(Editor's Note: This article was originally published on March 16, 2009. Your comments are welcome, but please be aware that authors of previously published articles may not be able to promptly respond to new questions or comments.)

If you’ve never heard the term “bones of the garden,” it’s not as peculiar as it seems. Landscape designers use the term to describe the structure or “skeleton” of the garden--the plantings which draw the eye to lines and structures, allowing other elements to flow from those main elements. Large shrubs have specific functions, as do trees. But the smaller shrubs are the workhorses of the garden, tying together or dividing different planting areas to present a pleasing picture.

Small shrubs are defined as those reaching 5 feet or less at maturity. The true dwarf varieties seldom grow to more than 3 feet. These charming woody ornamentals can grace even the smallest yard or garden plot, as long as you take the time to choose the right plant for the right place.

Hardiness is very important; this includes not only the winter hardiness, but other seasonal factors such as drought, extreme heat, rainfall, and drying winds. Soil conditions, level of moisture, light requirements, and exposure also play an important part in how well a shrub will perform.

Another thing to consider is growth rate. Slow-growing specimens require less maintenance, so are better suited to areas where other plants with similar needs are located. This form of planning is called zones of maintenance.

When should you plant new shrubs?

Specimens that are known to be difficult to transplant or slow to become established should be planted in spring; this allows them a longer period of time to settle in. The majority of woody ornamentals and trees can be planted in the early fall as they enter a phase of growth slow-down in preparation for dormancy.

If you’re planning to re-landscape your yard, or are just looking for some new and interesting elements in the garden, take a good look at dwarf shrubs. They’re little, but they are mighty!

A List of Small or Dwarf Shrubs. (Drought-tolerant species are marked with **)

