The Best Compact Shrubs for Front-Yard Gardens

If recent online searches are any indication, a lot of gardeners are looking to revamp their front yards this year.

“We saw home gardeners and decorators sprucing up their backyard spaces during COVID-19 to provide that outdoor sanctuary,” says Diane Blazek, executive director of the National Garden Bureau. “Now the front yard is getting the love... There are a lot of searches for compact plants to coincide with that search.”

Compact plants in general have been on the upswing in recent years because yards are trending smaller and gardeners are looking to trim the job of constant trimming.

The good news is that growers and breeders are ahead of the curve and already producing a range of down-sized versions of popular landscape shrubs that make ideal front-and-center choices.

Small flower bed with compact shrubs along the front of a front porch.

Small beds along the front of a front porch call for plants that are going to stay compact. Photo by George Weigel

What makes a good compact, low-care, front-yard shrub?

Compact or “dwarf” shrubs, as they’re sometimes known, are winter-hardy, woody plants that are either naturally small or are varieties that have been bred to grow slower and smaller than their species dictates.

Some are evergreen, while others flower in the growing season and drop their leaves in fall.

Some grow in neat mounds, some have low, arching habits.

Some have traditional green foliage, some have interesting shades of blue, burgundy, or gold to add long-lasting leaf color to the flower show.

Compact shrub roses hedge along a front walkway

These compact shrub roses make a colorful low hedge along a front walkway. George Weigel

Besides the benefit of being maintenance-savers, compact shrubs are useful for adding texture and form. They make a good framework or “skeleton” alongside the bulbs, perennial flowers, annual flowers, and flower pots that are the main color workhorses in a front garden.

Among the front-yard spots where compact shrubs make sense:

  • Underneath and between front windows.
  • In those narrow foundation beds between the house and walk.
  • In small beds around front porches and front stoops.
  • In small beds around light posts or mailboxes.
  • As short informal hedges along walks and driveways.

Limited spaces like those call for smaller plants, not bulky bushes or hulking hollies that will quickly overpower the space and lead to unnecessary trimming – or worse yet, plant removals.

How to choose shrubs for your space

When shopping for shrubs, start by reading plant tags to determine what the grower considers to be the “mature” height and width of the plant (usually five to 10 years after planting). Even though plants typically surpass those label estimates over time, it’ll give you an idea of comfortable maintenance sizes.

Two rules of thumb on spacing shrubs in the landscape:

  1. When planting next to a wall or porch, take half of the mature width and plant no closer than that. Example: if a shrub is listed as growing four feet wide, plant it at least two feet away from the wall or porch.
  2. When planting shrubs next to one another, add their widths and divide by two. Example: if you’re planting a four-foot-wide boxwood next to a two-foot-wide miniature rose, plant them three feet apart (four plus two, divided by two, equals three).

Also pay attention to the site’s light. Know whether the exposure is full sun, mostly shade, or somewhere between, then select accordingly. Plant labels also spell out shrubs’ light preferences.

A few specifics

Shrubs planted around your house and walkways make a big impact to your front of the house aesthetic,  improving your home's curb appeal by adding color, texture and structure.   

Some of the shrubs you’ll find these days with low-maintenance down-sized options include:

Most garden centers have nursery sections devoted to “dwarf conifers,” which are some of the smallest needled evergreens. Examples are the three-foot-round Mr. Bowling Ball® globe arborvitae, the rounded cryptomerias Dragon Prince™ and ‘Globosa Nana’ (four feet), and a dwarf Norway spruce called ‘Little Gem’ that stays under two feet tall.

Weigela My Monet®  super compact flowering shrub

Weigela My Monet® is a super-compact flowering shrub with variegated foliage. George Weigel

  • Boxwoods, the sterile dwarf nandina ‘Firepower,’ sweetbox, cotoneaster ‘Little Gem’ and ‘Tom Thumb,’ leucothoe ‘Little Flames,’ and several dwarf Hinoki falsecypress varieties are among compact broad-leaf evergreen options.
  • Numerous roses check in at two to three feet tall and wide, such as the Drift® series, the Oso Easy® series, the new super-small Petite Knock Out, and just about all miniature roses.
  • Hydrangeas are being down-sized sometimes by as much as half. Examples include smooth hydrangea Invincibelle Mini Mauvette® (three feet), oakleaf types ‘Munchkin’ and ‘PeeWee’ (three to four feet), and panicle types Fire Light Tidbit® (two to three feet) and Tiny Quick Fire® (under two feet).
  • Weigelas have been shrunk from the four- to six-foot range to the two- to three-foot range with the variegated My Monet® and the dark-leafed varieties Midnight Wine® and Fine Wine™.

Crape myrtle Cherry Dazzle®.

Crape myrtles are available in compact rounded forms, such as this three-by-four-foot Cherry Dazzle®. George Weigel

  • Native ninebarks also have been halved to the three- to four-foot range in Sweet Cherry Tea™, Tiny Wine® and Spicy Devil®.
  • Native summersweets (Clethra alnifolia) now come in less than three-foot heights in ‘Hummingbird’ and ‘Sixteen Candles.’
  • Butterfly bush varieties are available that are both compact and sterile so as not to seed into the wild, including ‘Flutterby Petite,’ Lo and Behold® ‘Blue Chip Jr.’ and Lo and Behold® ‘Pink Micro Chip.’
  • Crape myrtles have been developed that grow into small, rounded bushes as opposed to tall, upright shrubs. Examples: ‘Chickasaw,’ ‘Pokemoke,’ ‘Red Filli,’ and the Razzle Dazzle® series.
  • Ground Hug® and Low Scape Mound® are two native chokeberries that top out at two to three feet.
  • Abelia, deutzia, caryopteris, and Virginia sweetspires are four other flowering shrubs that are naturally small – growing three to four feet tall and wide.

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