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Natives for Small Spaces

A species guide for selecting the right plant

So…why pick natives?

Are you looking for a small shrub or tree but don’t want to grab the same old plant you see in every big box store?

There are many small native shrubs and understory trees perfect for the designer, landscaper, or homeowner, who is constrained by small space. Even better, when you use native plants in your landscape you provide the ecological foundation to support your favorite birds, butterflies, bees, and more. Gone are the “plastic plants” which offer little to no benefit aside from eye candy. That’s not to say native shrubs aren’t just as beautiful; in fact, I hope you will find some of these little beauties to be just as show stopping as the usual fare.

But what is “small”? Depending on who you talk to can invoke starkly different responses. For our purposes I have selected understory trees because the maximum height tends to be 20-30’ tall and 15-20’ wide. If this is still too big for your space, then consider medium to large shrubs which run 8-12’ x 8-12’ in lieu of understory trees! For shrubs, a small plant will have a maximum spread of 5’ x 5’. Some of our native shrubs even run 3 x 3’ which is perfect for foreground plantings. And don’t forget to add that evergreen element to brighten up the doldrums of winter!

Above: New Jersey Tea (Ceanothus americanus) explodes with fragrant, white color in summer bringing in numerous pollinators. Plant in mass for a staggering effect sure to cause conversations from any observer.

Top Picks by Type

Find the right small choice for shrubs, evergreen shrubs and understory trees!

Native shrubs are so versatile in function, aesthetics, and durability. As previously mentioned, you don’t have to sacrifice ornamental quality or ease of maintenance to obtain ecological benefits.

For small, hardy shrubs consider planting the following options:

  • leadplant (Amorpha canescens)
  • red chokeberry (Aronia arbutifolia)
  • New Jersey tea (Ceanothus americanus)
  • summersweet (Clethra alnifolia)
  • sweetfern (Comptonia peregrina)
  • northern bush-honeysuckle (Diervilla lonicera)
  • American strawberry-bush (Euonymus americanus)
  • black huckleberry (Gaylussacia baccata)
  • smooth hydrangea (Hydrangea arborescens)
  • Kalm’s (Hypericum kalmianum ) or shrubby St. John’s wort (Hypericum prolificum)
  • shrubby cinquefoil (Potentilla fruticosa)
  • American black currant (Ribes americanum)
  • golden currant (Ribes aureum)
  • dwarf chinkapin oak (Quercus prinoides)
  • Pasture Rose (Rosa carolina)
  • meadowsweet (Spiraea alba)
  • steeplebush (Spiraea tomentosa)
  • snowberry (Symphoricarpos albus)
  • coralberry (Symphoricarpos orbiculatus)
  • downy arrowwood (Viburnum rafinesqueanum)

Unfortunately, there are far fewer native evergreen shrubs. Furthermore, most are uncommon within the nursery trade and fewer yet are hardy and durable. Make sure you research site preference for each plant. Some prefer cooler summers, well drained soils, or specific soil pH and most are not deer resistant.

Nonetheless here are a few great options to consider when looking for a small native evergreen:

  • leatherleaf (Chamaedaphne calyculata)
  • common juniper (Juniperus communis)
  • creeping juniper (Juniperus horizontalis) and canada yew (Taxus canadensis)

 

Above: Lead plant (Amorpha canescens) is a beautiful prairie shrub with purple flowers set against whitish green leaflets. This three foot tall shrub thrives in full sun in hot, dry conditions. Pollinators will thank you for the early summer fireworks. Prune back in late winter to maintain bushy appearance.


Understory Favorite


Serviceberry
(Amelanchier spp.)

Shrub Favorite


Shrubby St. John’s Wort
(Hypericum prolificum)

Evergreen Favorite


Creeping Juniper
(Juniperus horizontalis)


Lastly are the underutilized and often highly ornamental native understory trees. These small trees are perfect for areas where 60’ tree will overtake a space or large shade is undesirable. All too often a clump river birch or other larger tree planted too close to a building. Yes it looks great for the first few years but soon the mistake is evident! And this is where smaller trees and large shrubs shine! Consider one of the following native understory trees: striped maple (Acer pensylvanicum), smooth or downy serviceberry (Amelanchier laevis, A. arborea), eastern redbud (Cercis canadensis), pagoda dogwood (Cornus alternifolia), flowering dogwood (Cornus florida) prairie crabapple (Malus ioensis), and umbrella or bigleaf magnolia (Magnolia tripetala, M. macrophylla)

The Problem with Flowering Dogwood…

Above: Flowering dogwood (Cornus florida) very popular due to the showy spring flowers. Site preference cannot be overlooked and long term success is not achievable when planted in the wrong spot!

I profess, I love flowering dogwood! It is a harbinger of warmer temperatures and sunny weather! There is nothing quite like seeing this tree bursting with snow white flowers in the spring or bright red fruit dancing across rich purple fall color.

But it isn’t suited for every spot! This is one of a handful of natives that are temperamental and require specific requirements to thrive. There is a reason most nurseries do not offer a warranty with this tree: most will never live past a year or two! So why does this happen? First, flowering dogwood requires well drained, acidic soil. If you are located in a typical Midwest urban to suburban environment, the soils are often high pH, compact clay. Without excessive and often pampering, this tree is not likely to thrive. Secondly, flowering dogwood prefers dappled, filtered sunlight. Leaf scorch is common in hot dry sites leading to an overall unhealthy, sickly appearance. Consider planting this tree in an area that gets full morning sun and afternoon shade / diffused light.


Above: Smooth hydrangea (Hydrangea arborescens) flowers explode in part sun offering an ornamental show similar to nonnative cousins.

Above: Sweetfern is an obscure native perfect for hot dry, spots in full sun. It can spread by runner but stays roughly 3×3’.

 


Blooming through the Seasons

Use natives to encourage pollinators spring to fall

To maximize the ecological benefits and aesthetics, you want staggered flowers from spring to fall. For spring, serviceberry, redbud, spicebush (slightly larger) and downy arrowwood will provide color from March to early June. The summer fireworks begin with New Jersey Tea, shrubby St. John’s wort, summersweet, and smooth hydrangea. While most of these species are white flowers, St. John’s wort will surely impress with bold yellow flowers calling in tons of pollinators!

Fall is often overlooked. The landscape is worn from summer heat and plants begin a journey towards dormancy. But pollinators still need food. To that end, witch-hazel, and vernal witch-hazel flourish! While they are not small at maturity, they do offer important flowers from fall to winter when little else besides asters are blooming. Pair these shrubs around the landscape to enjoy color and provide critical food throughout the year!

Closing Thoughts

Above: Pagoda dogwood (Cornus alternifolia) lives up to its name offering unique and beautiful architecture even dormant during the winter months!

Native woody plants offer numerous benefits from aesthetics to ecological function in the urban to suburban, park to formal garden and all other landscapes. Too many natives are completely overlooked and popular natives become overused in the wrong place yielding poor results. Native trees and shrubs are not just for the wild, natural areas. They are for HoAs, display gardens, and city sidewalks. A change in how we landscape has already started. Now the decision makers, landscape architects, landscapers, municipalities, and more hold the key to this change. Our landscaping can be something so much more. We don’t have to litter the land with genetic clones of nonnative plants. Plant beauty is not solely enate from European, Asian, or other geographic sites. But we also don’t have to sacrifice the comfort of what we know and to which we are acclimated. Simply stated we can incorporate natives which behave similar in size, structure, function, and overall aesthetics. With small, showy natives, we can promote the foundation that nature requires!