4 Great Alternatives for Beloved Plants that Don’t Fit

Article by Rochelle Greayer.

How on earth did that small arborvitae I planted in front of the house get so huge?

It happens all the time.

Either a previous owner, or maybe it was you, planted something that was tiny when it was new, but over the years it has slowly turned into a hulking monster.

It is really hard to imagine the size that a shrub or tree will eventually achieve even a few years, let alone when it is fully mature.  Plant companies and breeders know that this a common problem so the influx of dwarf (or latin ‘nana’) varieties are very common.  But if there is no dwarf, you may find you need to seek out other options.  Here are some smaller options for four of the most loved, but often overgrown garden plants.


Arborvitae commonly found in nurseries top out at anywhere from 20 to 60 feet tall —not exactly what you want in front of your living room window. Look out for Thuja occcidentalis ‘De Groot’s Spire’ (pictured above in the background) on the other hand, is a slim, tall-ish column that slowly grows to just 15 feet tall and 4 feet wide.

Thuja occcidentalis ‘De Groot’s Spire’ is a cultivar of the native Eastern arborvitae that works beautifully as a foundation bed accent or a repeating vertical theme in a large mixed border. It prefers full sun to part sun and will be much less dense if grown in shade. USDA Zones 3-8.


Need a ladder to smell your lilacs?
The common lilac, Syringa vulgaris, matures at 12 to 20 feet tall and spreads 8 to 15 feet across. A good alternative is S. meyeri ‘Palibin’, a compact 4-5 foot cultivar of Korean lilac. Or Also, The Bloomerang lilacs (S. x ‘Bloomerang’, ‘Bloomerang Purple’) were developed using S. meyerii as a parent and are a great, short 3-4 foot alternative.

Lilac Syringa meyeri ‘Palibin’ by Christine Riggle CC

Syringa meyeri ‘Palibin’ has pale pink, fragrant flowers that bloom profusely in late spring. As a bonus, its foliage is quite resistant to powdery mildew. Full sun, USDA Zones 4-7.

syringa lilac boomerang from proven winners

Bloomerang lilacs (Syringa x ‘Bloomerang’, ‘Bloomerang Purple‘) are a great 3 to 4 foot alternative to the larger and more mildew-prone common lilac, S. vulgaris. Another plus is their sporadic re-bloom throughout the summer and into fall. Full sun, USDA Zones 4-7.

Birch Trees

Why did you think that river birch would work as a foundation plant?
River birch is a beautiful native tree with gorgeous form and bark, accompanied by a great constitution, but it is also fast-growing to and can quickly reach 30 to 40 feet,. It’s baby cousin, however, Betula nigra ‘Little King’, is just as nice but it tops out at no more than 12 feet.

They are just too big - alternative platns for bloved overgrown varieites. - Dwarf birch from Monrovia

Betula nigra ‘Little King’ (Fox ValleyTM River Birch) is a dense, compact, multi-stemmed shrub with an irregular crown, typically growing close to 10 fee tall and wide. It fits nicely in a foundation garden or as a centerpiece of a mixed border. Full Sun to Part Shade, USDA Zones 4-9.

Butterfly Bush

Love butterflies, but can’t get over the big ugly butterfly bush mess that happens every winter?

Late summer blooms and butterflies, especially in a small garden, can be had with dwarf Buddleia x ‘Lo and Behold’ series – none gets more than 3 feet tall.

Buddleia x 'Lo and Behold'

The ‘Lo and Behold’ series offers lots of color choices: blue, lilac, pink and deep purple. Any one (or a combination) would make a fantastic mass planting in a hot, dry, sunny spot, and you can sit back and watch the butterflies at play. Full sun, Zones 5-9.

Thanks to Rochelle for this useful and timely article.  Her website:


Author: Dennis Hickey

There are no limits to success to those who never stop learning. Learning will nourish your personal growth. I hope you enjoy this website and visit often so you too keep learning and growing.

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