10 statement plants for small spaces

The beauty of topiary is that it can be almost any shape or size you like.
EKATERINA BENDRYSHEVA/123RF

The beauty of topiary is that it can be almost any shape or size you like.

You've got a small space and you want to make a statement. What do you plant? Look at it like a theatre production – the garden is the stage, the plants the players, and you're the director. Like all production, there's usually only room for one star and the chorus. And if you are not as disciplined as you might be or feel some creativity being stifled, you are allowed a couple of bit and walk-on parts as well. Just ensure none jostle with the star for attention!

Your choice of star depends on the type of production, but each must earn its place. And stars don't always need to be trees. Grasses, climbers, perennials – almost all other types of plants – can take the lead role. It's how you direct them that can elevate the commonplace to the celestial.

Here is a list of candidates that you could audition for that starring role. 

VISIONS/GAP PHOTOS JULIJA SAPIC/123RF IRINA BORSUCHENKO/123RF KAHUROA/PUBLIC DOMAIN EKATERINA BENDRYSHEVA/123RF LEAH-ANNE THOMPSON/123RF ROSALBA MATTA MACHADO/SHUTTERSTOCK ROSALBA MATTA MACHADO/SHUTTERSTOCK Geoff Bryan/CFG NZGARDENER

1. Apple tree: Judicious pruning can make fruit trees such as the apple perfect for those with small spaces who like to combine functionality (as in fruit production) with aesthetics. Apple trees are willing subjects for training into a variety of shapes, with only a little and sometimes no adverse effect on fruit numbers. Suitable shapes to consider include a pretty, airy vase or a pyramid (that is, with a central trunk). Or espalier it along a wall or over an arch. Check which varieties grow best in your neighbourhood, and remember that only some varieties are self-fertile and all will fruit better with cross-pollination. (Getting a tree with two or more varieties grafted together can get around this, but if the varieties flower and fruit at different times, then the tree often looks lopsided). Expect the prettiest, freshest pink and white flowers in spring and globes of goodness in summer through autumn. Of course, other fruit trees may be used to similar effect; Japanese plums work well used this way too.

2. Cercis canadensis: Ask a plantsman to recommend a fabulous tree for a small space and it won't be long before he or she names Cercis canadensis 'Forest Pansy'. Known unprepossessingly as the red-bud in its native North America, this small tree has an abundance of good points, not least that it looks fabulous all four seasons: pretty pink flowers on bare stems in spring; 12cm heart-shaped leaves which are a dramatic deep red-purple in summer; the most glorious shades of orange, bronze and purple in autumn; and not least, a multistemmed tree with beguiling lightness in its leafless form, to be admired in winter. Don't be alarmed by descriptions that have it growing up to 13m; that's in the wild. In gardens, it seldom exceeds 3m, and is often described as a shrub. Both cold and heat hardy, it is not difficult to grow given well-drained soil, but to flower well, it likes a cosy hot spot, sheltered from cold winds and with plenty of sun.

3. Weeping elm Ulmus glabra 'Camperdownii': About 400 people were reported to have had afternoon tea together under the spreading branches of one specimen of this in Christchurch many years back. So why its inclusion here? Because it will take a very, very long time for its branches to reach such spread (most nurseries here list it as a small tree, reaching 2m) and it is simply a stunning tree all year round. Its humped shape, often with a flat top, is unusual and curiously satisfying, often resembling an umbrella (just begging passers-by to sit under it). Its pleated leaves turn buttery yellow in autumn, and when they fall, reveal the crazy fretwork of stems and branches. It is tolerant of most soils, including wet ones.

4. Lancewood: If you live in the north, where it's seldom cool enough for deciduous trees to don their autumn finery with splendour, then form may be your best friend. In particular, learn to love our splendid horoeka, also called lancewood (Pseudopanax crassifolius or the more jagged Pseudopanax ferox), whose juvenile form is almost as iconic as the cabbage tree. Young lancewoods have distinctive straight and thin trunks with no branches. Rather, the long, thin, stiff, deeply serrated leaves hang down off the trunk and curve out slightly -- absolutely architectural and utterly unusual. By the time they are 15 to 20 years old, the tree has changed shape dramatically, with the leaves halving in both width and length forming a rounded crown at the top of the tree. Lancewoods can be real showstoppers when planted in either a circle of say three or five, about a metre or so apart, or in a row, maybe alongside a wall.

