Think Small, Part 1

Bletilla striata and Iris tectorum. Photo by Kit Flynn.


By Kit Flynn

I have had dogs all my life, switching from small ones to big ones and back now to small ones. I have never understood large dog people scoffing at small dogs (and vice versa). Both sizes have their pluses and minuses. It’s the same with plants. Large plants have their definite purpose, but small plants can hold the perennial borders together. It’s the small plants that can accent admirably these larger plants.

When I first started gardening, it was in the midst of the tropical plant fad so I consequently concentrated on large plants. No leaf could be too large. Of course, many of my experiments failed as most of the tropical plants I got my hands on were perennials that required more than one meager growing season to make their statement. And here in zone 7 I had to treat them as annuals.

When my garden choices became more realistic, I found that a collection of plants could make the statement I was seeking. Cannas alone can look startlingly out of place but a canna strategically placed among an assortment of plants may be an outstanding choice.

Along the way, as my garden began to fill up, I began searching for some smaller plants as I needed both accent plants and ones to fill up the inevitable holes appearing in the perennial borders. Several of these workhorses I grew to appreciate and savor. It’s always so gratifying to find a small plant that works – it really is as simple as that.

I first discovered Bletilla striata by happenstance at the long-lamented Niche Gardens. I grow Phalaenopsis and Dendrobium orchids in my kitchen window, where they cheer me up during the drab month of January – and I take pride in getting them to rebloom. However, growing orchids outdoors? I didn’t know it was possible.

Niche assured me they required shade so I consequently planted them in a shady spot where they were slow to take off. My next excursion into the world of Bletilla was at Plant Delights where the instructions were to site them in a part sunny location. Because I had one of those aforementioned spaces in my perennial garden, I plopped several in it. These were far happier, taking off quickly enough to leave me feeling a bit smug.

Orchids have a habit of bringing one back to earth. Two or three years ago, we had a sudden deep freeze towards the end of March that nipped the flowers in the bud with my Bletilla and Lady Banks roses, meaning that I had to wait another year for the chance to see a bloom. The plants, being hardy, survived.

Happily, all my hardy orchids have now spread, not obnoxiously, but in a manner where they curve around their pairing plants, including Polygonatum. They are now blooming happily, allowing me to strut around like a mother hen. According to the Plant Delights website, Bletilla grow best if they receive 1-6 hours of sun, and in my experience, this is a piece of accurate information, although this year the ones originally planted in the shade look great – perhaps both Niche Gardens and Plant Delights were both correct in their gardening assessments.

Another small plant that I use in abundance is Spigelia marilandica. This native plant has so much going for it. In the first place, the flowers last a long time, far longer than those produced by Bletilla. In the second place, the plant forms a nice clump that grows wider every year but does not travel. It requires almost no upkeep while remaining downright perky even in July. Plant Delights offers two cultivars: ‘Little Redhead’ and ‘Ragin Cajun’ that to my eye (and I have both) offer very little in difference.

Another reason to grow Bletilla and Spigelia is that they are both deer-resistant, an added plus for gardening in the Triangle. Spigelia is poisonous, so keep it away from pets who nibble without thinking. Bletilla is not particularly tasty for deer, so they leave it alone unless they are terribly hungry. As it totally disappears over the winter, you only have to worry about it in the early spring when it makes an appearance.

The last small plant I favor is the Japanese roof iris, Iris tectorum. Now, I have a confession to make that will disgust all the iris enthusiasts out there (and there are many): I have an aversion to the bearded iris, Iris x germanica because I cannot live with the foliage, which to my eyes is rather unattractive. Mea culpa, I am sorry but, as I frequently point out, it really is my garden.

Iris tectorum is smaller with foliage forming an attractive circle. While the foliage is not a thing of great beauty, neither does it offend my eyes – and irises spend a lot of time during the growing season not in bloom. While these irises do increase in numbers, they do so slowly and are easy to pull out. These spring bloomers perform well in front of the perennial border, an additional benefit. The choice in color is either white or purple. No, the flowers do not have the diversity of I. x germanica, but the plant itself is a lot more attractive and subtle.

So, my motto for my completely full garden is this: Think small, and you won’t regret it.

After being an active member of the Durham County Extension Master Gardeners for 13 years, Kit Flynn now holds emeritus status. For five years she was the gardening correspondent for “Senior Correspondent” and shared “The Absentee Gardener” column with fellow Master Gardener Lise Jenkins. She has given numerous presentations on various gardening topics to Triangle organizations and can be reached at

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