See regional picks for short plants, and read the article by Steve Aitken for even more ideas.
“As I began amassing countless short varieties, only some of which worked in my front bed, I started planting shorter plants all over my garden. I would take notice of them, too, in all the gardens I visited, residential and botanical. I made mental notes of how others used small plants: the roles they could play and how essential they are to completing the look of a garden, a bed, or a vignette.” Read more in 10 Small Plants to Grow Now
1. ‘Dianne’s Gold’ Brunnera
Name: Brunnera macrophylla ‘Dianne’s Gold’
Size: 12 to 15 inches tall and 18 to 24 inches wide
Conditions: Partial shade; moist, well-drained soil
Native Range: Turkey
‘Dianne’s Gold’ brunnera begins to show off in midspring and carries its foliage color through the summer months. For weeks beginning in late April, sky blue forget-me-not flowers are held in loose sprays above the clumps of chartreuse, heart-shaped 3-to-4-inch leaves. You may be pleasantly surprised to discover dozens of yellow-leaved seedlings around mother plants (which I scoop up and transplant elsewhere), but should you not want babies, prevent this from happening by removing the spent flowers quickly before seeds form. Pair ‘Diane’s Gold’ with Japanese forest grass (Hakonechloa macra, Zones 5–9) and epimedium (Epimedium spp. and cvs., Zones 4–9) for an easy, long-lasting vignette that is deer resistant.
2. Upland White Goldenrod
Name: Solidago ptarmicoides
Size: 12 to 15 inches tall and 12 to 24 inches wide
Conditions: Full sun; dry soil
Native Range: Eastern North America
Many years ago on a hot August visit to Wave Hill in New York City, I spied this prairie native with its many white flowers looking fresh and unfazed by 90°F temperatures. It was some years before I was able to source seed for upland white goldenrod, but it was worth the wait. Narrow dark green leaves form low tufts in spring, with flower stems emerging in midsummer topped with clusters of small white asters, which are beacons for pollinators of all kinds. I have been delighted with how tough this plant is in scorching sun and poor soils. Upland white goldenrod will self-sow where happy.
3. ‘Pink Champagne’ Epimedium
Name: Epimedium ‘Pink Champagne’
Size: 12 inches tall and 18 inches wide
Conditions: Partial to full shade; well-drained soil
Native Range: Japan, Korea
The floral display of this shade lover is simply enchanting: sprays of soft pink spurs surrounding deeper coral pink centers, rising above clumps of attractive mottled olive green foliage. Vigorous and showy, the wiry flower stems show up in force in midspring (and occasionally during summer). What more could you ask for? How about deer resistance and a tolerance for dry soil conditions? You got it!
4. ‘White Cloud’ Calamint
Name: Calamintha nepeta ‘White Cloud’
Size: 15 inches tall and wide
Conditions: Full sun; well-drained soil
Native Range: Europe, northern Africa, western Asia
Calamint should be grown in more sunny gardens. A strong summer bloomer, it seems to perform whether we have a hot, dry summer or one that is cool and moist. The cultivar ‘White Cloud’ forms a tidy low mound of gray-green, slightly hairy foliage. It begins to enhance the border in early July with multitudes of flower stems bearing myriads of small white blossoms, creating a hazy low cloud. ‘White Cloud’ has a tendency to self-sow, which could be good if you consider a steady supply of plantlets a bonus. If you are looking for a form that won’t proliferate, consider dwarf calamint (C. nepeta ssp. nepeta, Zones 5–9), which has never self-sown in my garden in all the years I’ve grown it.
Katherine Tracey owns Avant Gardens, a specialty nursery in Dartmouth, Massachusetts.