The Choicest Shrubs

Maximizing the impact of your landscape shrubs

By Steve Piskor ©2013
Penn State Master Gardener
& PA Certified Horticulturist

If your garden is small, you may look with envy at fellow gardeners with lots of land. Sizeable plots can hold a wide range of woody plants, including large trees and broad shrubs which would quickly outgrow a small garden. 

Whether you garden in a small city lot or a suburban townhouse, consideration should be given to maximizing the impact that each plant makes in the garden. A small garden doesn’t have the room to grow a white pine, with its mature height of 80 feet and 30 foot girth, but it can accommodate a dwarf version of a white pine.

The bright yellow flowers of forsythia are welcome after a long winter, however, once the flowers are gone, the plant lacks visual interest. If you have room for only one shrub, perhaps a large green forsythia is not the right choice.


Plant breeders have broadened the palette of plants beyond the more staid and ungainly species available to gardeners of earlier generations.  As always, the dictum of “right-plant, right-place” holds for choosing plants. Be sure to match site conditions with a plant’s cultural needs. Know the mature height and width of a plant, allowing it to grow gracefully in the garden without resorting to pruning to keep it “the right size”.


You’re buying a plant, not a couch, and it is the wise gardener who knows that the cute little four foot tall spruce trees beckoning them at the nursery will eventually swallow their entire garden. To that end, each of the following plants has the appropriate size and multi-season attributes that would add excitement to a small (or large) garden:

Cornus stolonifera ‘Neil Z’ Pucker Up!™ – This deciduous, red-twig dogwood is unlike its  brethren.  The foliage is puckered, giving it a distinctive and attractive textured appearance. Grow in filtered to full sun; evenly moist soil. Mature size is 3 to 4 feet tall and wide.  If space allows it makes a stunning display, especially in the winter with its bright red stems, when planted in groups of 3, 5 or 7.

Forsythia ‘Citrus Swizzle’ – A deciduous, dwarf forsythia with gold-variegated foliage.  Yellow flowers are formed in early spring, and after they drop, the foliage carries this forsythia through the remainder of the growing season; fall foliage coloration is burgundy-red.  Best in full sun to light shade and, like most forsythias, it is tolerant of average soil conditions.  Grows to a diminutive 1-1/2 to 2 feet tall and wide, making it perfect for smaller gardens.

Forsythia viridissima var. koreana ‘Kumson’ – After the yellow spring flowers fade, the foliage takes over – imbedded within the dark green leaves is an unusual and striking network of white veins. This stunning forsythia grows 4 to 6 feet tall and wide, but will tolerate light pruning.  Grow in full sun and average soil conditions.

Hydrangea macrophylla  ‘Hokomarevo’ Everlasting™ Revolution – This new, deciduous, dwarf hydrangea blooms on old and new wood , but its “claim to fame” are the spectacular flower colorations – starting out pink or blue (depending on soil pH), the flowers can fade to combinations of deep pink, maroon or blue, then add green highlights as they age. Grow in sun to partial shade; well-drained, evenly moist soil.  Can grow to 3 feet tall and wide.

Hydrangea paniculata ‘ILVOBO’ Bobo® – A charming, dwarf, panicle hydrangea covered with numerous, large white blooms in the summer; the flowers take on a pinkish blush in the fall.  Grow in sun to partial shade; well-drained, evenly moist soil.  Matures at 3 feet tall and wide.

Juniperus horizontalis ‘Hegedus’ Good Vibrations™ – a low growing, spreading evergreen, this juniper, unlike many other members of the genus, is soft to the touch.  In spring, the foliage is an attractive chartreuse color, which changes to bright yellow, then takes on orange hues in the fall.  Grow in full sun; well-drained, average soil conditions.  Makes an excellent ground cover, growing 1 to 2 feet tall and 10 feet wide.

Pinus strobus ‘Blue Jay’ – This diminutive evergreen is a cultivar of our native white pine (Pinus strobus.)  The plant has a mounded growth habit with beautiful, blue-green needles.  Grow in full sun; well-drained, average soil.  Can grow 2 to 4 feet tall and 3 to 5 feet wide.  Because of its size, it makes an excellent foundation shrub for a sunny area.

Dwarf White Pine on Standard
Dwarf White Pine on Standard

Rhododendron x ‘Farrow’ Bollywood™ – This is a very unusual semi-evergreen (to evergreen) azalea. Neon, pink-red flowers top the foliage in spring; in addition, the leaves make a dramatic statement for the remainder of the season because they have a vivid, glossy, silver and dark green variegation.   Grow in sun to partial shade; well-drained, organically-rich, evenly moist soil.  Matures at 1 to 2 feet tall and 2 to 3 feet wide.

Spiraea japonica ‘Tracy’ Double Play® Big Bang – Spireas are great plants, under-used in home gardens.  To entice the homeowner, this cultivar has foliage that starts out pumpkin-orange in the spring, changes to yellow-gold in the summer, and is topped with  exceptionally large (for a spirea) pink flowers.  Grow in full sun to light shade; well-drained, evenly moist soil.  Can grow 2 to 3 feet tall and wide.

Taxus x media ‘Huber’s Tawny Gold’ – This attractive yew is a dense, spreading, evergreen shrub with beautiful, tawny-gold needles.  The plant has a natural, vase-shaped growth habit, but it can easily be sheared.  Best in full sun to light shade; well-drained, average soil.  Grows 3 to 4 feet tall and 4 to 6 feet wide.

Choose some of these exciting new introductions for your smaller space, then sit and relax in your garden, reflecting upon the extra hours of mowing and weeding a large garden demands.


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