plant.

When choosing shrubs, relate their shape and growth habit to the scale of the setting. Each shrub comes with a unique combination of characteristics including size, shape, color, texture, and growing requirements. Consider all of these when making your selections.

Place shrubs to provide adequate space between them at maturity. When plants are overcrowded they become unsightly and have to compete with each other for sunlight, nutrients and water. Their long-term health likely will suffer. The exception is shrubs used as hedges or groundcovers.  In that case, you will space them closer together.

In choosing the right shrub for a site, it is important to consider the plant's size at maturity. How tall and wide will it get?  Provide each plant with enough space to mature without interfering with other plants or causing a nuisance. Choose plants that will fit the space without pruning, even when full-grown.  Here is where a smaller shrub may be the best selection. Many common shrubs, both deciduous and evergreen, are available in dwarf varieties. Among them are:

  • Mops Dwarf Mugo Pine, Pinus mugo 'Mops': A true dwarf mugo that won't outgrow the landscape. It stays very compact and dense without shearing. This hardy green pine forms a low dense mound. It is globed shaped and grows to 3 feet.
  • Bagatelle Barberry, Berberis thunbergii var atropurpea "Bagatelle': This upright growing shrub has deep red foliage which turns a brighter red in the fall. Grows 1 1/2 feet high
    and wide.
  • Blue Shag Dwarf White Pine, Pinus strobus 'Blue Shag': This long needled globed shaped dwarf pine has a soft texture and blue-green foliage. It grows 3-4 feet high and wide.
  • Dwarf Alberta Spruce, Picea glauca 'Conica': This dwarf conifer is upright and narrow. It grows 3-6 feet tall. Its conical shape is dense with grass green foliage.
  • Regent Serviceberry, Amelanchier alnifolis 'Regent':Small deciduous flowering shrub which has soft green leaves. White flowers open in spring. Black edible fruit forms in the summer. It has orange-red color in the fall. Grows 4-6 feet high and wide.
  • Spanish Gold Broom, Cytisus purgans: This shrub is a dense mound of ascending bright green stems that are adorned much of the spring with golden pea blossoms. It grows to 4 feet high and up to a 6 feet wide.
  • Dwarf Oregon Grape Holly, Mahonia aquifolium 'Compacta': This broadleaf evergreen has yellow flowers in spring followed by edible blue berries. This plant grows slowly to 2-3 feet tall and 2-4 feet wide.
  • European Cranberry Viburnum Compact, Viburnum opulus 'Compactum': This shrub has a rounded compact form. Dark green leaves turn wine red in fall. Spring flowers are white.
    Fall fruit is bright red. This plant grows to 4 feet high and up to 4 feet wide.
  • Alpine Current, Green Mound, Ribes alpinum 'Green Mound': This plant is a dense dwarf with upright branching. Foliage is dark green and fall color is yellow. It grows to 3 feet high and wide.
  • Blue mist spirea, Caryopteris x clandonensis: A valuable shrub for its soft gray-green foliage color and clusters of blue summer flowers. Grows 4 feet high and wide.
  • True Dwarf Norway Spruce, Picea abies 'Little gem': This evergreen is a globe shaped shrub with a solid, dense appearance. It grows to 2-3 feet high and wide.

Other small shrubs include:

  • Apache plume, Fallugia paradoxa
  • Barberry 'Crimson Pygmy', Berberis thunbergii var. atropurpurea
  • Blue Star singleseed juniper, Juniperous squamata 'Blue Star'
  • Cotoneaster Coral Beauty, Cotoneaster dammeri 'Coral Beauty' Cranberry
  • Daphne burkwood , 'Somerset', Daphne x burkwoodii 'Somerset'
  • Emerald N' Gold euonymus, Euonymus fortunei 'Emerald n' Gold'
  • Gold Coast juniper, Juniperus chinensis 'Gold Coast'
  • Gold flame spirea, Spiraea x bumalda 'Gold flame'
  • Lodense privet, Ligustrum vulgare 'Lodense'
  • Montgomery dwarf Colorado blue spruce, Picea pungens 'Montgomery'
  • Red Ace potentilla, Potentilla fruticosa 'Red Ace'

Photograph courtesy of Judy Sedbrook.

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Date last revised: 01/05/2010