Shrubs for small gardens


Credit: Bluebell Arboretum and Nursery

After a love affair with perennials spanning two decades, there are signs that designers are flirting with shrubs again. In small gardens, of course, where great form and multiple seasons of interest are a must, they’ve always been a fixture, but it’s nice to know they’re now voguish as well as valuable. Bluebell Arboretum and Nursery in South Derbyshire has been one of the country’s leading specialists in rare and unusual trees and shrubs for the last 36 years and here, owner Robert Vernon shares his top picks for small gardens.

Cornus kousa 'China Girl'

Credit: Bluebell Arboretum and Nursery

Best for a focal point

Cornus kousa ‘China Girl’ – Flowering Dogwood
This is one of our favourite plants. Cornus kousa ‘China Girl’ is ideal for a sunny situation and has a stunning display of white flower bracts which turn cream-white in late May or early June, holding their colour until mid or late July sometimes August here in Derbyshire. Unlike many plants which can ‘fizzle’ out after a year or two, the display of flower bracts just becomes better as the years go on!

After the handsome bracts fall, they develop colourful, edible fruit which look a little like small oranges or red lychees in late August. Finally the green summer leaves develop pretty yellow and orange autumn tints before falling.

‘China Girl’ is not usually particularly quick-growing in the UK and if left unpruned will reach a height of approx 6 – 8 ft with graceful, upright branching in 10 years. Some gentle pruning after the flower bracts fall will limit the height to whatever you require but unlike some other dogwoods this should not be pruned back hard. Cornus kousa ‘China Girl’ can also be grown in a large container for many years.

Best for romance

Deutzia x hybrida ‘Strawberry Fields’

Deutzia x hybrida 'Strawberry Fields'

Credit: Bluebell Arboretum and Nursery

Known for its flamboyant display of summer flowers, Deutzia x hybrida ‘Strawberry Fields’ has masses of large, deep-pink and white, lightly fragrant flowers in mid-summer. These flowers stand out well against the dark green leaves.

Growing to a height of around 6 ft, Deutzia x hybrida ‘Strawberry Fields’ can be pruned if required and will flower best in a warm, sunny position.






Stephanandra incisa 'Crispa'

Credit: Bluebell Arboretum and Nursery

Best for shady gardens

Stephanandra incisa ‘Crispa’

Native to parts of Japan and Korea, Stephanandra incisa ‘Crispa’ is tough, reliable and suitable for nearly any position from full sun to shade. The leaves are bright green in summer and turn golden yellow or orange in autumn before falling. In summer, clusters of small white flowers appear on the branches.

Stephanandra incisa ‘Crispa’ is reasonably slow-growing and in time forms a graceful, spreading small mound up to around 2 – 3 ft tall. It is useful as a ground cover shrub but also very effective as a stand-alone specimen or when grown in a large container.


Best for tiny gardens

Ginkgo biloba ‘Troll’

Ginkgo biloba 'Troll'

Credit: Bluebell Arboretum and Nursery

For gardens with very limited space, there are few smaller or slower growing shrubs than this. Ginkgo biloba ‘Troll  is an unusual hardy plant with a very compact growth habit and clumps of small, dark green leaves which turn golden-yellow in autumn before they fall. The growth rate is at most a few inches a year and it can be kept in a pot for years if required. It grows best in a hot position with full sun. An auspicious plant and the Chinese tree of long life!





Best for all-year-round interest

Nandina domestica 'Richmond'

Credit: Bluebell Arboretum and Nursery

Nandina domestica ‘Richmond’ – Heavenly Bamboo

An elegant, evergreen shrub native to parts of Japan and China, Nandina domestica ‘Richmond’ has delicate dark green leaves and spikes of pinkish-white flowers in summer. These flowers are followed by very eye-catching red berries in late summer/autumn which may persist into winter.

Nandina domestica ‘Richmond’ can be grown in a container if required and will reach a height of around 4 – 6 ft in time. It will grow in shade but usually produces its best display of flowers and berries in a warm, sunny position.

Best for bees and butterflies

Clethra alnifolia ‘Sixteen Candles’

Clethra alnifolia 'Sixteen Candles'

Credit: Bluebell Arboretum and Nursery

A lovely compact flowering shrub reaching a height of up to 3ft, Clethra alnifolia ‘Sixteen Candles’ has masses of fragrant, upright white flower spikes which appear in late summer. These flowers are popular with bees and butterflies. The leaves are bright green, turning shades of yellow before falling in autumn.

Clethra alnifolia ‘Sixteen Candles’ will usually flower best in a position with plenty of sunlight and can be grown very successfully in a large container if required. It doesn’t enjoy chalky soils.




Best for a wild look

Brimstone butterfly on Frangula alnus (taken in our gardens by a visitor and photo credits to Sean O'Neill )

Credit: Sean O’Neill

Frangula alnus (Formerly: Rhamnus frangula) –  Alder Buckthorn

Last but not least, Frangula alnus is a native, deciduous shrub with dark green leaves and small clusters of white flowers in early summer. These flowers are followed by small red (turning black) fruits in late summer and autumn which are popular with birds.

Most interestingly, Frangula alnus  is the host plant to the beautiful Brimstone butterflies. They can locate it from over a mile away and will only lay their eggs on this and one other closely related species, Rhamnus cathartica. This is one of the few plants where finding a caterpillar on it is really good news!

Tough and hardy,  Frangula alnus will grow well in sun or partial shade and will reach a height of approx 6 – 8 ft in 10 years, although it can be pruned to reduce the size if required.

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