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updated: 4/2/2013 1:58 PM

'Diamonds' for small spaces in the garden

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  • The plum-colored foliage of this heuchera demonstrates great color even when not in bloom.

      The plum-colored foliage of this heuchera demonstrates great color even when not in bloom.
    SHNS photo courtesy Maureen Gilmer

  • This species of thrift is in its natural habitat on the cliffs of northern France.

      This species of thrift is in its natural habitat on the cliffs of northern France.
    SHNS photo courtesy Maureen Gilmer

  • The hardy geranium looks so delicate, but it's an incredibly tough little plant.

      The hardy geranium looks so delicate, but it's an incredibly tough little plant.
    SHNS photo courtesy Maureen Gilmer

 
By Maureen Gilmer
Scripps Howard News Service

Diamonds hold their value, always look great and are as desirable today as they were centuries ago. If you're planning a small outdoor living space, think of each perennial you select as a diamond. They should be long-lived, look great always and be suited to your space now and forever.

The biggest mistake novice gardeners make is selecting plants that are too large for the space. That is, they'll be too large at maturity -- although they are all equally small in the garden center.

To winnow the vast number of available plants down to those naturally suited to your tiny yard, begin with a few well-proven candidates. These should be in cultivation many years to prove their ability to perform in American yards. Look for those that tolerate shade where buildings and fences or tree canopies challenge the exposure. Seek fine little mounds of foliage and flowers that will provide plenty of color and interest at short range.

You may want to stress colored foliage for the long term and blooms for their shorter season. The more diversity you can manage in these terms, the more fabulous the space will look.

Over the years I've come across just a few perennials that have proven their worth in small spaces. If you find success with one species in the group, you can move on to others without having to learn a whole new plant.

• Heuchera:The old-fashioned Heuchera sanguinea, known as coral bells, was beloved for its quaint, small stature and delicate flowers. More recently, this plant was crossed with the western native Heuchera species to produce incredible foliage varieties. Get an eyeful at the famous breeder of these perennials, TerraNovaNurseries.com. There you'll find a rainbow of varieties you can order from your local garden center. Because Heucheras are semi-deciduous, they can be mixed and matched for a gorgeous garden that remains colorful deep into winter, or even year-around in warmer climates.

• Thrift: Too often overlooked, Armeria maritima, known since the Middle Ages as "thrift," now features many varieties. This neat little mound of pinnate foliage spreads into wonderful ground-covering plants topped with powder-puff flowers on straight stems. With dozens of stems rising over the cute green mound, they are nothing short of awesome. They are incredibly hardy. Add them to a small garden in slightly elevated positions. Where soils are sandy, grow them in the midst of flagstones to make them pop.

• Hardy geranium:These perennials are from Europe's genus Geranium, so do not confuse them with zonal bedding geraniums of genus Pelargonium from Africa. As hardy woodland perennials, they take serious winter cold in stride. With many species and varieties, they are pink with a good deal of flower variation.

This year, strive to know these three genera of proven candidates. Ask for them at the garden center. Once established at your house, these plants will spread gradually to make excellent choices for spaces between pavers or flagstone. In time, you'll be able to dig up spreading stems and move them elsewhere with little fuss.

Sometimes, too many choices make life complicated. Gardening around outdoor living spaces suddenly becomes simple and fun if you keep to these reliable beauties.

• Maureen Gilmer is an author, horticulturist and landscape designer. Learn more at MoPlants.com.

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