Top 10 evergreen shrubs for small gardens

Daphne 'Eternal Fragrance' from T&M

Add year round colour & structure to your garden using evergreen shrubs
Image: Daphne 'Eternal Fragrance' from Thompson & Morgan

As gardens continue to shrink, plant breeders have responded by developing a wide range of compact varieties. Designed to flourish in narrow borders or containers, these compact evergreen shrubs take up a fraction of the space of their parent species. So whether you’re searching for flamboyant flowers or fabulous foliage, here are ten of our favourite evergreen shrubs chosen especially for small gardens:

  1. Pieris japonica 'Little Heath'
  2. Sarcococca hookeriana var. humilis
  3. Dwarf rhododendrons
  4. Nandina domestica 'Fire Power'
  5. Euonymus
  6. Dwarf conifers
  7. Hebe
  8. Mahonia 'Soft Caress'
  9. Daphne
  10. Leucothoe

1. Pieris japonica 'Little Heath'

Pieris japonica 'Little Heath' from T&M

Admired for its pretty variegated foliage, 'Little Heath' can be grown in containers or the ground
Image: Pieris japonica 'Little Heath' from Thompson & Morgan

Pieris is an acid-loving shrub, but if your soil doesn't suit, it makes a fine container plant too. Pieris japonica 'Little Heath' has a tight, bushy habit with eye-catching variegated foliage. Creating a superb focal point, there’s lots of seasonal interest to be had too. New tips emerge in pink, and from March to May, generous clusters of cream, bell-shaped flowers appear. With a height and spread of just 60cm (24"), this small evergreen shrub is perfect for a sunny or lightly shaded spot!

2. Sarcococca hookeriana var. humilis

Sarcococca hookeriana var. humilis from T&M

This compact sarcococca has creamy-white, scented flowers from November to May
Image: Sarcococca hookeriana var. Humilis from Thompson & Morgan

Sarcococca hookeriana var. humilis is at its best in the depths of winter and early spring when the spidery white flowers release the most exquisite honeyed fragrance. The perfume is powerful, so plant it close to the house where you can enjoy it every time you pass. The nectar rich flowers and glossy, black berries which follow are loved by wildlife, making it a great choice for encouraging nature into your garden. This is one of the most compact of the Sarcococcas, growing to just 1m (3') in height and spread. 

3. Dwarf rhododendrons

Azalea 'Dwarf Pink' from T&M

Dwarf rhododendrons are easy-to-keep evergreen shrubs
Image: Azalea 'Dwarf Pink' from Thompson & Morgan

It's easy to dismiss rhododendrons as too large for a small garden, but a wide range of compact varieties have recently been developed. Dwarf rhododendrons remain neat and compact but still produce the eye-popping blooms that make these acid-loving evergreen shrubs so dazzling in springtime. They make fabulous small evergreens for pots!

Rhododendron 'Blue Tit' reaches a mature height of just 90cm height and spread and, if you have a large container to spare, the magenta pink blooms of Rhododendron 'Amoena' make a bold spring display!

4. Nandina domestica 'Fire Power'

Nandina domestica 'Fire Power' from T&M

'Fire Power' is a popular and well-loved variety with a compact dwarf habit
Copyright: Visions BV, Netherlands

If you like to see leaves changing colour in autumn, the small semi-evergreen Nandina domestica 'Fire Power' is a great choice. This dwarf variety grows to just 45cm tall (60cm spread) but, particularly in milder locations, retains some of its foliage over winter after putting on a good autumn show. 

Nandina is famed for its dramatic colour changes – new foliage emerges in gold before ageing to green. In autumn it transforms to rich shades of red and mahogany. Add to this a fine display of starry white blooms and glossy red berries in summer, and you have the perfect small shrub for all seasons!

5. Euonymus

Euonymus japonicus 'Himalaya' from T&M

Hardy and versatile, Euonymus japonicus 'Himalaya' is a popular choice for low hedging
Copyright: Plantipp / Visions BV, Netherlands

Few shrubs can beat Euonymus for providing constant, robust, evergreen colour and, aside from an annual increase in size, they remain virtually unchanged throughout the year. Many varieties boast bright, glossy foliage that provide a splash of gold like Euonymus fortunei 'Emerald 'n' Gold' or Euonymus fortunei 'Blonde Beauty'. For a more subtle and elegant variegation, try Euonymus fortunei 'Harlequin' which boasts an irregular cream margin to each dark green leaf. These small shrubs reach no more than 1m (3') in height and spread, making useful ground cover, or a handsome evergreen container plant.

