Gardening: Sometimes, smaller is better

Nancy Szerlag
Special to The Detroit news
This container garden includes Swedish ivy and two types of tradescantia for easy care.

This has been a challenging year in our OPC display garden in Rochester. A  polar vortex brought bitter cold winter weather, followed by an extended cold, wet spring and the almost overnight arrival of searing heat. To make matters worse, we lost a passel of volunteers during the season. And those of us left on the team, including myself,  have lots of scheduled vacations. But isn’t that what summer is about?  

The lesson learned here is we need to simplify where we can. If you’re an avid gardener, you know that’s against your nature. But there are times when it must be done. 

My first target this spring is a small garden that greets folks as they move out to the patio from the coffee shop to enjoy their lunch.  A service berry tree anchors the area, and mix of mophead hydrangeas and ferns encircle the space. The problem children are a more than decade-old stand of irises that put on a gorgeous show early in spring -- when no one is around to see them.  Yet they require weekly deadheading of flowers, followed by the de-leafing of leaves that slowly degrade and turn yellow during the summer. 

So, I’ve made the decision – the irises have to go this fall, when we're all back from vacation. Did I mention I’m off on a two-week venture to Ireland and Scotland in a couple weeks? The big question is what to replace the irises with, and I have yet to come up with an answer. 

Downsizing and simplifying are the mantras of today’s gardeners.  Bigfoot houses built on small lots, part of the regentrification  movement.  are eating up planting space.  And the older generation is simply running out of steam and is ready to downsize. Container gardening is where it’s at.  

Hybridizers are going along with this movement, developing plants, trees, shrubs, annuals, vegetables and fruits that are more compact, smaller and in many cases, easier to care for.  

In her book, "Gardeners Guide to Compact Plants: Edibles and Ornamentals for Small-Space Gardening," (Cool Springs Press) horticulturist Jessica Walliser gives a good introduction to more than 150 dwarf and compact plants you may never even know existed.  Big hint -- if you limit  your plant shopping to the big box stores, you’re missing out big-time. 

Also included are 10 professionally designed garden plans using compact plants, as well as lists of varieties that help solve problems, such as covering sloped areas and adding color to shade gardens.  

This book would also make a great housewarming gift for a new homeowner. 

Nancy Szerlag is a master gardener and Metro Detroit freelance writer. Her column appears Fridays in Homestyle. To ask her a question go to and click on Ask Nancy. You can also read her previous columns at