There really isn’t any point in planting a large shrub when all you want is something low to border your beds. It’s amazing, however, how often people make that mistake and end up having to trim repeatedly just to keep their plants in bounds.
Fall is a great time to be planting new shrubs of any size. We have a bevy of great little plants bred and selected because they stay small, and here are some of the finest.
Japanese boxwood. This is the iconic dwarf shrub. It’s used to line formal gardens, and it’s more often sheared than allowed to grow in its natural oval form. But it seems content with that treatment, so if you want a low plant that you can shape to your heart’s content, this is the one. Choose a variety, such as ‘Wintergreen’ or ‘Green Beauty,’ that will hold its green foliage all winter. (Standard Japanese boxwood turns bronze and the tips of its twigs may even brown.) All of these boxwoods will grow to be 20 to 36 inches tall.
Dwarf yaupon holly. If you want the boxwood look but in a plant that’s even more durable, this one needs to go on your list. It’s adapted to sun or shade. It has no thorns, but it also does not produce fruit. It offers small leaves and fine texture to its surroundings. You can maintain it at 18 to 30 inches.
Carissa holly. This sun-or-shade plant has larger leaves with one single sharp point at the end of each blade. It does not bear fruit, but it makes a grand statement in its surroundings. It grows to 24 to 30 inches in height, and it’s the most popular Texas landscaping shrub in that size range.
Dwarf Chinese holly. If you’re looking for really spiny foliage to discourage intruders and animals, none beats this one. That may be why you don’t see it being used as much anymore, but it’s an outstanding short holly (to 24 to 36 inches tall). It grows wonderfully in both sun and shade. Your nurseryman can order it for you.
Dwarf Burford holly. For a dependable fruit producer, here is your holly. It’s also more upright than the other dwarf types that we’ve mentioned, growing to 36 to 42 inches (or taller without pruning). Some people keep it as short as 24 inches, but the planting won’t last as long if you’re trimming it repeatedly.
Indian hawthorn. There are many varieties of this spring-flowering evergreen shrub. Some are white or light pink, and many are deeper rosy-pink. Heights vary from 30 to 36 inches for most selections. It requires sun or nearly full sun, and it does need to be noted that Indian hawthorns are fairly susceptible to the fatal Entomosporium fungus for which we have no good control. It’s the same disease that has devastated redtip photinias.
Dwarf abelia. Actually, there are several fine and tiny forms of the venerable glossy abelia. ‘Edward Goucher’ is a pink-flowering selection. ‘Compacta’ is an old dwarf white form. ‘Confetti’ stays at 18 to 24 inches, and its green leaves have creamy white margins. ‘Kaleidoscope’ grows to 24 to 36 inches, and its new growth comes in various shades of red, yellow, orange and dark green.
Dwarf and compact nandinas. We have probably a dozen types of nandinas available in nurseries. One of the oldest is called simply ‘Compacta’ because it grows about half as tall as the old standard species called “heavenly bamboo” (luckily, not a true bamboo). Since Compacta was introduced, however, we’ve seen even shorter types. ‘Harbour Dwarf’ was next, then ‘Harbor Belle.’ The newest addition to this group is one trademarked as ‘Flirt.’ All of these are strong growers to 18 to 24 inches. The old bright red Nana nandinas proved to be weak growers, so we don’t use them as frequently anymore.
Dwarf crape myrtles. Granted, these little plants are deciduous. Every other plant I’ve mentioned has been evergreen. Because they’ll be bare in the winter, you’ll have to provide some kind of attractive backdrop to your dwarf crape myrtle plantings. But if you do, you can have low borders of color every summer. And, while you should never “top” a regular crape myrtle, some people treat these dwarfs much as they treat perennial butterfly bush plants, by cutting them back near the ground every winter. That’s certainly not a requirement, but it does remain an option. They grow to 36 to 42 inches tall, and they’ll bloom on and off from late May until September.
Anthony Waterer dwarf spiraea. If you like bridal wreath with its arching branches of white flowers in spring, you’ll love this magenta-colored late-spring bloomer. It needs full sun all morning, although a bit of shade in the afternoon will help it in July and August. It also benefits from a highly organic planting mix, as it can show iron chlorosis in our alkaline conditions. It’s 24 to 36 inches tall while it’s flowering. It, too, is deciduous.