Well-Dressed Garden: Skinny plants for a tight space

Marty Ross
Universal Uclick

In a tiny courtyard, in a side yard or wherever a garden just needs a pretty punctuation mark, skinny plants fill the bill. Plants with slim profiles can have a big impact.

AT HOME for release JULY 2018 THE WELL-DRESSED GARDEN Caption 01: Graceful Green Tower boxwoods trimmed into spires flank a front door and make a terrific first impression -- without demanding too much valuable porch space.

A columnar yew or holly, a twisting topiary juniper or a slim boxwood can all fit into a small space without overwhelming it. Skinny plants stay in scale, so you can enjoy your green oasis without having to struggle to control a plant that only wants to outgrow its space.

"Hybridizers -- and nature -- have made sure there are all kinds of plants for tight spaces," says Kate Karam, a landscape architect who works with Monrovia, the international wholesaler that grows and introduces thousands of ornamental and edible plants.

Slim-profile plants have a way of making any landscape look a little more formal, Karam says, but that formality isn't necessarily out of character even in a country garden. A tall, narrow conifer or two will give an informal cottage garden a touch of class, she says. In a formal garden, skinny plants simply enhance the tailored look.

Evergreens of all kinds are among the most obvious choices for tight spaces, but annual and perennial flowers and ornamental grasses also fit nicely into tight spots. H. Paul Davis, a landscape architect in Washington, D.C., likes the effect of tall, wispy ornamental grasses, such as feather reed grass and big bluestem, which add a lot of drama to a small space.

"If you have a limited space, you really have to make a careful selection," Davis says. He looks for reliable, adaptable plants that do not demand excessive pruning and pampering, and he recommends combinations of shrubs and perennials, rather than just one or the other. "Horticultural diversity is healthier and more interesting" than the repetition of a single plant again and again, even if it's a beautiful plant, Davis says.

In his own tiny garden, Davis has a hedge of upright Green Tower boxwood, which can grow to 9 feet tall but is only 1 to 2 feet wide. In a water garden in a flowerpot, he grows papyrus (sometimes called umbrella sedge), which grows up to 4 feet tall in the course of the summer: Its green flower spikes seem to spray like fireworks from the tops of the tall stems.

Standard-trained hydrangeas (pruned to resemble small trees) also work well in spots that call for compact plants, Davis says. He likes canna lilies in pots, too, for their upright stature and bright splash of colorful blooms, which attract hummingbirds, even in the city. 

Garden designers often turn to skinny plants to help define the spaces in a garden -- they might emphasize the line of a path, for example, or accentuate the corners of a patio. Upright plants can be used to frame a pretty view, or to hide an undesirable one. Along a wall, a few slim upright plants break up the solid face and give the garden "more interesting definition," Karam says.

Skinny plants in pots are fun, too. "They give you a whole different texture and add rhythm and scale," Karam says. "They're not used in pots as often as they should be." Slim plants in pots might frame a garden gate or stand sentry on either side of a doorway. Tall plants in pots placed in flower beds are exceptionally striking, like living sculptures in the midst of summertime's exuberance. Sky Pencil holly is a great evergreen for a pot, Karam says, but lots of other skinny plants also work fine in containers, and they can be left in the same pot for years. In cold climates, of course, plants in pots may need protection in the winter.

Where you can't dig a hole, try skinny plants in containers. The wispy foliage and bushy flower spikes of red fountain grass spray like fountains from their containers on this deck. Upright ornamental grasses are versatile, drought tolerant and easy to grow.


Tall, slim plants help tie together the elements of any garden design: The eye moves naturally -- even eagerly -- from one to another. In larger gardens, they're a graceful middle story, a vertical link between the garden beds and the canopies of the trees, and between garden architecture and the sky, because they draw the eye upward. They always add a lot of depth and movement to a garden. They're also interesting and fun in themselves, whether you have a design problem to solve or not.

"Skinny plants make everything around them that's bushier look better," Karam says. "They give a landscape that 'pow' factor -- if a garden just has all mound-y shrubs, it will not look nearly as cool as it would with something tall and narrow."