I Love These Stunning Shrubs For Pots & Small Gardens

This list was thoughtfully compiled by gardener Hannah Miller and reviewed by horticulturist Elizabeth Smith. Published to Ideas on the 11th June 2022. Updated: 16th February 2023.

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Shrubs don’t need to be huge towering space fillers, in fact, some of the most beautiful shrubs only grow a couple of feet tall and are perfect for smaller gardens and pots.

Whether you’re looking to grow shrubs on a balcony, in a small border or anywhere with limited space, we’re confident you find a few delightful plants for your home from this list.

In this guide, Hannah, our co-owner and lead content creator, lists her favourite shrubs for small gardens and pots.

Hydrangea

My hydrangeas

My hydrangea and the feed I use (Vitax Feed)

For an explosion of late summer and autumn blooms, look no further than Hydrangea macrophylla.

While some varieties grow several metres tall and wide, there are plenty of smaller shrubs that are perfect for pots and smaller gardens.

Our Choice: Hydrangea macrophylla “ab green shadow” is a compact shrub that’s perfect for containers. The blooms gradually change from green to pink to red over the summer and as with all hydrangeas, there’s plenty of green foliage on offer too.

Key points:

  • Prefers partial shade or protection from the midday sun.
  • Needs frequent watering, especially if grown in pots.
  • Produces huge colourful blooms that delight into autumn and often up to the first frosts.
  • Beyond their watering requirements, hydrangeas are easy to grow, and pests generally leave them alone.
  • Loses its leaves in the winter.

My experience with hydrangeas in pots:

I’ve been growing hydrangeas in pots and in my small garden for years and have found them to be trouble-free, pest-free and generally easy to grow. However, I have seen some gardeners struggle with pruning – if the buds are nipped off, the hydrangea won’t flower that year. If you’re unsure about pruning and want to keep it simple, consider an “endless summer” hydrangea, as these produce blooms on new and old stems and are more forgiving to pruning mishaps.

Resources:

How to grow hydrangeas in pots.

Lavender

English lavender shrub in a pot

English lavender shrub in a small pot

French lavender bract

Closeup of a French lavender bract

Lavender is the ultimate no-fuss dwarf shrub that also pleases the senses with a delicious aroma.

You’ll never need to fertilise lavender as they prefer poor soil, and as a shrub that originated in the Mediterranean, they only require infrequent watering.

Expect eye-catching purple bracts that sit atop greenish-grey stems from late spring into early summer.

I Recommend:

French Lavender (Lavandula stoechas): Light pink or purple ears flutter on top of unusual purple barrels; French lavender is unique and totally different to English lavender.

English Lavender (Lavendula angustifolia): Compact and aromatic, this lavender is often grown commercially in fields for its oil, but it sits just as well in pots and borders in small gardens.

Key points:

  • Prefers full sun.
  • Soil should be dryish and never boggy.
  • Blooms in late spring and early summer.
  • May rebloom if pruned.
  • Low maintenance.
  • Aromatic.
  • Great for pollinators.
  • Evergreen in most parts of the UK.

My experience with lavender:

I’ve found lavender to be one of the easiest shrubs to grow. In my garden, it has performed well in a poor area of the border, next to my rear door and also in pots. I never fertilise it, rarely add water and only prune once per year, yet it produces bracts and aroma each year without fail.

I prefer French lavender as I love the look of the bracts, and I live in the south of the UK, where the climate is just about suitable for this variety.

Resources:

How to grow French lavender.

Skimmia japonica

Skimmia japonica shrub in a pot

Our Skimmia japonica in spring with creamy white flowers with a pinkish tinge

Leathery dark green leaves serve as a backdrop to delightful creamy pink panicles in the spring, These give way (if pollinated) to bright red berries which may persist from the summer into winter and possibly the following spring.

Choose a compact variety and you’ll be rewarded with a low-maintenance shrub that requires little attention and isn’t bothered by pests.

I Recommend:

Skimmia japonica “Rubella” for its purple flower buds that open creamy pink in the spring.

Key points:

  • Prefers dappled sun or partial shade.
  • I have grown it under tree canopy and in a north-facing garden.
  • Prefers moist soil but is otherwise easy to maintain and largely pest-free.

