Smaller gardens have their challenges, which are far harder if the whole thing is bathed in bright sunlight all day.
Many smaller plants need partial shade to thrive, and while there are many choices for a bright garden, many of those plants will grow to sizes far too large for small gardens. What’s the compromise?
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Why Choose Dwarf Plants?
Dwarf plants are simply smaller versions of popular plants. Surprisingly, many full-size shrubs have cultivars up to half the size of their parents.
And many large evergreen trees start their lives as small evergreen shrubs – and with a bit of work, you can keep them compact. All it takes is careful management of their new growth.
How to Spot Full Sun Locations
Full sun locations are areas of your garden that receive at least 6 to 8 hours of direct sunlight each day. A little afternoon shade is a welcome respite for many full sun plants.
Others benefit from a bit of shelter at the hottest part of the day, especially as early summer gives way to true, searing days.
While the angle of the light may change over the growing season and across the year, a full sun location will still provide those 6 to 8 hours to flower beds and other plantings all year round.
What Else Should I Consider When Choosing Dwarf Plants for Full Sun?
While sun exposure is a critical element in choosing where to position plants in the garden, it’s also important to consider the condition of the soil itself.
For example, a shrub that needs well-drained soil rich in organic matter will struggle if placed in a stony rock garden.
Before selecting your plant, you’ll need to consider a few things.
- What is your soil type? Is it sandy, loamy, or rocky? Is it heavy, with a lot of clay?
- What is the soil pH? Is it an acidic soil, or is it more alkaline?
- How does this part of the garden hold water? Does it hold water, or does it drain well?
- What USDA Hardiness Zone describes my region? Will I need to bring my plants indoors during the winter months? Is a cold frame or mulch enough winter protection?
- What sort of wildlife does your garden attract? Do you need to worry about managing large pests like deer or other wildlife, or do you want to fill the garden with butterflies, bees, and other useful insects?
- For coastal growers, wind exposure and salt levels are also important. Do you need salt-tolerant plants?
Once you have a picture of your needs, you can move on to selecting a plant that suits your garden best.
Potted Exotic Pro Tip: A home soil testing kit is a great way to get information about the state of your soil. Most kits contain the tools you need to find out the pH of your soil and to work out what sort of fertilization you need. They’re cheap and easy to use, and it’s worth taking time to learn about your garden before you start investing time and money in fertilizer or other soil amendments.
Dwarf Shrubs for Full Sun
1. Chinese Fringe Flower “ Purple Dream” (Loropetalum chinense)
The Purple Dream cultivar of the Chinese Fringe Flower is a short, sprawling shrub that makes a great foundation plant for high sun garden beds.
While the Fringe Flower is named for its sweet, fluffy blossoms, it’s best known for its dark purple foliage. It’s a fantastic accent plant and brings a year-round pop of color to the garden.
2. Rosemary (Salvia rosmarinus)
Often planted for its culinary uses, common rosemary is a hardy, low maintenance plant that thrives in dry conditions.
They typically reach no more than three feet high, are drought hardy, and only become more delicious when stressed. The dwarf varieties of salvia are also a great choice for hanging baskets in outdoor locations.
In addition to its elegant spires of dark green leaves, Rosemary also produces small but beautiful blooms from early spring right through to late summer and frequently plays host to all manner of pollinating insects.
3. English Lavender (Lavandula angustifolia)
English Lavender is a cottage garden favorite with deeply fragrant purplish-blue flowers and soft, velvety gray-tinted leaves.
It’s a fantastic choice around pathways and edges, as even the most delicate touch releases that characteristic lavender fragrance.
They’re a low maintenance plant that thrives on very little water, making them one of the best small shrubs for drier gardens.
4. Oakleaf Hydrangea (Hydrangea quercifolia)
There’s nothing quite as impressive as the huge nodding mop-heads produced by hydrangeas. The Oakleaf Hydrangea is a small species that typically reaches four feet and that can pruned into smaller, more pleasing shapes.
Oakleaf Hydrangeas typically produce fluffy white flowers that are much smaller than their full sized cousins that are just as delicate to match.
5. Gardenia (Gardenia jasminoides)
Gardenia flowers are an underrated beauty, with a rose’s full fragrance and far less fuss. They form upright, easy to maintain shrubs that reach around 3 feet or so in height, with rich dark green leaves.