  • Alberta spruce (Picea glauca albertinia ‘Conica’): 4 feet, popular dwarf evergreen. Zones 4 to 7
  • Alpine currant (Ribes alpinum): 2 to 3 feet, yellow, orange or red foliage, pink, red or white summer flowers. Zones 2a to 7b
  • Arborvitae (Thuja occidentalis ‘Rheingold’): 3 feet, rich gold color becomes copper in fall. Zones 3 to 8
  • Azaleas and rhododendron-dwarf species: 1 to 3 feet, many colors. Zones 6b to 11
  • Balkan spike heath (Bruckenthalia spiculifolia): 10 inches, pale flowers mid-June, evergreen foliage. Zones 6 to 8
  • Balsam fir (Abies balsamea ‘Hudsonia’): 1 foot, slow growing. Zones 3 to 7
  • Bean’s broom (Cytisus x ‘Beanii’)** 18 inches, deep yellow flowers in early May, wide habit. Zones 6b to 9a
  • Bearberry cotoneaster (Cotoneaster dammeri)** 3 feet, pink flowers in mid-June, followed by bright red berries in fall. Zones 5b to 8b
  • Bluebeard (Caryopteris x clandonensis)** 2 to 3 feet, blue flowers in late summer. Zones 6 to 9
  • Bronx forsythia (forsythia viridissima ‘Bronxensis): 2 feet, extreme dwarf habit, yellow flowers in spring. Zones 6 to 8
  • Bumald spirea (Spirae x bumalda var)** 2 feet, pink to crimson flowers bloom extended period. Zones 3 to 8
  • Bush cinquefoil (Potentilla fruticosa)** 2 to 4 feet, white to yellow flowers bloom over summer. Zones 2 to 6
  • Canby paxistima (Paxistima canbyi): 12 inches, evergreen, fall color bronze. Zones 3 to 7
  • Chenault coralberry (Symphoricarpos x chenaultii)** 3 feet, pink flowered spikes, red berries in fall. Zones 4 to 7
  • Compact Oregon hollygrape (Mahonia aquifolium ‘Compactum’): 2 feet, bright yellow flowers in early May, fruit blue-black, evergreen foliage turns bronze in winter. Zones 5a to 9b
  • Cranberry cotoneaster (Cotoneaster apiculatus)** 3 feet, pink flowers in mid-June, followed by bright red berries in fall. Zones 5b to 8b
  • Creeping hollygrape (Mahonia repens): 12 inches, small yellow flowers, black fruit. Zones 5 to 8
  • Creeping willow (Salix repens): 3 feet, Zone 4
  • Dryland blueberry (Vaccinium pallidum)** 3 feet, brilliant scarlet fall color. Zones unknown
  • Dwarf Douglas fir (Pseudotsuga menziesii ‘Fletcheri’): 3 feet, blue green needles, furrowed bark. Zones 4 to 7
  • Dwarf drooping leucothoe (Leucothoe fontanesiana ‘Nana’): 2 feet, small white flowers in early June, evergreen foliage is bronze in fall, prefers shade. Zones 4 to 6
  • Dwarf English boxwood (Suffruticosa): 3 feet, light green leaves. Zones 6 to 8
  • Dwarf euonymus (Euonymus nanus var.): 3 feet, whorled leaves and pink fruit capules in fall. Zones 3 to 8
  • Dwarf European cranberrybush (Viburnum opulus ‘Nanum’): 2 feet, seldom flowers. Zone 1
  • Dwarf fothergilla (Fothergilla gardenii): 3 feet, white flowers in mid-May, foliage brilliant in fall. Zones 5 to 8
  • Dwarf Korean lilac (Syringa meyeri ‘Palibin’): 4 feet, lavender flowers in spring. Zones 4 to 7
  • Dwarf Magellan barberry (Berberis buxifolia ‘pygmaea’): 18 inches, evergreen, foliage reddish-green. Zones 7 to 9
  • Dwarf red-tipped dogwood (Cornus pumila): 4 feet, reddish foliage. Zones 4 to 8
  • Elsholtzia stauntonii: 3’ lilac-purple flowers and aromatic foliage, maintenance free. Zones 4 to 8
  • English/Japanese yew (Taxus spp.-dwarf cultivars): 3 feet. Zones 4 to 7
  • False cypress (Chamaecyparis lawsoniana ‘Minnima Aurea’): 2 feet. Zones 4 to 8
  • February daphne (Daphne mezereum): 3 feet, lilac to rosy purple fragrant flowers appear in early April before the leaves emerge, followed by scarlet berries; plant is highly toxic. Southern Canada
  • Flowering quince (Chaenomeles japonica)** 3 feet, red, pink, and orange flowers in early May. Zones 5a to 8b
  • Fragrant sumac (Rhus aromatica): 2 feet, orange to purple fall foliage. Zones 3 to 9
  • Genista pilosa** 1’, yellow flowers in May, silvery green stems, shade tolerant. Zones 5 to 7
  • Glossy abelia (Abelia x grandiflora): 3 to 5 feet, semi-evergreen, pale pink to white bloom summer through fall. Zones 6 to 9
  • Gold flower/Moser’s St. Johnswort (Hypericum x moseranum): 2’, yellow flowers July through October. Zones 4 to 8
  • Heather (Calluna vulgaris)** 6 to 12 inches, white to red flowers in summer and early fall, evergreen foliage. Zones 4 to 7
  • Irish heath (Daboecia cantabrica): 18 inches, purple to white flowers (depending on variety) bloom through summer, glossy evergreen foliage with white fuzzy underside. Zones 6 to 8
  • Japanese barberry (Berberis thunbergii): dwarf cultivars ‘Aurea’ and ‘Kobold’, spectacular foliage in fall, with bright red berries. Zones 4 to 8
  • Japanese holly (Ilex crenata var.): 1 to 3 feet, evergreen. Zones 6 to 8
  • Japanese skimmia (Skimmia japonica): 18 inches, crimson red fruit, dark evergreen foliage. Zones 7 to 9
  • Japanese spirea (Spirea japonica): 1 to 3 feet, pink, rose, or white flowers with blue-green or orange tinged foliage. Zones 4 to 8
  • Japanese white spirea (Spiraea albiflora)** 2 feet, white flowers bloom in July. Zones 4 to 8
  • Juniper (Juniperus communis ‘Compressa’): 3 feet, compact and creeping. Zones 2 to 6
  • Juniper (Juniperus squamata ‘Meyeri’): 3 feet, drooping, cool blue color. Zones 5 to 8
  • Leadplant (Amorpha canescens)** 3 feet, blue flowers in July, gray-green foliage. Zones 2 to 8
  • Littleleaf boxwood (Buxus microphylla ‘Compacta’): 12 inches, dense evergreen foliage. Zones 6 to 8
  • Mugo or mountain pine (Pinus mugo ‘Gnom’): 2 feet, almost bonsai form. Zones 3 to 7
  • Norway spruce (Picea abies-dwarf varieties)** 1 to 3 feet
  • Palesleaf barberry (Berberis candidula): 2 feet, evergreen, bright yellow flowers in May, followed by purple berries in fall. Zones 6 to 9
  • Potentilla (Potentilla fruticosa): 2 to 3 feet, yellow flowers through summer. Zones 3 to 7
  • Provence broom (Cytisus purgans)** 3 feet, fragrant yellow flowers mid-May, dense upright habit. Zones 4a to 9b
  • Purple beautyberry (Callicarpa dichotoma): 3 to 4 feet, flowers in July and August, metallic-looking purple berries in September and October, lime green leaves. Zones 5b to 8
  • Pyracantha - dwarf varieties** 3 feet, glossy green leaves, small white flowers, orange berries. Zones 7 to 9
  • Rock spray (Cotoneaster horizontalis)** 1 foot, small pink flowers in mid-June, followed by red berries in fall; semi-evergreen. Zones 5 to 7
  • Rose daphne (Daphne cneorum)** 10 inches, bright pink fragrant flowers. Zones 4 to 9
  • Sargent juniper (Juniperus chinensis var. sargentti)** 12 inches, lilac berries in fall, steel blue foliage, evergreen. Zones 3 to 9
  • Sheep laurel (Kalmia angustifolia): 3 feet, rose red to crimson flowers in mid-June, evergreen foliage. Zones 1 to 9
  • Shore juniper (Juniperus conferta)** 1 feet, evergreen. Zones 5 to 9
  • Slender deutzia (Deutzia gracilis): white flowers in late May, dark green foliage. Zones 6 to 10
  • Smooth hydrangea (Hydrangea arborescens): large balls of white flowers in July. Zones 3 to 9
  • Spike broom (Cytisus nigricans)** 3 feet, profuse yellow flowers in early July. Zones 5 to 8
  • Summersweet clethra (Clethra alnifolia): fragrant flowers in early to mid-summer. Zones 3 to 9
  • Sweet fern (Comptonia peregrina)** 18 inches, pleasantly scented fern-like foliage. Zones 2 to 7
  • Virginia sweetspire (Itea virginica): 3 feet, fragrant summer flowers, red foliage in fall. (pictured at top) Zones 5 to 9
  • Wall germander (Teucrium chamaedrys): 3 feet, dwarf evergreen. Zones 5 to 9
  • Weeping fir (Tsuga canadensis ‘Pendula’): 3 feet, weeping habit. Zones 3 to 7
  • Winter jasmine (Jasminum nudiflorum)** 3 to 5 feet, yellow blooms in February and March. Zones 6 to 9
  • Yaupon holly (Ilex vomitoria): 18 inches. Zones 7 to 9