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The Goodness Ratio: How to Choose the Best Plants for a Small Garden

Small gardens are the norm nowadays and when gardening space is limited, we can't grow every plant that catches our eye, so we have to be ultra-choosy about what to include in our gardens. I've come up with this way of thinking about it this, which for lack of a better description, I'll call "the goodness ratio."

One of the ways I whittle down the plant possibilities is to put plants through a scrupulous selection process in which they're asked to prove their worth—season in, season out. The larger the plant, the more rigorous the selection process. For example, I'm much more forgiving of a plant that occupies one square foot than I am of an 8-foot-wide shrub that inhabits 64 square feet of prime garden real estate.


The Goodness Ratio boiled down:
the bigger the plant, the higher the bar.


But size is only part of the goodness ratio. In our small plots, we can only grow a few large shrubs and/or small trees, and what I'm looking for in these big plants is all-season appeal. I want it to deliver on more than one of these attributes:

  • spring or summer bloom
  • fragrance
  • wonderful foliage
  • fall color
  • interesting bark and/or branching structure for winter interest


These Big Plants Earn Their Space




Use as Many as You'd Like of These Small Guys


Small plants that are especially lovely, or plants that share space well might be given a bit of leeway, the standard relaxed somewhat. Naturalizing spring bulbs, such as crocus, anemone, species tulip, and allium are a good example of this. Or plants that peak in winter or early spring that are then a good host for a summer blooming vine might make the cut. And if it shares space well with other plant partners, we can grow multiple plants in the same slice of earth. These intermingled layers can then create a community of plants that offers up a steady succession of bloom or foliage interest through the seasons.


When considering a plant’s “goodness ratio,” I try to remember that flowers are fleeting, but foliage endures. When choosing plants to include in my garden, I select first based on foliage and form. Equally important are plants that are selected for their contribution toward structure and line. The hedges that define an enclosure, the rhythm and punctuation of strongly upright conifers; these are just a couple of examples of how plants can be used to define and unify a garden space.

New plant varieties come and go, so when choosing for your own garden, be picky and go for performance. Life is too short and gardens are too small to put up with less-than plants. Identify weaklings and remove poor performers; to make the most of your garden plot, go for the best of the bunch. For example, the hardy geranium Rozanne. She's become a bit ubiquitous, but frankly for good reason. She outperforms others in her class hands down — there's absolutely no reason to grow the old Geranium 'Johnson's Blue' anymore!

Geranium 'Rozanne'
Geranium 'Rozanne'

Before signing off, I offer a caveat. Sure, I mean everything I've said above about being brutal in my plant selections. It works for me, and it's how I like to garden in my own plot. But gardens are supposed to be fun, and they're very personal, and you'll need to experiment and find the measures that are right for you and your garden.

So, go ahead and leave room for lust — plant lust that is!



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Published May 29, 2021


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