Perennials for small gardens

Perennials for small gardens: Choose flowers and foliage that will stand out

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I love going for walks through my neighbourhood and on garden tours, and seeing which plants the resident gardeners have chosen, and how they’ve arranged them. It’s a great way to gather ideas. You can see which plants might be space hogs and which ones work well in small spaces. Whether you have a postage-stamp-sized urban space, or a small garden where you want each plant to stand out, I’ve gathered a list of perennials for small gardens.

I learned a lot about composition and placement while researching gardens to appear in Gardening Your Front Yard. It’s amazing to see what green thumbs can do in a limited area. For example, in the front garden of the urban home below, different levels of tiers were formed to create depth. All the planted shrubs are around the same size. Of course you can also create this effect by carefully selecting your plants based on their height, with the tallest being strategically placed in behind the shorter ones.

Perennials for small gardens: Tiered hedges add depth

I was quite taken by the artistry in this garden composition. Tiers were created with soil to add different heights to an otherwise flat garden. Photo by Donna Griffith

When you have a really small space to work with, think about combining different textures. Dependable groundcovers are great replacements for the traditional lawn, while low, clumping plants create great backdrops. Or, the entire garden can be groundcover, like with the sedum carpet I planted in the small strip of my friends’ front yard.

Groundcover and grasses in a small garden

Think about playing with different green hues, as well as texture. Photo by Donna Griffith

Perennials for small gardens

If you find yourself in a garden centre, on the lookout for perennials for small gardens, read the plant tag carefully to determine how tall the plant will get—and how wide. This last part is important, because you don’t want the plant to choke out its companions. Another great hint to help with choosing your plant is to look for words like “dwarf” or “mini” in the name. Then you know for sure it will be a reasonable size for your space.

Jessica’s book, Gardener’s Guide to Compact Plants is a wonderful resource that will help you choose everything from berry bushes and herbaceous perennials, to trees and shrubs for your small space.

Here are a few suggestions you might want to keep an eye out for at the nursery.

Fruit Punch ‘Cherry Vanilla’ Dianthus

I love how many different varieties of dianthus you can find. There is a type for every garden, including smaller spaces. Some varieties are like groundcover—I love the dense foliage. ‘Cherry Vanilla’ forms a low, compact mound, with blue-green leaves and flowers (described as having a picotee edge) that attract butterflies. It’s also deer-resistant, and tolerant of heat, drought, and salt. Place it in full sun to light shade. Plants reach up to eight inches high and only eight to 12 inches wide.

Fruit Punch ‘Cherry Vanilla’ Dianthus hybrid

I’m a sucker for ruffled blooms, so I fell in love with this Fruit Punch ‘Cherry Vanilla’ Dianthus hybrid at the California Spring Trials in 2017.

Verbascum ‘Dark Eyes’

If you want a bit of height, ‘Dark Eyes’ is more compact than other verbascums—flowers reach about 12 inches high (compared to other varieties, which can grow to six feet. Considered a “short-lived perennial,” it is drought tolerant, deer-resistant, and hardy down to USDA zone 5. Place it in a full-sun spot and don’t forget to deadhead.

Verbascum ‘Dark Eyes’

Verbascum ‘Dark Eyes’ is one of those conversation starters in a garden. It’s a really striking plant.

Dwarf helenium ‘Mariachi Salsa’

When it comes to perennials for small gardens, look for dwarf varieties of common favourites. If you enjoy the deep-red and yellow flowers of helenium, aka sneezeweed, with their pompom centres, this variety is a bit more compact, making it a great choice for a smaller garden. The flowers on ‘Mariachi Salsa’ are a little frillier and don’t fall over because of their shorter stature. The plant is hardy down to USDA zone 4.

Choose small varieties of common favourites, when selecting perennials for small gardens, like Dwarf helenium ‘Mariachi Salsa’

This is one of those plants where I feel the name ‘Mariachi Salsa’ really fits the flower.

