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The Best Small Shrubs for Perennial Borders

The Best Small Shrubs for Perennial Borders

Buddleia (Butterfly Bush) in bloom with a Swallowtail butterfly perched on it. Weston Nurseries

There has been a trend in recent years to develop compact varieties of popular shrubs. For homeowners with limited space, these plants are a boon, and also have the added advantage that they mostly don’t need any pruning. While perfect for filling a small space or for foundation plantings, they can also be used in perennial borders. Small evergreen shrubs can provide year-round interest and structure while deciduous shrubs will still provide some visual variety in the middle of winter.

So if you are looking for something different to fill a small space or a low-growing shrub for informal hedging or foundation planting, these are some of the shrubs you could consider.

Forsythia Showoff® Sugar Baby® is the perfect shrub to bring color to the beginning of the growing season, as it blooms before most perennials have even started growing. Combined with spring bulbs it adds a welcome splash of color with its yellow flowers and remains a tidy 3 feet tall and wide at most. It also has the advantage of relinquishing the spotlight to summer perennials as its foliage makes a subtle foil to their flowers, and therefore it can easily be positioned in the middle of a perennial bed for maximum spring impact.

Aronia melanocarpa Low Scape Mound® is one for the front of the border, or to use en masse as a groundcover as it grows to about two feet tall and wide. And with its clusters of white flowers in spring and fiery foliage in fall, it is not a shrub that should be hidden away. A cultivar of our native black chokeberry, it offers berries for birds. It is a tough little shrub that will tolerate drought once established, even though naturally it grows in moist soil near wetlands. If something a little taller is required, choose aronia melanocarpa Low Scape Hedger®, which at 3-5 feet tall, lives up to its name, and makes a native alternative to boxwood.

Fothergilla Blue Elf is another native cultivar and offers fragrant white flowers in spring. It has blue-green foliage, a characteristic of its Blue Mist parent, and petite size of around 2 feet tall. If you are looking to create a cool color palette, this shrub is ideal, and as an added bonus Blue Elf’s foliage will turn shades of orange in the fall.

Other native shrubs with similar qualities are vaccinium Jelly Bean® and Berrybux®. These blueberry cultivars also offer attractive flowers, fall colors, and edible berries, although, unlike chokeberry, these have a natural sweetness. Jelly Bean® grows 1-2 feet tall and is suited to the front of borders, whereas Berrybux®, with its boxwood-like foliage, grows about a foot taller and makes attractive low hedging, as well as compact border accents.

Buddleia is a late-summer blooming shrub, with fragrant, nectar-rich flowers predominantly in shades of pink, purple and blue. A favorite with bees and butterflies, these compact varieties also have the advantage of having sterile flowers, thus preventing them from becoming invasive. Cold winters can cause the stems to die back, but a quick tidy-up of dead branches in the spring will restore buddleia to its prime. Look for the Pugster® range of buddleia for compact shrubs with large panicles of scented flowers, or the Flutterby Petite® group, which has more delicate flower heads.

Ninebark is another native shrub offering attractive foliage and nectar-rich flowers. Unlike forsythia which yields the stage to later perennials, the ninebark shrub’s coppery leaves provide an elegant accent on the border and remain a bright statement summer through fall. Early summer also sees it covered in clusters of pale pink flowers, which are attractive to bees. Physocarpus Little Devil® and Little Joker® while on the larger side of compact shrubs at around 3-4 feet tall and wide, lend themselves to being great back-of-the-border shrubs.

Winterberry is a shrub that comes into its own over winter when its bright berries add a splash of color to the winter landscape. During the summer and fall, they are a backdrop to perennial and annual flowers, but the yellow autumnal foliage gives way to a wintry highlight of berries on female plants. Preferring moist to wet soil look for the varieties Little Goblin Red® or Little Goblin Orange® to provide winter interest. Just make sure that a male variety is planted nearby to ensure plenty of berries.

These are just a few of the compact shrubs that can be used in perennial borders. Others to consider include weigela My Monet® and Very Fine Wine®; continus Velveteeny™, Spirea Lil Flirt and Lil Sizzle all of which offer colorful foliage. Viburnum Lil’ Ditty®, hydrangeas Bobo® and Wee White® offer cool white flowers, while kalmia Elf and Minuet, pieris Little Heath and leucothoe Squirt™ all provide year-round interest with evergreen foliage.

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