6. Dwarf conifers

Juniperus communis 'Compressa' from T&M

For height without width, 'Compressa' has an architectural, slim, vertical habit
Image: Juniperus communis 'Compressa' from Thompson & Morgan

Dwarf conifers may have fallen from fashion since the 1970s - but don't dismiss these hardworking plants. The ultimate low-maintenance evergreen shrubs, conifers need virtually no extra care once established. Their diversity of colour, texture, shape and form is astonishing! Try Thuja occidentalis 'Tiny Tim' in containers either side of a doorway - with a naturally rounded habit they make a great alternative to traditional Box topiary.

Cryptomeria are useful for providing evergreen seasonal colour, turning bronze in autumn and returning to green by summer. For a more rugged appearance, look to dwarf Pines for their needle-like foliage. If you prefer to stick to a more traditional conical shape then Platycladus orientalis 'Aurea Nana' is hard to beat.

7. Hebe

Hebe 'Silver Queen' from T&M

'Silver Queen' is well suited to growing in containers, at the front of borders or as a low hedge
Image: Hebe 'Silver Queen' from Thompson & Morgan

Hebes come in all shapes, colours and sizes, making them some of the best small evergreen shrubs for sun, especially on free-draining soils. With their nectar-rich flower spikes in summer, these compact evergreen shrubs are perfect for attracting bees and butterflies to the garden too. There are plenty of varieties that grow to less than 1m (3') height and spread.

Hebe 'Silver Queen' boasts colourful variegated foliage and mauve flower spikes. For a more elegant variegation, try Hebe 'Silver Anniversary' which has slender, grey-green leaves with irregular, silvery margins. Cold winter weather brings about a gentle purple tint that makes a lovely feature when there’s little other colour in the garden. 

8. Mahonia 'Soft Caress'

Mahonia 'Soft Caress' from T&M

A superb evergreen shrub, 'Soft Caress' won RHS Chelsea Plant of the Year 2013
Image: Mahonia 'Soft Caress' from Thompson & Morgan

Mahonia certainly isn't the first evergreen shrub that you would think of for a smaller garden, especially with those spiky stems! That's what makes Mahonia 'Soft Caress' so different. This is the first spine-free, dwarf mahonia variety, reaching a height and spread of just 120cm (4').

The foliage is slender and elegant, reminiscent of bamboo, but when the golden flower spikes appear, there can be no mistaking its species! The sweetly fragrant blooms appear in autumn, just when the fading garden needs a splash of colour. A superb small evergreen shrub for sun or semi-shade!

9. Daphne

Daphne x transatlantica 'Pink Fragrance' from T&M

Blooming from April to October, Daphne 'Pink Fragrance' is unbeatable for flowers and fragrance
Image: Daphne x transatlantica 'Pink Fragrance' from Thompson & Morgan

No list of small evergreen shrubs would be complete without the beautiful Daphne! The richly perfumed flowers are a treat for the senses from spring right through to autumn.

Daphne 'Eternal Fragrance' and Daphne x transatlantica 'Pink Fragrance' both flower on new growth, so the flowers just keep coming. With a compact habit, reaching less than 1m (3') in height and spread, these glamorous evergreens are perfect for a container or border next to a well-used seating area.

10. Leucothoe

Leucothoe axillaris 'Little Flames' form T&M

'Little Flames' is a compact, evergreen shrub that boasts superb autumn colour
Image: Leucothoe axillaris 'Little Flames' from Thompson & Morgan

Now here's one for the gardener who likes something different! Leucothoe is rarely seen in UK gardens as it enjoys a rich, acid soil, but it’s just as happy in a container of ericaceous compost. This is the perfect small evergreen shrub for shade, bringing interest to those difficult, dark areas of the garden.

Boasting colourful stems tips as the new growth emerges, and later in autumn the leaves turn to vibrant autumnal shades. Racemes of white, urn-shaped flowers cascade from its stems in spring. Try Leucothoe axillaris 'Little Flames' for a dynamic blaze of colour. For a more subtle display look to the gentle variegated tones of Leucothoe fontanesiana 'Whitewater'.

So there you have it - our pick of the best evergreen shrubs for small gardens. By incorporating just a few small evergreen shrubs in borders and containers, you can keep your garden looking fresh and colourful throughout the year. Head over to our hub page for more advice and information about planting and growing shrubs.

Sue Sanderson T&M horticulturalist

Written by: Sue Sanderson

Plants and gardens have always been a big part of my life. I can remember helping my Dad to prick out seedlings, even before I could see over the top of the potting bench. As an adult, I trained at Writtle College where I received my degree, BSc. (Hons) Horticulture. After working in a specialist plantsman's nursery, and later, as a consulting arboriculturalist, I joined Thompson & Morgan in 2008. Initially looking after the grounds and coordinating the plant trials, I now support the web team offering horticultural advice online.

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