Flowers are crisp, bright white, and it’s such a well-loved plant that there’s a variety for just about any set of conditions.
The blooms themselves make a great cut flower with a fragrance that endures even after these showy blooms are cut.
6. Dwarf Azalea (Rhododendron spp.)
Another firm favorite of the cottage gardener, Azaleas are fussy, but once they’re in full bloom, you’ll be rewarded with massive clusters of bright flowers in shades of red, pink, purple, or gold.
They flower abundantly all through the early spring and summer. Depending on the cultivar, many dwarf azaleas will only reach two feet though six is more common. Be sure to check your labels at the garden center!
7. Arborvitae (Thuja occidentalis)
Most topiary shrubs need constant pruning to keep their shape, but not so the Arborvitae.
These tightly growing dwarf evergreen shrubs often form neat spheres with little intervention and look great planted in front gardens for a bit of enduring curb appeal.
Arborvitae ‘Golden Globe’ is my pick for small spaces, as its natural form is a near-perfect two to three foot wide yellow-leafed ball that is stunning in containers or feature gardens.
8. Blue Star Juniper (Juniperus squamata ‘Blue Star’)
Junipers are best known as elegant, sculptural trees, but the Blue Star is a low growing evergreen shrub that forms a ground cover as it matures.
It gets its name from the unique arrangement of its blue tinted needles, which fan out from the central stem in a star formation.
They’re super low-maintenance shrubs, drought-hardy, and so slow growing they never need pruning.
9. Baby Gem Boxwood (Buxus microphylla ‘Gregem’)
Few plants take to hedging as well as the boxwood, and the Baby Gem variety brings this ability to those of us with limited space.
They do wonderfully as screens or borders by courtyard walls or pathways, as they’re slow growing evergreen shrubs that provide year-round coverage. This variety tops out at a compact three or four feet.
10. Southern Bush Honeysuckle (Diervilla sessilifolia)
This sun-loving shrub is an American native that loves steep inclines and poor soil.
The name comes from the fragrant flowers that appear through the summer, delicate pale gold trumpets that are a vital food source for butterflies and bees.
It typically reaches between three and four feet in height with a mounding growth habit. It’s a better choice for butterfly fans than butterfly bushes, as the latter is an invasive weed in many locations.
If you want truly captivating year-round color, the Cool Splash cultivar has striking variegated leaves and is smaller still at a diminutive two feet.
11. Mountain Witch Alder (Fothergilla major)
This Appalachian shrub is a striking deciduous shrub that produces fragrant white bottle-brush-shaped blooms in the early spring, often before the leaves appear.
It’s a tough plant with good drought tolerance and resistance to pests and disease. The Mountain Witch Alder also tolerates far wetter soil than most on this list, making it a good choice for moist soil in low-lying areas with poor drainage.
12. Wintercreeper (Euonymus fortunei)
For serious vibrant colors, the vining shrub Wintercreeper is a great choice. It has absolutely beautiful foliage in bright shades of almost neon and emerald.
The standard species is a creeping vine that grows as a shrub when not provided support, but the garden trade has produced several non-vining cultivars that form two-foot-high mounding shrubs instead.
The ‘Emeralds ‘N Gold’ cultivar is my pick, with bright green and gold leaves year-round.
13. English Yew (Taxus baccata)
If you want to get creative, an English Yew is an opportunity to turn mundane pruning into a form of art. It hedges wonderfully and is the most popular type of plant used in complex topiary.
If you’ve ever dreamed of trimming yourself, say, a penguin or a perfect cube in your back garden, an English Yew is the way to go.
It’s a long-lived evergreen, with dark green foliage peppered with dainty pale pink flower buds in the late spring that turn to bright red berries once mature.
While the most vigorous specimens will hit forty feet, it’ll also happily endure the sort of pruning that keeps it at four feet, and given that yews are such slow-growing shrubs, your handiwork will remain largely unchanged for years.
14. Jade (Crassula ovata)
If you have the unfortunate combination of bright all-day sun and loose, sandy soil, why not consider a succulent like Jade Plant? This slow-growing desert specialist stands out among the low-maintenance plants on this list.
