Think Small, Part II

Bletilla striata among the Acanthus and hostas. Photo by Kit Flynn.


By Kit Flynn

Different sized plants are a benefit in the garden as they offer both a change in texture and height. Uniformity has its virtues but I would submit that it merely increases boredom in the garden. I keep on harkening back to one of the first mistakes I made in the garden, i.e., planting a long line of magenta-colored azaleas, giving the eye no place to stop. There is such a thing as too much magenta, something I unwittingly achieved.

Plants should offer contrast, whether it is in texture, color, or height. Remember, the eye must stop; otherwise, it glazes over – virtually leaving the garden unseen, not the desired result for any gardener. As I explained last week, I have slowly become a fan of those small plants that I can tuck into small spaces. In fact, my order from Plant Delights this year consisted mostly of small plants, a far cry from what I used to demand.

I have become a fan of Brunnera macrophylla as its silver-tinged leaves light up light shady areas. Like many shade plants, the gardener grows it for its leaves, not its flowers, which are small, rather insignificant blue ones. While I like these flowers, I appreciate the leaves.

The most common cultivar is ‘Jack Frost’, one that doesn’t get above a foot in height. Several years ago, ‘Alexander’s Great’ appeared on the scene. To be honest, it’s hard to distinguish it from ‘Jack Frost’ and so far, after two years, it has not approached its recommended 15 inches in height. However, it originated in Belarus as a seedling – I can assure you that this is probably the closest I will ever get to Belarus.

Brunnera macrophylla ‘Jack Frost’. Photo by Kit Flynn.

The new one I ordered from Plant Delights is ‘Queen of Hearts’ that purportedly will achieve 18 inches in height when it becomes a three-foot clump. I find Brunnera is pretty drought resistant. calling for very little care, provided it has been placed in well-draining soil.

As far as I am concerned, Begonia grandis ‘Pink Teardrops’ is a real keeper for zones 5a-9b. Yes, it reproduces through its bulbils but it’s what I call a “tactful reproducer” in that it doesn’t crowd other plants out nor does it insist on growing on top of them. It blooms in July, during our hottest and frequently driest month – and looks downright cheerful while doing so. It’s great for sunny to shady areas, is easy to pull out, and demands very little upkeep. What is there to dislike?

Small hostas are very popular right now. If you are a fan of the huge ‘Empress Wu’, you might fail to appreciate the small hostas command. Bob Solberg of Green Hill Hostas has hybridized some amazing small hostas; contrary to public opinion, hostas are happiest in a site that offers light and morning sun with protection from the harsh afternoon sun.

There truly is a hosta for everyone (including the deer, alas) so you have to determine what color of green and what shape you need. Some like H. ‘Mini Skirt’ are only 7 inches high while others can soar to three feet in height. The choice is yours. Hostas enjoy water but you should know that the small, miniature hostas do not have a deep root system; consequently, because they require frequent watering, place them where the hose can easily reach them. 

Another group of small plants that service my garden well are some alliums. Most of the ornamental alliums, the real showstoppers, do not do well in our climate. Duke Gardens always has some fabulous ones, ones that after their spring flowering are then dug up and are either tossed or saved for the next year (I’m not sure which). I long ago gave up on these ornamentals until A. ‘Millenium’ (not a typo) appeared. Note that not only is seeding not a problem, deer stay away from members of the onion family, another positive characteristic.

This 2018 Perennial Plant of the Year deserves this designation. A foot high, it flowers in July, attracting pollinators, and provided it gets some sun, it isn’t picky about where it grows. I’ve also had good luck with A. ‘Pink Planet’. The important thing to remember about alliums is that the small ones do best here so ignore the big ornamentals as they will end up disappointing you – they simply dislike what we have to offer. Remember that we can grow camellias and gardenias with ease so it all evens out in the long run. 

As I write this article, the second one on the value of small plants, my Bletilla striata are still in bloom (over a month), the Iris tectorum have just about finished flowering while the Spigelia marilandica are about to begin their bloom cycle. The Brunnera macrophylla still have their tiny blue flowers while their silver leaves will last throughout the growing season. The various small alliums will put forth their blooms towards the end of June. And all seems right with the gardening world.

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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