Hard-working plants for small gardens

by Rhiannon James

Euphorbia subsp. characias wulfenii, credit: Matthew Fall

In a small garden, there’s no room for slackers when it comes to plants. So forget the flawed and the flighty, and instead opt for plants that’ll make the most of the space by offering a whole package of attractions. These might include a fabulous form, striking foliage or flowers, delicious scent or value to wildlife along with a long season of interest. We asked the experts to nominate their hard-working heroes.

Fascicularia pitcairnifolia

Credit: Loenova Erking

“OK, it’s not the showiest of plants, but I love this pineapple relative from Chile. It looks superb throughout the year, and never seems to suffer from pest damage. It’s in the autumn though that this plant truly delights, with spectacular flowers that look like a mandrill’s bottom. It’s a great choice for a contemporary pot or a dry spot where it’ll flourish on drought and neglect.”

James Aldridge, garden designer (www.jamesaldridgedesign.com)



Nandina domestica

Credit: Sten Porse

“Although it’s not conventionally showy in the way that a peony or a rose is, Nandina domestica (heavenly bamboo) is a plant that always has something of interest to look at. New copper-coloured leaves contrast with the more mature light-green foliage. In summer (and often periodically through the year), star-shaped, pale pink flowers  are held in conical panicles above and amongst the topmost leaves. These mature into coral-coloured berries that last through the winter and into the spring.

Nandina are happy in the ground or in a pot and look good underplanted with snowdrops for a winter scheme or with purple-leafed heuchera to provide contrasts in leaf form and colour all year round.”

Kate Gould, garden designer, (www.kategouldgardens.com)







Calamagrostis x acutiflora ‘Karl Foerster’

Credit: Daryl Mitchell

“Calamagrostis x acutiflora ‘Karl Foerster’ has the most erect, vertical form of any of the ornamental grasses and it retains this characteristic well into the winter. In the spring and early summer, its fresh green basal growth works well with later bulbs and early perennials and as the season progresses, the fine, feathery plumes surge upwards. The grass gradually changes colour from sparkling russet to delicate white gold as the flowers, and foliage, dry out. This grass is best used en masse to create strong vertical interest and contrasts well with looser perennials such as Verbena bonariensis, helenium or echinacea. Alternatively, echo the form with the plume-like flowers of Veronicastrum. Maintenance is straightforward – give it a good haircut just above ground level in late February or early March.”

Andrew Wilson, garden designer, author and chief assessor for the Royal Horticultural Society (www.wmstudio.co.uk)



Euonymus alatus

Credit: Matt Lavin

“Euonymus alatus is a deciduous, bushy shrub whose main attraction is its incredible bright red autumn colour. It also has curious new shoots which are winged in two directions, giving it all-year-round interest. Small green flowers and red fruits are not magnificent but do contribute to its appeal. It will grow in sun or semi-shade and enjoys a well-drained soil. It can be clipped from time to time to encourage the winged shoots and to contain it if space is particularly tight.”

Chris Collins, Blue Peter gardener (www.chriscollins.org.uk)



Euphorbia characias subsp. wulfenii

Credit: Matthew Fall

“This is a must-have plant. It has a fantastic dome shape and great texture thanks to its evergreen glaucous foliage. It is also very versatile. It works well in contemporary urban gardens thanks to its architectural qualities but it also blends in beautifully in more relaxed, informal gardens, surrounded by herbaceous perennials.

And if that isn’t enough, this Euphorbia also provides year-round interest. In autumn and winter it gives good structure to the garden and looks great covered in frost. Spring is its moment of glory, when its lime-green flowers appear. They are real show-stoppers either on their own or surrounded by tulips. In summer, the plant recedes into the background as a supporting act for summer-flowering neighbours.

Make sure you cut back spent flower shoots all the way to the base, never halfway up the stem: otherwise the plant can get leggy and look unsightly. As with all Euphorbias, do mind the milky sap when you cut them as it can irritate the skin.”

Ana Sanchez-Martin, garden designer, (www.germinatedesign.com)




Pulmonaria officinalis

Credit: Kpjas

“My personal nomination for a great all-rounder would be Pulmonaria (lungwort). It has pink and purple flowers on one plant that are attractive to bees, pretty foliage and it’s as tough as old boots. It makes good ground cover for shady places and has a proud herbal heritage. It has also got loads of quaint common names such as soldiers and sailors (as the red and blue flowers represent the two uniforms), Mary’s tears and spotted dog (after the white spots on the leaves).”

Helen Wallis, garden worker at Culpeper Community Garden (www.culpeper.org.uk)







Erigeron karvinskianus

Credit: Ettore Balocchi

“This plant is great for edging and pots. It likes to spill over and form a wild froth of daisies that seem to appear continuously from May until the winter. It self-seeds in cracks and will spread slowly with its rhizomatous roots. It needs good drainage and sunshine although it will tolerate partial shade.”

Sara Jane Rothwell, garden designer (www.londongardendesigner.com)


Sarcococca confusa (Christmas or sweet box)

Credit: Denis Prevot

“This delightful plant deserves to be more widely appreciated. Reliable and easy to grow, it has glossy, evergreen foliage and in the winter, amazingly fragrant white flowers.”

Lucy Roberts, Retail and Outdoor Nursery Manager, Clifton Nurseries (www.clifton.co.uk)











One Response to “Hard-working plants for small gardens”

  1. Barbara

    Delighted to have found your website (from the Oldie magazine, August 2012).
    Re-designing my small, and now overgrown, garden, the ideas give for hardworking plants have inspired me. Particularly Nadina domestica – never heard of it before but know it will fit beautifully.
    Thank you for such a clear and concise site.

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