Best plants for small gardens – 8 stylish shrubs suitable for a tiny outdoor space

Choose the best plants for small gardens to turn a compact outdoor area into a peaceful haven

modern garden ideas with rewilding plants
(Image credit: Future)

What are the best plants for small gardens? Once equipped with the right plant knowledge, you can give your small outdoor space a green glow-up with plants that are both stylish and suitable. 

When you choose plants that suit your plot, small garden ideas can be just as iconic as their larger counterparts. In fact with a little know-how and consideration, no matter the size, shape or climate, you can create an outdoor oasis that’s filled with plants that will thrive in your small space. 

‘By adding easy-to-grow plants to your urban space, you bring something that you can’t experience anywhere else,' Gail Pabst from the National Gardening Bureau tells us. 'Flowers beckon you to spend time outdoors. By doing this small addition you will enjoy the color, the pollinators and the beauty through the frost. You will be amazed at how just looking at flowers will bring you peace of mind.’

Keep scrolling to discover the best plants for small gardens. 

1.  Zinnias

zinnias

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Adding color and a ray of happiness to any outdoor spot, bright and beautiful Zinnias are an ideal solution for small spaces. But what makes these plants suitable for small spots? 

‘New Zinnia varieties are bred for compact size,’ says Gail Pabst from the National Gardening Bureau (opens in new tab). ‘They also have increased disease resistance with continuous flowering through fall. With so many colors to choose from, there is a favorite for everyone.’

And, if you need more convincing, Zinnias also tick the box for ‘easy to grow’. So much so, they have been listed as one of the top plants to grow for beginners looking at how to start a flower garden

2. Marigolds

french marigolds

(Image credit: NCP Photography)

Bright, beautiful and synonymous with spring, marigolds are one of the best small plants to add to your compact outdoor space.

Gail explains, ‘These brightly colored flowers bring the color of sunshine to any garden. New breeding in marigolds brings extra-large double flowers of the African Marigold to the compact size of the French Marigold into flowers that are the best of both worlds.'

Whether you plant them, pot them, or try them in a vertical garden, French marigolds will bloom in just eight weeks and should grow between 6 to 12 inches tall. So watch this space!

3. Nassella tenuissima 

Nassella tenuissima (which you may know as Mexican feather grass) is another firm favorite in the list of best plants for small gardens

(Image credit: Staghorn)

According to Kat Aul Cervoni from New York city-based landscape design business, Staghorn (opens in new tab)– Nassella tenuissima (which is more informally called Mexican feather grass) – is another firm favorite in the list of best plants for small gardens. 

The upwards growing plant usually reaches up to 23 inches in height. Making it suitable for planters, container gardening or for those who want to add impact without taking up space. Thanks to its tall frame, it's also ideal for adding some privacy to your space.

Another impressive feature of this type of grass is the fact that it loves the sun. So if you have a roof garden or outdoor spot that’s drenched in the sun all day long – this is the plant for you. 

4. Boxwood 

Boxwood

(Image credit: Staghorn)

Looking for a low-maintenance plant that’s big on style and small in size? Enter the boxwood. 

This stylish piece of foliage will inject greenery into any compact space. Whether it’s to add interest to the outside of your front door, brighten up your windowsill or complete a corner of your balcony garden

‘Tidy, slow-growing evergreens like boxwood or ilex glabra 'Compacta' are also great for giving structure without crowding out other plants,' Kat says. 

5. Dahlias 

dahlias growing in a garden

(Image credit: Getty Images)

Color is king when it comes to this season’s biggest garden trends. But before you get out your paintbrushes or invest in some bold-hued garden furniture, there's another way to brighten up your outside spot. And that's by adding plants to your outdoor area. Try ticking off this trend with dahlias. 

‘Dahlias are a very popular garden plant and fit in well with this year’s trend of hot, bold colors,' the Eden Project (opens in new tab)’s Living Landscapes Educator Florence Mansbridge explains. 'They come in many forms, however, with pollinators in mind it is best to go for the single-flowered dahlias such as Dahlia ‘Bishop of Llandaff’.

‘They are just as beautiful and their pollen and nectar are much more accessible to pollinators.’

6. English Lavender 

modern garden ideas with rewilding plants

(Image credit: Future)

Thought lavender was only grown in fields? Think again. According to experts, if you wanted to, your small space can play host to the lovely look and calming smell of lavender all year round. All you need is an empty pot or border and loads of sun. 

 ‘English lavender can be kept compact in a silver, fragrant, mound if pruned each year after flowering,' Florence says. 'Just remember from July through to September it is covered in purple flowers which attract bees, butterflies and moths.' That means, if you're less than fond of bugs, this may be a plant to avoid in a small garden, especially around seating areas. 

7. Cherry tree 

These trees can grow to many different sizes, so make sure you check before buying and cut back to your desired height.

(Image credit: Patch Plants)

If you’re a fan of fruit, you’ll be pleased to know you can absolutely grow your own. But don’t just take our word for it. 

Florence tells us, ‘Prunus avium ‘Sylvia’, cherry ‘Sylvia’, is a small garden tree that can be grown in a container. The smallest rootstock only reaches 2m tall.’ 

This makes cherry trees suitable for balconies, narrow gardens and courtyards. 