My experience:

I grew a Japonica skimmia in a pot for two years before moving it into my border. I never had any issues with pests, diseases or anything else, and it transplanted just fine.

Hardy Fuchsias

Blooms on a fuchsia shrub in a pot

The arching stems and dangling blooms of a potted hardy fuchsia

Fuchsias are versatile plants that can be grown as annuals in containers and hanging baskets, as deciduous shrubs or even as hedges.

Choose a compact variety that will come back year after year, and you’ll be rewarded with delightful two-tone pendant flowers in pink and purple.

The arching stems and dangling flowers are of particular interest.

Key points:

  • Prefers full sun although I’ve seen it survive in partial shade, albeit with fewer blooms on display.
  • Flowers from June to autumn and in my garden, often up to the first frosts.
  • Dies back to ground level each year, with new shoots appearing in the spring.
  • Benefits from watering and feeding throughout the growing season.
  • Generally pest and disease-free, I’ve never had issues with either.

My experience:

I’ve been growing fuchsias for as long as I can remember, and I’ve never had one die or fail to bounce back after winter. I’ve also grown them in pots, and they just need a little extra water and feed; that’s it.

Tip:

Make sure you choose a hardy fuchsia and not a tender fuchsia which will die in the winter unless overwintered indoors.

Acer Palmatum

Acer palmatum in a pot

An Acer in the summer. 

Acer palmatum, also known as a Maple tree, is often grown as a shrub in pots where it can maintain its compact form.

Acers lose their leaves in the winter but are sought after due to their attractive and distinctive red autumn foliage.

During the summer, the leaves are yellow-green (sometimes light purple) but gradually turn pink and red as autumn approaches.

I Recommend:

Try Acer palmatum “Crimson Queen”, which holds an Award of Garden Merit from the Royal Horticultural Society. 

Key points:

  • Prefers full sun or dappled shade.
  • Leaves can be light purple or green in the summer and deep red/purple in the autumn.
  • Requires little maintenance.
  • Deciduous (loses its leaves in the winter).
  • Usually grown for their foliage.
  • Low growing varieties are available that spread 1.5m but grow only half a metre tall.

My experience:

I’ve grown acers in pots and borders, and they took years to put on any growth and required almost zero maintenance. If you’re looking for an easy-to-maintain shrub (tree), consider an acer.

Buddleia

Pink buddleia bloom

A Buddleia bloom. 

Buddleia, also known as the butterfly bush, is a popular garden shrub that can reach up to 3m tall, but fortunately, there are dwarf varieties that are perfect for smaller gardens and pots.

Expect an explosion of blooms on the tips of long stems from early summer into autumn.

The weight of these enormous flowers often bends the stems creating a beautiful arching effect.

Watch out for butterflies and other pollinators who will love this shrub as much as you will.

Key points:

  • Blooms up to 30cm long.
  • Flower from early summer to early autumn.
  • Prefers a sunny spot.
  • Grows to an umbrella shape.
  • Prune hard in the spring.

I Recommend:

Based on my experience, I think Buddleia davidii “Buzz Sky Blue would be a great choice for containers. I’ve seen it grown to 1.5 metres and produced large blue blooms up to 20cm long, making it perfect for smaller gardens.

Azaleas

Azaleas in pots

Azaleas in pots. 

Some azaleas can reach up to 5 metres, but most can be placed into two categories. The first is evergreen azaleas which keep their leaves in the winter and usually grow up to 1 metre.

The second are deciduous azaleas which lose their leaves in the winter and usually reach up to 2 metres.

Dwarf azalea shrubs rarely grow more than half a metre tall and are perfect for pots and small gardens.

Key points:

  • Azaleas can be early, mid or late flowering so choose accordingly.
  • Most are spring flowering.
  • Leathery green leaves act as the perfect backdrop for the many colourful blooms.
  • This shade-loving shrub sits well under tree canopies with dappled sunlight.

My experience:

I’ve grown Azalea japonica “Diamond Pink”, in a pot, and it reached about 1 metre high and didn’t need any special maintenance. I’ve since moved it to spot under the pine trees at the end of my garden, and it’s still thriving.

Weigela

Weigela shrub for pots and small gardens

Azaleas in pots. 

Weigelas are versatile shrubs that I’ve grown in borders and containers.

Some varieties are upright, but most are spreading, and recently breeders have introduced dwarf varieties up to 1.25m.

