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Bart Bartholomew, nursery manager at Pahl’s Market in Apple Valley, used to wince when people looking for shrubs would tell him what they wanted: a carefree plant that grew no more than 3 feet high and flowered all summer long. Oh, and it would be good if it never needed pruning.
“How about a plastic plant?” he’d think.
Today, he’s got more and better options to suggest. Dwarf shrubs and columnar trees are two of the hottest trends in horticulture, and plant breeders have responded to demand by developing smaller plants that cater to busy homeowners with tight spaces.
“One of the traits we’re looking for is compactness,” said Ryan McEnaney, public relations specialist for Bailey Nurseries, a major plant breeder and producer based in Newport. “People are living in more urban landscapes and condos or apartments, and still want greenery. … Those who have a more traditional home and who are working on their foundation plantings don’t want things that grow over windows.”
Intimidation also plays a part in the desire for smaller plants, he added. People who are new to gardening and taking care of their yard are often afraid of killing plants, and pruning can seem scary. “Having something compact is going to take that pruning away.”
At Pahl’s, one popular dwarf is Bobo, a panicle hydrangea with large white flowers that turn faintly pink in fall. Bobo tops out at about 3 feet tall, and flowers for much of the growing season.
“The growers can’t keep up with the demand for them,” Bartholomew said.
Hydrangeas in general are hot, with plant breeders turning out more Minnesota-hardy plants with blooms that turn pink or have unusual flower forms. But hydrangeas can be rangy plants that can grow more than 8 feet tall. Bartholomew said customers have been drawn to the smaller Little Quick Fire, which reaches 3 to 5 feet high and has flowers that start out white and turn pink, and Baby Lace, a 4-foot hydrangea with white flowers.
Bailey has introduced Strawberry Sundae, a pink-flowered dwarf that reaches 3 to 4 feet, and BloomStruck, a 3-to-4-foot bigleaf hydrangea with violet or blue flowers (depending on the acidity of the soil) that McEnaney said is a more reliable bloomer than its relative, the original Endless Summer.
Dwarf berry bushes
Though self-pollinating dwarf blueberries and gooseberries for pots have gained attention nationally, McEnaney and Bartholomew agreed that, despite their zone 4 climate rating, the plants need to be sheltered over winter. Bartholomew said a potted blueberry he grew survived after spending winter in the garage, but bore poorly the next year.
Colorful barberries have been popular foundation plants in Minnesota but have recently run into trouble because seeds distributed by birds have produced large rogue plants that are naturalizing in the wild. As of next year, it will be illegal in Minnesota to sell or transport the seediest types of Japanese barberries. Newer barberry varieties that are sterile or have few seeds will still be sold, including two Bailey introductions that are very dwarf: Daybreak, which reaches 18 inches, and Moscato, which grows 2 feet tall.
Plant breeders have been growing trees for compact areas, too, emphasizing both lower heights and narrow forms. Bartholomew is intrigued by Straight Talk privet, a Bailey introduction that grows 2 feet wide and 12 feet high and is hardy to zone 4.
Today’s homeowners demand plants that are easy to care for, said McEnaney, who predicted that dwarfness and resilience will continue to shape plants of the future. Plant breeding and testing take a lot of time, money and effort, he added, so while plant nurseries don’t chase fleeting fads, they do breed plants to follow longer-term trends.
Demand will only get stronger, Bartholomew agreed. “We see new dwarf plants every year. Landscapes are smaller, people have smaller yards, and they want less pruning and maintenance and a neat and tidy look. We hear it all the time.”
Mary Jane Smetanka is a Minneapolis freelance writer, Hennepin County Master Gardener and Tree Care Advisor.