Tiarella ‘SYLVAN Lace’

I love both tiarellas and heucheras for their interesting foliage. Tiarella is more of a woodland plant—it likes shady spots and can tolerate a bit more moisture. Hardy down to USDA zone 4, ‘SYLVAN Lace’ has a compact habit, as they say, reaching only 9 inches tall. White flowers bloom in May and June, and striking lime green foliage with a deep maroon pattern.

Tiarella ‘SYLVAN Lace’

I love the variegated foliage—and shape—of the leaves on Tiarella ‘SYLVAN Lace’.

‘Kim’s Knee High’ Purple Coneflower

I would say coneflowers in general are pretty good choices for small gardens, because they don’t take up a ton of space, and are pollinator magnets. Just be mindful of the height of the flowers. ‘Kim’s Knee High’ is a dwarf variety that likes full sun. It’s a nice trim size that’s hardy down to USDA zone 4.

‘Kim’s Knee High’ Purple Coneflower

The shorter stature of ‘Kim’s Knee High’ Purple Coneflower looks like a bouquet just waiting to be picked.

Miniature hostas

While on the Garden Walk Buffalo tour a couple of years ago, I visited some gorgeous shade gardens featuring what can only be described as hosta collections, with plants in all sizes and shades of green. I was inspired by many of the dwarf varieties on display. Some were in small areas of the garden, while others were planted in delightful container arrangements. Many of these have telltale names, like ‘Mouse Ears’.

Miniature hostas are perfect perennials for small gardens in shade.

Miniature hostas are perfect perennials for small gardens in shade.

Sedum x sedoro ‘Blue Elf’

The dense nature of this low-growing sedum is perfect for diminutive gardens—it only reaches about three inches in height. Plant it as a groundcover or in a container. Hardy down to zone 4, the leaves are an unusual greyish-blue hue, with deep pink blooms.

Sedum x sedoro ‘Blue Elf’

I absolutely love the contrast between these two varieties of sedum. They work in both gardens and containers.


Because it doesn’t spread aggressively, lavender is a nice addition to any size of garden. English lavender is quite compact and hardy down to USDA zone 5. One of the gardens that was photographed for Gardening Your Front Yard is essentially a front lawn featuring mostly lavender plants.

A small garden with a lavender lawn

A small garden with a lavender lawn.

‘Creme Caramel’ Coreopsis

If you’d like to fill in an area of your small garden, ‘Creme Caramel’ Coreopsis will slowly expand into it. The flowers of this prolific bloomer that attract bees and butterflies only reach about 18 inches tall. They also look great in a summer flower arrangement. The plant, hardy down to USDA zone 5, is deer resistant, and heat, humidity, and salt tolerant.

‘Creme Caramel’ Coreopsis

‘Creme Caramel’ Coreopsis features shorter flowers than other coreopsis varieties.

Armeria maritima

Also called Sea Thrift, Armeria maritima forms clumps topped by pompom-like flowers. I like that the mounded tufts of foliage make it difficult for weeds to penetrate. The clumps only grow (and slowly at that) to about eight to 12 inches wide. Armeria maritima is hardy down to USDA zone, and perfect choices for borders and rock gardens.

Armeria maritima and Black mondo grass are great perennials for small gardens.

Armeria maritima and Black mondo grass are great perennials for small gardens. Photo by Donna Griffith

Black mondo grass

I love contrasting colours in the garden, so every time I see lime green foliage with black, I think to myself “I want that in my garden somewhere.” Black mondo grass, an evergreen perennial, is a great accent to a multitude of hues. It only grows to be about eight inches tall and about 12 inches high. It’s a great border plant that’s hardy down to zone 5.

Vernonia lettermanii ‘Iron Butterfly’

Commonly known as ironweed, I love the feathery foliage—and flowers—of this summer-blooming perennial that is hardy down to USDA zone 4. Plant this drought-tolerant beauty that doesn’t mind poor soil in full sun. ‘Iron Butterfly‘ is a more compact version compared to others. The plant reaches about 36 inches in height.

Vernonia lettermanii ‘Iron Butterfly’

‘Iron Butterfly’ sounds like the kind of tough-as-nails plant you’d want to add to a garden of any size.

More perennials for small gardens, as well as trees and shrubs

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