Trumpet-like blooms appear from late spring into summer, with red, purple and pink the most common colours.

Key points:

  • Weigelas are deciduous, so they lose their leaves in the winter.
  • They prefer a little shelter from the midday sun but dislike deep shade.
  • Based on my experience, they are generally pest-free and forgive some neglect.
  • Expect an explosion of small colourful trumpets during the flowering season.

My experience

In my border, I’ve found the weigelas often get a little lost against all the big leaf shrubs I have, but in a pot, they have the chance to shine. I’ve never had issues with pests or diseases, and they don’t require much water or feed either.

Cordyline

Green and cream cordyline

Green, white and cream Cordyline

Cordyline "Pink Passion"

Cordyline “Pink Passion” 

If you’re looking for a shrub that will make a statement in either a pot or a small garden, look no further than Cordyline.

These exotic shrubs look like small palms and come in a variety of colours.

Cordylines are perfect for warm coastal areas and urban gardens where there’s some protection from the frost.

Key points:

  • Pest-free and easy to maintain.
  • Impactful.
  • Grow as a feature on its own or pack bedding plants around the base.
  • Grow in a sunny spot with good drainage.

I Recommend:

I saw Cordyline “Pink Passion” at a property we worked on last year, and it certainly stood out! It’s not to everyone’s taste, but I certainly liked it.

Hebe

Hebe Pink Elephant

Hebe “Pink Elephant”

Choose a compact Hebe shrub for small gardens and pots, and the plant will rarely exceed 0.5 metres.

I’ve seen taller varieties reach up to 1 metre high.

Old leaves are greyish-green with tinges of cream, while fresh flowers are usually purple and pink.

Expect purple, pink or white flowers in the summer, which compliment the often variegated foliage.

Key points:

  • Dwarf Hebes reach no higher than 0.5 metres and with very little spread.
  • Grows in most soils, conditions and aspects.
  • Prefers full sun or partial shade.

I Recommend:

Try Hebe “Pink Elephant” for its all-year-round pink, purple, cream and green leaves and white summer flowers. I’ve seen it a few times and the foliage is noteworthy.

Advice for Growing Shrub in Pots and Small Gardens

Almost any shrub can be grown in a container, but as some shrubs are hungry, thirsty and have the potential to put on significant growth, there are a few things you may need to do differently:

Water More Often: Potted shrubs will require more frequent watering than those grown in the garden. The smaller the pot, the more frequent the shrub will need water. Also, my pots located on our hot patios and driveways dried out quickly and needed watering several times a week.

More Fertiliser: Pots and containers can only hold so much nutritional content, and as shrubs are hungry, they will quickly deplete the food source, which should be topped up more often. The type and amount of fertiliser required will depend on the shrub, but I’ve found that a twice-a-month feed during the growing season is quite sufficient.

Compost/Soil Mulch: Each spring, scrape off as much soil from the top of the pot as possible and replace it with fresh compost. I do this every spring without fail.

Pot Size and Potting Up: Pot size is essential, and to prevent the shrub from growing too big too quickly, one should never move a potted shrub from a small pot to a huge one. I found it far better to increase the pot size incrementally over several years. Some gardeners relocate to a slightly larger pot every 3-5 years or so, but the exact timing depends on the type of shrub and how well it’s performing.

Pot Shape: Some shrubs are top-heavy and will topple tall narrow pots, so consider the shape of the pot; I’ve found that shallow, wide pots or those that are wider at the bottom are less likely to topple in the wind.

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Collection of shrubs for small gardens and pots

Meet The Author: Hannah Miller

Hannah is a former NHS administrator, mother of two and keen qualified gardener who loves growing new plants and experimenting in the garden.

She enjoys gardening as much as she cares about the environment and likes to share her knowledge with others.

This year is all about pollinators, and Hannah has set herself the goal of only buying new plants that attract pollinators; she aims to make the garden as bee and butterfly friendly as possible.

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Hannah Miller has been a gardening enthusiast for over 12 years and has a level 3 qualification in horticulture. She's constantly growing new plants and frequently writes for us.

As accuracy is important, we asked fully qualified horticulturist Elizabeth Smith to review and fact-check this guide.

Explore: Elizabeth's profile and qualifications.

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