Dwarf plants can save water, conserve time and energy

January 29, 2009

By Charlie Neumeyer, Victoria County Master Gardener

Edited by Charla Borchers Leon,
Victoria County Master Gardener
Photo Credit: Charlie Neumeyer/Victoria County Master Gardener
Bountiful, dark blue berries add extra fall and winter color on dwarf Indian Hawthornes.
Are you concerned about the environment, yet looking for landscape shrubs that pack a big wallop? Plants that save water, reduce maintenance, and help conserve time and energy? If so, you might consider looking for plants that have the word dwarf, miniature or compact in their names.

While the sizes will vary, all of these plants have characteristics that make them ideal for middle plantings in the flower bed or for small areas that would be overwhelmed by large shrubs.
Dwarf, Miniature, or Compact - Is There a Difference?

"While the terms dwarf, miniature and compact have the same meaning in a general sense," said John Fossati of the Four Seasons Garden Center, "there are differences.  The word dwarf in a plant name means that there is a larger or standard-sized version of the same plant."

"The plant is labeled dwarf because it is a smaller-sized version relative to the standard plant. For instance, a standard crape myrtle may grow to 30 feet tall, while a miniature variety such as 'Baton Rouge' will grow only 18 to 24 inches tall," said Neil Sperry.

Dwarf varieties of crape myrtles will reach a maximum size of 4 to 6 feet. Likewise, plants labeled as miniatures, such as miniature roses, normally have other members of the same family that are much larger. The term compact is more generic and covers a wide range of shrubs.

The bottom line, whether a plant is labeled dwarf, miniature or compact, is to read the label or ask your nurseryman, "What is the mature plant size?" Plants with any of these labels will help conserve the ecosystem.
Photo Credit: Charlie Neumeyer/Victoria County Master Gardener
Little John bottlebrush adds color and texture to a landscape in compact style. This mass planting, which is interspersed with red yucca, can be seen at St. Peter's Lutheran Church in Hallettsville.
Dwarf Shrubs That Bloom

As is the case with standard shrubs, many of the dwarf varieties will add color to your landscape with blooms. Some specimens have the added impact of berries or fruits that will extend the color throughout the growing season. The pomegranate Chico is a good example. It has orange-red flowers and the fruit that develops is a smaller version of the standard pomegranates that are currently available in the supermarkets. The plant will have blossoms and fruit at the same time.

Another shrub that is planted in many local beds is the dwarf Indian Hawthorne. These shrubs will bloom in shades of pink or white in early summer. The blooms are followed by dark blue/purple berries in late summer and into the fall. The growth is very thick and little or no pruning is needed. They are often used in mass plantings and generally grow 2 to 3 feet tall.

Other small shrubs that will add color to the landscape include oleanders, which need very little water, such as Petite Pink, or Petite Salmon. A number of bush roses, such as Belinda's Dream and the Knock Out series stay in the 3 to 4 foot tall range and require little maintenance. And don't overlook the Little John Bottlebrush. It needs no pruning, is drought tolerant and enhances the landscape by adding color and texture.

Dwarf Shrubs That Add Texture

Oftentimes gardeners are not looking for color, but want greenery that will add texture or serve as a backdrop for colorful annuals. Shrubs such as Wheeler's dwarf pittosporum and dwarf yaupon will provide a thick, green backdrop for the landscape. They can also be used as hedges or low-growing borders. If you want a dwarf yaupon holly, be sure to buy the variety labeled 'Nana' that grows only to 2 or 3 feet tall. You will be rewarded with reduced water usage and minimal maintenance.

Another plant that is shrubby in appearance, is the upright rosemary. Although it is usually thought of as an herb, it is a perennial shrub that does well in our hot climate. Rosemary will provide interesting texture in the landscape and it is being used more often because it will tolerate fairly dry conditions. Rosemary needs full sun and limited water once established. An added bonus, of course, is having fresh rosemary available for culinary uses.

If you want to add a tropical look to your garden, you might want to consider the dwarf split leaf philodendron Xanadu. Fossati said this plant grows only 2 to 3 feet tall. It has narrow leaves and forms a dense clump.

Although it looks very tropical, it can tolerate light freezes. An added bonus is that it will grow in nearly all light conditions and does best with minimal watering, too.

Shrubs That Add Color

A third class of small shrubs consists of those plants that add interest to the garden because of their leaf color. Chief among those are the loropetalums. A new variety of loropetalum on the market, chinensis shang-lo Purple Pixie, has striking purple leaves. While this variety of loropetalum blooms, it is the unusual leaf color that remains attractive throughout the year that makes this plant an outstanding specimen.

If you are looking for a plant that will brighten an area, you might want to consider gold mound duranta. This plant sports chartreuse yellow leaves and grows 18 to 24 inches tall. Its compact growth requires little or no pruning. As is the case with all durantas, this variety blooms also, but the plant is primarily used for the color of its leaves.

Does size matter? In the landscape, it does. Using dwarf, miniature, or compact plants can add color, versatility and interest to your landscape.

Additionally, they can reduce the amount of labor, water and energy needed for maintenance. By carefully choosing plants that are drought tolerant, using mulch in the beds, and installing a drip irrigation system, you can also "go green" and help conserve natural resources.
Photo Credit: Charlie Neumeyer/Victoria County Master Gardener
Located in Victoria Educational Gardens, across from the control tower at Victoria Regional Airport, this pomegranate Chico displays flowers and fruit at the same time.
Photo Credit: Charlie Neumeyer/Victoria County Master Gardener
The upright rosemary adds texture and serves as a staple in the garden as well as in the kitchen.

American beautyberry*
Dwarf Barbados cherry*
Little John bottlebrush*
Bush morning glory*
Bush roses*
Dwarf crape myrtles*
Miniature crape myrtles
Gold mound duranta
Dwarf Burford holly
Dwarf indian hawthorne*
Purple pixie loropetalum
Harbor dwarf nandina
Petite pink oleander
Wheeler's dwarf pittosporum
Pomegranate Chico*
Upright rosemary*
Texas sage*
Dwarf split-leaf philodendron*
Texas scarlet flowering quince
Dwarf yaupon*
*Specimens found in the Victoria Educational Gardens
References: Texas Cooperative Extension/City of Austin; "Native and Adapted Landscape Plants," 2005; and "Sperry, Neil, Neil Sperry's Complete Guide to Gardening," Taylor Publishing Company, 1991
The Gardeners' Dirt is written by members of the Victoria County Master Gardener Association, an educational outreach of Texas AgriLife Extension - Victoria County. Mail your questions in care of the Advocate, P.O. Box 1518, Victoria, TX 77901; or, or comment on this column at