If you need help as your garden pumps up into rangy summer growth, you’re not alone. That’s why there’s a trend toward well-behaved varieties, whether such plants were found in the wild or developed through breeding and testing.
In nature, meadows and prairies are crowded. Herbivores are grazing. Being stronger, taller and more apt to spread helps a plant block others while getting sunlight, water and nutrients. In a forest, competition is even fiercer. Plants that originate in such environments can bring this wild growth to your garden. Excessively.
Other wild plants find an advantage in being small and neat. Above the tree line in rocky sites, many—including hardy shrubs— stay low or hunker down in crevices to avoid wind and wildlife. Being small, they need less water and nutrition. Those that require pollinators to reproduce offer showy flowers to attract them.
Deserts and seashores also encourage spare, neat plant growth because nutrition is hard to find. Chick Charms Sempervivum (hens and chicks) are a great example—anyone would love the Gold Nugget version in that series. Each plant is a colorful succulent rosette with gold leaves tipped bright red.
Tough and tidy, alpine plants are good for containers and small gardens. The downside is that their roots tend to rot where life is rich and
easy. Here in the lowlands, we protect them by growing them in raised beds and containers with sandy or gritty soil—not the moist environment that suits most plants. Rock gardeners (I’m one) go to extremes. I have seen containers of alpines fitted with tiny roofs to keep rain and snow away. Well-drained soil is a must.
Some rock-garden plants are more reliable—like dianthus, rock cress, primroses, and creeping phlox. Birdfoot violet (Viola pedata) is a native with petite proportions and great flowers.
The challenge is to find plants that look great, stay trim without pruning, don’t need staking, resist disease and perform well in ordinary good garden conditions. If the plant attracts pollinators or looks good in containers, it’s a plus. If it’s edible, attractive, colorful and delicious, that’s even better. And if it’s a carefree, attractive, permanent part of your landscape, that’s quite hard to beat.
In the conifer world, almost every forest evergreen comes in a petite version, and these live with little care for many years. Needles are shorter, and growth is limited to a few inches a year. Miniature and dwarf evergreens are good for our smaller landscapes and also for container gardens of many types. There are small forms of deciduous trees, too.
Container gardening is popular, and plant breeders work with this in mind. Some of the choices seem to get smaller and more useful every year. In the edibles world, Renee’s Seeds, owned by Renee Shepherd, is offering trim little plants that produce crops in window boxes and hanging baskets. They just fit. Growing them this way gives protection from most garden pests. I like Windowbox Mini Basil (elegant and bushy with tiny, tasty leaves), Strawberry Alpine Mignonette (clumping but with no runners and many sweet little red berries), Litt’l Bites Cherry Windowbox Tomatoes (small, sweet cherry tomatoes that grow productively all summer) and especially Little Firebirds Nasturtiums. Always in flower, its branches dangle to about 18 inches—perfect for containers.
Renee suggests using nasturtium leaves and flowers for color and flavor (the taste is like watercress mixed with honey) in many foods, not just salad. You can mix them into cream cheese, along with dill and bits of cucumber, for a great spread. Or stir them into scrambled eggs.
W. Atlee Burpee Co. has been at work along the same lines. I’m trying their Gladiator Hybrid Tomatoes, good for patio pots and bearing large, tasty Roma-type fruits. Another beauty is the Maglia Rosa, with red, egg-shaped tomatoes that take on a pink glow when ripe. They’re good in containers, too. And the Patio Baby Hybrid Eggplant requires no staking. A healthy plant can make 25-50 petite purple eggplants. These all go with Pesto Party Basil, which is late to bolt and resists downy mildew.
Janika Eckert, a plant breeder at Johnny’s Selected Seeds, won the 2016 Breeder’s Cup award from All-America Selections for her work with many new vegetables, including four AAS winners. One that especially appeals to me is her Cornito Giallo sweet golden Italian pepper, with smaller, tighter growth that makes it good for containers and small gardens.
Led by George Coombs, Mt. Cuba Center’s researchers do extensive trials of ornamental plants native to the Appalachians. It’s part of the
organization’s mission. Coombs praises perennial Phlox paniculata Jeana for its standout performance in a group of other likely phloxes. Jeana attracts more butterflies and has more resistance to mildew. The stems are strong, and the violet-pink flower clusters are large and showy. Plants grow about three feet tall.
In trials of Monarda (bee balm), shorter types had less resistance to mildew—and Purple Rooster did well. Coreopsis varieties vary greatly. Coombs notes Coreopsis tripteris Gold Standard and Coreopsis tripteris Flower Power for height and strong growth in this region. Another up-and-coming plant he likes is sneezeweed (Helenium autumnale). Maybe that’s not the best name for an attractive native plant with strong stems and clusters of butter-yellow daisy flowers.
Think about making a visit to Mt. Cuba Center in Hockessin, Del. this summer to see many more easy-care native plants.