5. Topiary: the beauty of topiary is that it can be almost any shape or size you like, though arguably the simpler geometrical shapes are more dramatic (unless you are a master topiarist, in which case go for gold with trains, peacocks... whatever!). Although the faster-growing buxus is more common in New Zealand, the deep dark green of yew (Taxus baccata) has a sombre beauty. Being slower-growing means it requires less maintenance. The less patient, less wealthy (a fully fledged topiary can fetch top dollar), and less creative could try purchasing topiary frames and growing ivy or some other dense climber around them. When young and small, topiary usually needs a hand making a statement, so give it a classical urn to sit on, and a plinth or pillar on which to stand.

6. Any standard: There's always a plant that you love to bits, but as is, it's just not going to make the grade as the statement plant in your courtyard or little garden. It may be a blowsy-flowsy hydrangea, a wisteria dripping its gorgeous mauve flowers, the sweetest scented lilac God ever invented, or a pure and simple white and yellow single marguerite daisy. But turn it into a standard and transform it into a stunning creature worthy of being the centre of attention. Standardising is simply a matter of training and pruning the young plant back to a central stem and can be achieved over only two or three seasons.

7. Fairy bamboo: Choosing a bamboo over a tree or shrub is in itself a statement, for the long, graceful stems of this most architectural of plants exude an oriental charm seldom found in any other plant. Choose a clumping (that is the non-invasive) form -- you don't want it taking over the garden. It gives a strong vertical element to landscaping, contrasting well with water, pavers or even shingle. Use it as a screen or run a secret path through it. In many small spaces, it may well be the only plant you need. Fairy bamboo (Arundinaria gracilis) is a pretty airy form, growing 2m to 3m high, depending on conditions, with clumps up to 2m across. Bamboo grows best in moist, yet well-drained soils, hating both being waterlogged and drying out.

8. Xeronema callistemon: Looking rather like a giant hairy red caterpillar sniffing the wind, the stunning curving flowers of our native Xeronema callistemon are held aloft on 60cm stalks, which appear out of a fan of 30cm long, light-green, almost iris-like leaves. Known to Maori as raupo taranga, it is now commonly referred to here as Poor Knights lily, after the group of islands off the Northland coast where it was first found by Europeans in the 1920s. This uncommon and handsome plant is best grown in a large pot -- a whaling trypot or replica would be perfect. Place it in the middle of a courtyard. It must have perfect drainage, a warm spot with morning rather than afternoon sun and sheltered from frost. A bucket of seawater tipped over it now and again in the summer is also said to be beneficial.

9. Oioi: Like bamboo, grasses -- or in this case rushes -- are often best grown as a monoculture in a small space. If that idea seems too extreme, just one tree (or type of tree) may be added without diminishing the drama. For the bold, our native oioi (Apodasmia similis) has much to offer. This most elegant of rushes has dark joints along its fine blue-green leaves and grows to about a metre tall. Growing in the wild on the margins of estuaries and swamps pretty much throughout New Zealand, it stands to reason it looks fabulous next to ponds or water of any sort. That said, it definitely doesn't need water to look good -- but be as generous as you can and fill all your available space with it. Sun or shade is fine -- it's not particular -- but growth will be slower in the dry (a plus for some) and the leaves take on an orange hue.

10. Ligularia reniformis: Its popular name reveals its most attractive features, which are the size and shape of its leaves, which really do resemble tractor seats (well, such seats before they were upholstered and sprung). These magnificent leaves are glossy and dark green, and truly stunning en masse. I don't care much for the yellow flowers that appear in summer, though some consider them a bonus. Plant in rich moist soil that has had plenty of organic matter incorporated and watch them form fabulous, suppressing clumps up to a metre across. Planting under light trees will give them the dappled light they prefer and also offer some frost protection. They do, however, tolerate light frosts (and in cooler areas will die back over winter) and full sun.

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