‘In spring it is covered in white blossom which is then followed by tasty, sweet cherries,’ Florence adds.

8. Geranium ‘Rozanne’

Similar to lavender in their coloring, Geranium ‘Rozannne’ pack a brighter punch than their predecessors

(Image credit: Staghorn)

Similar to lavender in their coloring, Geranium ‘Rozannne’ pack a brighter punch. If color is your calling, a crop of Geranium ‘Rozannne’ can add brightness to any pot, balcony or border. 

The Royal Horticultural Society's (opens in new tab) Chief Horticulturist, Guy Barter, explains in a little more detail about this plant. 

 ‘Geranium ‘Rozanne’ dies down in winter but generally flowers from spring to winter with masses of deep purple flowers and bright green foliage,' he says. 'They tolerate moderate shade.' That makes these perfect for filling shady areas when considering how to design a small garden

What plants are best for small borders?

The Eden Project’s (opens in new tab) Living Landscapes Educator, Florence Mansbridge says, ‘Grasses are a popular choice in borders, however, many will get too big in a small border. Stipa tenuissima, the Mexican feather grass, is a good option, as it is compact and only reaches around 60 cm in height. In summer it has attractive arching feathery flowering panicles. Verbena bonariensis, Argentinian vervain, is a tall but narrow perennial which is useful for adding height without taking up too much space in a small border. It looks great growing among grasses. In summer it produces heads of bright lavender-purple flowers which attract bees and butterflies.'

While if you're a fan of shurbs, tall, narrow upright plants like ilex 'Sky Pencil' can give height, garden landscaper Kat Aul Cervoni, founder of Staghorn tells us. 'This is an important design element even in small borders because this means they don't take up horizontal space.'

According to Kat, plants to use in your borders that check off numerous boxes include:  

gardening

Design by Bowles and Wyer

(Image credit: Allan Pollok-Morris for Bowles Wyer)

While if you're a fan of shurbs, tall, narrow upright plants like ilex 'Sky Pencil' can give height, garden landscaper Kat Aul Cervoni, founder of landscape design studio Staghorn (opens in new tab) tells us. 'This is an important design element even in small borders because this means they don't take up horizontal space.'

According to Kat, plants to use in your borders that check off numerous boxes include:  

  • Plants that are flowering and evergreen like Gumpo azaleas, P.J.M. rhododendron and tiarella. 
  • Plants with exceptionally long bloom and/or repeat times like hydrangeas (paniculata and oakleaf especially), nepeta, geranium 'Rozanne'.
  • Plants that give color and interest for most – if not all – of the year like acorus, carex, heuchera, hellebores, coreopsis, autumn fern, festuca glauca and nassella tenuissima

Kat adds, 'If you don’t have room to grow out, grow upward. I love using climbing hydrangea to cover fencing and add lushness to a narrow space. While adding a trellis to train vines upon is another good solution. I constantly use tall narrow grasses like Calamagrostis “Karl Foerster”. And small trees with upward, vase-like habits work very well in small borders. They can be limbed-up to keep the foliage volume focused towards the top of the plant – Amelanchier is a great example.'

As, as Kat warns, you shouldn't limit yourself to only small plants in your small border. 

'This will actually make the space feel smaller,' she says. 'While it may feel counterintuitive, it’s actually good to mix in some big plants as they add dimension and can even contribute to making a space feel larger. As long as it’s not impeding on a pathway or sitting area, plants with large foliage, like gunnera, caladium and alocasia, or Rhodesia offer a gorgeous contrast to smaller and finer foliage and flowers.'

RHS (opens in new tab) Chief Horticulturist, Guy Barter says, 'The plants accounting for most sales are bedding plants, grown for just one season, and of these – pansies for winter and petunias for summer.

'In the garden center trade, two very popular shrubs are Skimmia japonica ‘Rubella’ and Photinia ‘Red Robin’. They are relatively easy and inexpensive to produce and transport and sell well. They appeal to shoppers as impulse buys, and consumers appreciate the evergreen nature, the bright red flower buds of the Skimmia and the red foliage of the Photinia. Almost every garden has one of these.

London Stone

(Image credit: London Stone)

'The RHS advice service sees most inquiries about apples and roses, which have long been the quintessential British garden plants.'

While garden landscaper Kat says, 'I think the most widely-used plant might be the boxwood. It’s versatile and well-behaved, and if you’re lucky to be in an area free of box blight, it’s reliable, relatively low-maintenance and very long-lived. 

'However, I think hydrangeas might be the most consistently-liked plant. There seems to be a variety that suits everyone’s taste whether you want bold color, subtle color or a more naturalistic woodland vibe. They find their way into nearly all of my designs and I have three in my own garden.'

Freelance writer

Becks is a freelance lifestyle writer who works across a number of Future's titles. This includes Real Homes, Top Ten Reviews, Tom's Guide, TechRadar and more. She started her career in print journalism at a local newspaper more than 8 years ago and has since then worked across digital and social media for food, fashion and fitness titles, along with home interior magazines. Her own interior style? She's big on creating mindful spaces in every corner of her home. If it doesn't spark joy or happiness, it has no place here. When she’s not writing, she’s reading and when she’s not reading, she’s writing.