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Small plants getting major attention

February 21, 2012  By Greg Stack

Feb. 21, 2012 — How often have you heard that bigger is better? It's not the case with garden plants.

Feb. 21, 2012 — How often have you heard that bigger is better? It's not the case with garden plants.

“It seems we are sometimes fascinated by all things big and large,” said University of Illinois Extension horticulture educator Greg Stack.


“Well, there may be a trend brewing in the world of horticulture, where small, mini, and dwarf are starting to become common adjectives to describe a list of plants that are becoming increasingly popular.”

Many gardeners have downsized to smaller properties or have a very limited, city-sized backyard. Container gardening is becoming increasingly popular. The horticultural industry has taken notice and is introducing downsized versions of some garden plants for both ornamental gardeners and fruit gardeners.

Gardeners have known for some time that dwarf versions of a whole range of trees and shrubs, as well as evergreens and conifers, are available. These small- scale duplicates of their larger cousins grow so slowly that they fit very nicely, for a long time, into containers or on small properties without outgrowing their space.

“A recent introduction to tree fruit gardening is a series of apple trees known as Urban? Columnar Apples,” Stack said. “They reach an average height of eight to ten feet and are only two feet wide. This upright columnar habit makes them perfect for suburbanites, apartment and condo dwellers, and anyone short on space for a traditional apple tree.

“They are also well adapted for container growing. The bottle brush shaped tree with short branches produces fruit along its narrow trunk, presenting a very unique look.”

Urban? Apples were developed in the Czech Republic, have shown good disease tolerance, and are hardy to zone 4. “Golden Treat,” “Tasty Red,” “Blushing Delight,” and “Tangy Green” are some of the available varieties. If you decide to include these in your garden, you will need to plant two different varieties for proper cross pollination and fruit set. As with most fruit trees, they require full sun and well-drained soil for best growth.

Another newly introduced fruit for small space gardens and containers is a thornless dwarf raspberry called Raspberry Shortcake?. This raspberry, which is hardy to zone 5, is a compact mound growing to only 24 to 30 inches. It is suitable for garden planting and containers and has sturdy upright canes that need no staking. The plant needs full sun and well-drained average garden soil; it produces fruit at mid-summer.

“This raspberry produces a lot of new canes each spring and fruits on new canes that have gone through a winter dormancy period,” cautioned Stack. “Once these canes have fruited, prune them out to the ground, leaving behind new canes to fruit next season. This plant also provides quite a bit of ornamental value because of its form and habit, flowers, and, of course, fruit.”

For those who want to try their hand at blueberries, there is a super-dwarf hardy blueberry called 'Jelly Bean.' This plant is a compact round ball growing to one to two feet. It is excellent for container growing where soils can be amended to accommodate the plant’s acidic soil requirements. Jelly Bean? produces fruit in midsummer and needs a full sun location.

“There has also been an explosion of new mini hostas,” Stack said. “If you don’t have room for a hosta that grows to 36 inches tall and 87 inches around, then small is for you.” These minis can be planted in borders as well as in containers and trough gardens. Like their larger cousins, they are hardy perennials.”

'Blue Mouse Ears' seemed to start the craze. It grows to eight inches high and 18 inches wide and provides blue green, nearly round foliage. Other new varieties include:

• 'Regal Tot,' 5 inches high, 15 inches wide, with chartreuse cupped, slightly corrugated leaves.

• 'Woodland Elf,' 5 inches high, 15 inches wide, with medium green leaves and a white margin.

• 'Hideout,' 6 inches high, 14 inches wide, with narrow leaves with a broad white centre and green margin.

• 'Crumb Cake,' 5 inches high, 14 inches wide, with gold-coloured round leaves and wavy margins.

And then there is the smallest hosta of all, 'Itsy Bitsy Spider,' growing to 2-1/2 inches tall and 6 inches wide with very narrow dark green leaves.

“All of these minis will flower on short stalks and have flowers that range from white to light lavender,” said Stack.

These are just a few of the over 50 varieties of mini hostas that are available. Most range from five to eight inches tall. They come in a variety of colors and leaf patterns and are great for gardeners who like hostas but really don’t have the space for the more traditional “giants” in the hosta world.

So, if you have to think small because of space limitations, don’t assume that your garden will be boring. Many of these small versions of traditional plants offer just as much “bang for the buck” as their “super-sized” counterparts and they might impress visitors even more.

Greg Stack is a horticulture specialist with University of Illinois Extension.

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