erry Hamburger leans on a wall of her front porch smiling, listening to her husband, George, explain his love for the little courtyard garden he’s built on Parker Drive over the past several decades. He calls it a pocket garden.
“My role is just helping him choose some of the things he puts in the garden, she said. “He has a very eclectic taste—it’s his creation.”
George has more plants, containers and garden ornaments in his diminutive 8-by-12-foot space than many gardeners have in a space three times the size.
He lifts a small container filled with beautiful orange and yellow calibrachoa to reveal a small bare spot in a creeping juniper, “Covering up a sin here,” he said with a laugh. “Eclectic” is certainly the word for the contents of the 22 containers, and the garden kitsch.
When the couple moved here back in 1973, George removed huge yew bushes. When his mother passed away in 1977 in Colorado, he planted two blue spruces, one at her grave and another at the house in her memory, as the tree is a staple in the western state.
“I was very close with my mother,” said George. “I got my love of gardening from her; I built four or five rock gardens for her.”
Years later, when the spruce had reached maturity, it was too big for the space and was in declining health, so Terry had it removed. The open view was quite a shock for George, who treasures his privacy. Luckily the man who cut down the tree offered him some burning bushes, and the courtyard garden was underway.
In the past three years, George has made the transition in the garden from all annuals to mostly perennials. On this day he counts a pretty pinkish-red yarrow as a favorite for its long bloom time. A purple phlox has a second flush of blooms and feathery bright red astilbe is tucked between a container and rusted, round garden ornament. The perennials come back year after year, which saves him money. In the past he had filled the garden with annuals, spending hundreds of dollars each season on flowers.
Every rock except one was moved into the garden from the backyard to the front. “That’s the only rock I paid for,” George said, pointing to a unique stone, to which he attached a frog. “It was $45 and came from Madagascar; it has a lot of quartz.”
The plant diversity is astounding, especially considering the size of the space. Luminescent yellow coreopsis flowers share space with hay-scented ferns, purple salvias, hydrangeas, penstemon, hollies, balloon flower and more. One of the rhododendrons is approaching 100 years of age and a Japanese pieris grows just to its side.
The couple are bird watchers, and have added decorative bird houses throughout the tiny garden where chickadees raised a family, and up on the porch a robin nested in a spider plant.
George’s mother found a dry sink from the 1800s in the middle of a field and wrestled it into the back of a station wagon. It now sits on the porch and is planted as a fairy garden, filled with things George hand-picked through the years. He loves finding interesting things on his journeys. “Everything is an antique in the house, including me,” George, who is 80 said, laughing. “The house will be 100 in five years; I want to go as long as that.”
A narrow path, just wide enough for one person, meanders back to George’s favorite place to sit and enjoy the garden. “This is my meditation space,” he said. “I do a lot of praying here. I thank God for nature every day.”
Choosing the right small-garden plants
Natalie Carmolli is on a layover at Chicago’s Midway airport, headed for a trade show in Columbus. She’s an advertising and public relations specialist for Spring Meadow Nurseries in Grand Haven, Michigan.
As she takes a break from a quick lunch, Carmolli talks about the trend of breeding smaller plants and has some great ideas for adding these plants to the garden.
“Dwarf shrubs are popular now because there’s a lot of trending toward larger homes with smaller plots of land around them,” she said. “Smaller shrubs are popular for people with larger, established gardens—it’s hard to add something that’s going to get huge.” Tucking in a little weigela or hydrangea is easy to do in an older, established garden.
The first thing that comes to mind for Carmolli are smaller hydrangeas. Over the last several years, her team has worked on creating a smaller version of panicle hydrangeas, which bloom much more reliably than their cousins, referred to as mophead (H.macrophylla). From Fire Light, which is six to eight feet tall, comes Fire Light Tidbit, which is only two to three feet tall and wide, usually a little wider than tall.
“It has that deep dark, red color,” Carmolli said of the flowers. “We call it a bun shaped habit,” she says of the plant’s shape. It’s the smallest panicle hydrangea on the market today, perfect for a large container.
When thinking about small spaces, it’s not just short and squat plants. “Sting arborvitae is a tall, narrow plant,” Carmolli said. “Even though it will eventually reach 15 feet, the shrub is only a little over a foot wide. It has that really interesting tall, narrow architecture that I think really adds a lot to landscapes.” The dwarf weigela called Midnight Sun is also on her radar, specifically for its spectacular leaves, a coppery color that complements its pink flower.
A new series of roses called Reminiscent have some cultivars that only get two feet tall by three feet wide. They’re all very fragrant, but are tough, like a landscape rose, and are resistant to powdery mildew and black spot. “The blooms (of Reminiscent Crema) have a blush of yellow in the center so it has that really old-fashioned rose look and that old-fashioned roses smell as well,” said Carmolli.
A new deer resistant viburnum called Steady Eddie is a smaller version of the plant, only getting about four to five feet tall and wide. “It has beautiful white blooms, and it’s a stronger blooming viburnum than we’ve seen before,” said Carmolli.
Carmolli extols the virtues of a cross between macrophylla and serrata, or mountain hydrangea called Let’s Dance Arriba. It looks like the coveted mophead, but the buds are hardier. “It’s our most reliable reblooming hydrangea,” she says proudly. A rebloomer puts buds on the year before, but also on new growth in the spring. If the buds are damaged or accidently pruned off the year before, the new wood will produce flowers, unlike a standard mophead hydrangea. “It changed color from pink to purple, a nice violet purple flower,” she added. The shrub only gets up to three feet wide and tall.
Laura Robles is regional product manager for the Mid-Atlantic region for Walters Gardens, a renowned perennial plant breeder.
She’s recognized that gardeners are looking for smaller plants, that also are deer resistant. The first thing that comes to her mind is Serendipity allium. A member of the onion family, Serendipity does not interest deer, and has pretty purple flowers that are less than two feet tall.
Crested Surf ferns stay under two feet tall and wide and look a lot like a Japanese painted fern. “It has better vigor and a little bit more of an upright habit compared to the standard Japanese painted fern,” said Robles.
For those looking for a unique winter bloomer, she recommends Snowbells hellebore, which could begin to bloom in November and continue through the winter. Snowbells are often referred to as the Winter or Christmas Rose. The flowers are semi-double and pure white. This variety has flowers which look to the side as opposed to looking downward like many cultivars.
If the spot has dry shade, try epimedium. Amber Queen has a goldish yellow flower and is basically indestructible.
Edge of Night perennial hibiscus is one of Robles’ favorites. It only gets three and a half feet tall and wide with jet-black foliage and dinner plate sized bubble gum pink flowers. “Breeding plants that are definitely a smaller footprint is an important trend these says,” she said. “We have a new one like ‘Edge of Night’ that is just way smaller than anything out there and it’s a gorgeous plant.”