Save the last dance for me: 5 Shrubs with staying power

Over the past decade, small deciduous shrubs have earned a special place in my garden and my heart. What began as an experiment to add more structure and reduce weeding has led me to an increased appreciation of their merits. Flowers, foliage and texture, they’ve got it all going on - especially those that go out with a bang in the fall.

Stay with me as I rave about about several I wouldn’t be without.

Left to right: Spiraea media ‘Snowstorm’, Physocarpus opulifolius ‘Tiny Wine’ (Ninebark) Cotinus obavatus (Smokebush)

Let’s hear it for foliage: I thought I was over Spiraeas, but here’s one that got me excited again. Spiraea media ‘Snowstorm’ definitely saves the best for the finale. I enjoy the last hurrah of electric orange-yellow leaves. But to be fair, it’s virtues aren’t limited to the neon foliage.

It’s almost as wonderful when dainty bluish-gray leaves emerge in spring (kind of unusual for a deciduous shrub!) Around late May and early June, mounds of fuzzy white flowers erupt from this tidy well behaved little gem. Easy to grow too - it endures summer heat, beating down sun, drought-like conditions and is hardy to zones 4-8. This tough cookie bounces back from winter deer browsing and rabbit munching without a whimper. And it’s just the right size (about 3’) for a tight spot like this narrow shrub border. It flowers on new wood, you can keep it in check by cutting it by half late winter or early spring.

Really, what more could you ask for? Which leads me to my next favorite - what’s that peeking out from the right corner below?

Let me introduce Physocarpus opulifolius ‘Tiny Wine’ (Ninebark). I think it’s one of the best dwarf Ninebarks around because unlike some of the other varieties I’ve planted, its dark burgundy leaves do not dim out as summer progresses. I think of it as a shrub for all seasons. I grow it mostly for the foliage, but honestly, the flowers it produces in June aren’t too shabby.

You can use that dark foliage to create stunning fall combinations. Here it is strutting its stuff between a few late blooming perennials and grasses.

Left to right: Aster oblongifolius ‘October Skies,’ Solidago ‘Fireworks’Physocarpus opulifolius ‘Tiny Wine’ and Seslaria autumnalis

This sweet little guy has an elegant branching habit and you can count on it to stay small (between 3-4’). To be honest, some of the other dwarf varieties I’ve planted grow larger than promised. This one is easy to tuck it into a shrub or perennial border. Talk about a durable plant! It’s hardy to zone 3-8 and I don’t think you could ask for a more fuss-free shrub. Mine thrives in full sun without much care or water in dry sandy soil.

My weakness for gold foliage led me to trial a recent Proven Winners introduction - a dwarf birch, Betula x pleitkei ‘Cesky Gold’. I experimented with a small one a summer container. The serrated gold leaves provided an interesting splash of color and texture that intrigued me.

Betula x pleitkei ‘Cesky Gold (Dwarf Birch)

As a matter of fact, I liked it so much I bought a larger specimen and tucked it into my perennial and shrub border. What an excellent little filler, it made this section of the garden sing! It’s reported to be extremely cold tolerant (USDA zone 2-7) and even better news - deer resistant. This little birch’s upright habit ranges about 3-4,’ just right for any small garden. Plant it in full sun or the bright gold will fade. I’ve noticed that the tips of the leaves brown out if it doesn’t get enough moisture. My soil is dry and sandy, so it’s probably be a better candidate for heavier soils. I’ve fallen in love with it though, so I guess I’ll just water it more.

What about long lasting flowers? This newish dwarf hydrangea, Hydrangea paniculata ‘Bobo’ will knock your socks off. If you’re a hydrangea fan and don’t have room for larger paniculata varieties, this is the shrub for you. I used it to repeat the green and white combinations in this border. The taller white hydrangea in the back, Hydrangea arborescence ‘Annabelle’ is way too tall for the front of this bed. I managed to squeeze this cute little thing (about 2-3’) in between the grasses where it pumped out flowers like mad from June til the end of summer.

Left to right: Hakonochloa macra ‘Aureola’ Cornus alba ‘Ivory Halo,’ and Hydrangea paniculata ‘Bobo’

You can’t beat ‘Bobo’ for long lasting flower power. It performs nicely in partial shade or full sun. Tolerance is its middle name - hardy from zone 3-8. Most of the panicle hydrangeas I’ve grown haven’t been fans of my dry sandy soil, but this one doesn’t bat an eye at low moisture.

Lespedeza liukiuensis 'Little Volcano' is late to the party, but so what? I can’t think of a more outrageous late bloomer. Finding it can be a little challenging (I ordered mine online from Plant Delights), but it’s so worth having. Here’s why - first of all, it’s a cut back shrub, meaning you whack it back to the ground in spring. Second, it’s handy for tough spots or places where you want something with a little volume but don’t have enough room for a woody shrub. Third, it sits quietly by all summer but leaps into action for the whole month of October and blooms til frost finishes if off. Lastly, it’s very tough and can handle snowplows, wind and dry sandy soil without missing a beat (USDA zone 4-9).

I wouldn’t term it as a dwarf shrub - ‘Little Volcano’ stands about 5-6’ and has a spread of 3-4’. But remember, it isn’t a permanent presence because you cut it back - a useful filler if you have room over the summer.

Left to right: Lespedeza liukiuensis 'Little Volcano' and Calamagrostis x acutiflora 'Karl Foerster' share a last dance.

Summer is too fleeting, winter lasts forever - why not plan and plant ahead so we can savor fall for as long as possible?


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