They shrug in the face of drought, are
largely pest and disease resistant, and will put up with a bit of partial sun too.
While Jades can reach ten feet if left to their own devices, they couldn’t care less how aggressively you prune and will thrive at whatever compact size you desire.
It’s not tricky to sculpt them into low maintenance shrubs with truly unique foliage and form.
15. Weigela (Weigela florida)
With glossy leaves and abundant trumpet-shaped flowers, weigelas are an under-appreciated sun-loving plant that is an excellent option for foundation planting.
They are prolific bloomers and often crank out a second set of blossoms once their first summer’s flush has passed.
There’s a wide range of commercial cultivars on the market, with most reaching three or four feet at maturity and around the same spread, and flowers ranging from white and cream through pink and deep red.
16. Bush Cinquefoil (Potentilla fructicosa)
Also known simply by its botanical name of Potentilla, this little sweetie has frilled leaves and cute five-petalled flowers.
It’s a mounding shrub that typically grows no more than three or four feet high, depending on your chosen cultivar.
I’m personally partial to the lovely buttery yellow flowers of the ‘Goldfinger’ variety, but varieties with white and pink blooms are also available. It’s also very salt tolerant and serves well as a foundation plant for coastal gardens.
17. Meadowsweet (Spirea alba)
Another favorite of butterflies and hummingbirds, Meadowsweet is an American wildflower that produces frothy spires of luminous white flowers.
Like many wildflowers, it’s vigorous and will cheerfully endure soil conditions that would put a lesser plant in its grave.
There are a few commercial cultivars to be had, including some with diminutive, three and four feet mature heights.
18. Hinoki Cypress (Chamaecyparis obtusa)
While not strictly a bonsai, the Hinoki Cypress is a breathtaking tiny plant. The ‘Confucius cultivar may only hit four of five feet after a decade of growth, making it a fantastic choice for those keen on an architectural tree but who lack the patience to produce a bonsai of their own.
It has all the same charm and grace of the parent plant with none of the sprawl, an excellent choice for any small space.
19. Miss Grace Dawn Redwood (Metasequoia glyptostroboides ‘Miss Grace’)
This deciduous conifer is a graceful weeping tree with silvery green leaves that flush orange come autumn. While it can reach ten feet high, it’s an astonishingly slow grower and easy to prune into a more compact form without much fuss.
They do well as a feature plant, especially over other foundation plants that don’t mind a bit of part shade through the warmer parts of the year.
20. Crepe Myrtle (Lagerstroemia indica)
Sometimes spelled ‘crape myrtle,’ these are a large family of flowering trees with gorgeous, blowsy collections of bright pink flowers.
They’re a Southern staple and are available in a few different sizes. Dwarf cultivars like the ‘Enduring Summer White’ top out at 6 feet, and the miniature varieties will only reach half as tall again.
The latter are more like a small flowering shrub than a tree, but they’ll grow happily in a container if you love the charm of a Crepe Myrtle but are stuck with a terrace.
21. Mungo Pine (Pinus mugo)
The Mungo Pine is a short-growing pine that rarely reaches more than five feet, with the most diminutive cultivars, like the Sherwood Compact, only reaching two!
It forms clumping colonies of small trees, complete with tiny cones. They do well in cooler regions than most other plants on this list.
22. Sester’s Dwarf Blue Spruce (Picea pungens )
Most spruce are towering forest kings, but the Sester’s Dwarf Blue Spruce is a cultivar that tops out at a diminutive eight feet or less.
These slow growers start their lives as an evergreen shrub but will, in time, form a sleek, cone-shaped tree with densely packed blue-green foliage.
Many folks raise them as perpetual Christmas trees, and they’ll do just as well in a container as in a garden bed.
23. Dwarf Citrus
If you’re after a tiny tree, why not go for one that will produce fruit, too? Dwarf orange, lemon, and even lime trees perform astonishingly well and will thrive in containers or small areas when given the right care.
Meyer lemon trees are the most popular of the dwarf citrus, topping out at six feet and producing zingy fruit that’s just as delicious as a full-size tree.
The newer Dwarf Valencia Orange is available in seedless varieties that also reach no more than six feet. Like with azaleas, it pays to check the label to ensure you don’t end up with a full-sized beast by mistake.
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