Small is Beautiful in the Garden, too

dwarf peppermint tree
(Agonis flexuosa ‘Nana’)

“Small is Beautful” was a best-selling collection of essays on economics written in 1973.

The lifestyle encourage by the author, E.F. Schumacher, would lead to “the maximum amount of well being with the minimum amount of consumption.”
These words are most apt when introducing the phenomenon of botanical dwarfs.  Their diminutive and delicate charms impart a sense of well-being while their consumption of resources dwarfs that found among larger specimens.
And so, on any occasion when I happen to cross paths with a dwarf or compact plant cultivar, I can’t help thinking “small is beautiful.”  Maybe it’s just the surprise that stimulates my aesthetic appreciation. Or maybe it’s the laziness in me that appreciates a small plant since it will not require as much maintenance as larger versions of the same species.
It’s always a revelation the first time you set eyes on a small or dwarfed version of a familiar plant, be it a  miniature rose bush, a dwarf ‘Mugo’ pine tree (Pinus mugo mugo), a ‘Pix Zee’ peach tree, ‘Pixie’ snapdragons, or a dwarf dawn redwood (Metasequoia glyptostroboides ‘Miss Grace’), which stays under ten feet tall, a diminutive stature indeed if you’re a redwood.  You see such wonders and your horticultural horizons broaden to where you think just about anything is possible with plants.  Certainly, if your gardening horizon stops at the edge of a patio or a balcony, plants of small stature are worth a second look.
Sometimes, though, I think that shrinking a plant’s stature goes to far.  Such is the case, for example, with sunflowers.  Thanks to advances in genetics, it is becoming much easier to insert dwarfing genes into the DNA of plants.  I am not sure exactly how dwarf sunflowers came about, but I cannot look at them without trembling slightly.  It’s as though they were the product of some mad botanist’s imagination and they were created solely for the sake of exclaiming, “See!  Even sunflowers can be shrunk!”
There is an undeniable attraction to exotic plants and people will wait in long lines  just to take a look at something strange.  In truth,  a plant does not  have to be beautiful, necessarily, to grab our attention.  Just different.  It’s a phenomenon that made P.T. Barnum and his circus side shows and Robert Ripley (Believe It or Not!) rich, and reached its ultimate botanical expression in “Little Shop of Horrors,” a comedy featuring Audrey, a carnivorous plant that is nourished from human blood.
Not long ago, in the Australian section of the Jerusalem Botanical Gardens, I came upon a dwarf peppermint willow (Agonis flexuosa ‘Nana’).  It was planted as ground cover under a eucalyptus tree and was flourishing there.  I thought this was an important discovery.  The list of plants that grow well under eucalyptus trees is short.  The only other plant that I have seen thriving under eucalyptus was Australian rosemary (Westringia spp.), a relative of true rosemary (Rosmarinus officinalis).  Australian rosmary, which has no fragrance,  resembles true rosemary in having tiny leaves, a minimal water requirement, and a mature height of around six feet.
The beauty of dwarf peppermint willow, an evergreen for full to partial sun, is in its foliage since older leaves are a lush green, while emergent leaves and stems are red.  In Australia, it is commonly used as an informal hedge.  While it will eventually reach six feet in height, it can easily be kept lower with occasional pruning.   Its leaves emit a strong peppermint fragrance when crushed.  Dwarf peppermint willow survives a frost but may suffer damage when temperatures dip into the mid 20’s.    To the best of my knowledge, the only local nursery growing dwarf peppermint willow is San Marcos Growers in Carpinteria.  To find it among your neigborhood nurseries, go to and click on “Retail Locator” on the left side of the home page.
Speaking of Australian plants with red new growth, there is a honey myrtle (Melaleuca linariifolia) cultivar known as ‘Claret Tops’ that deserves wider recognition.  It is a shrub that stays less than five feet tall and bears fragrant flowers in the summer.  It may also be grown as a hedge, whether formal and regularly clipped, or informal and free to develop unfettered.  The advantage of letting it just grow is that new red growth will always be present.
Tip of the Week:  Jan Urban sent an email query wondering why she has split oranges.   Split citrus are most often symptomatic of irregular soil moisture. The scorching temperatures we had this summer, combined with a warm fall, have necessitated keen attention to watering over the last six months. Where such attention lapsed, split fruit could have developed.
Typically, split citrus is the result of overwatering or of sudden heavy watering or rain after a long period of dryness. When citrus is overwatered, the inside of the orange or lemon will grow faster than the surrounding rind.  The fruit doesn’t split so much as the pulp simply grows so fast that there is not enough rind to contain it.  Still, if water is withheld from citrus for too long, a sudden soaking may cause the inside volume to suddenly expand, causing the rind to split. Fluctuating humidity and fertilizer levels may also bring about split fruit, and thin-skinned citrus varieties are most susceptible to splitting. Tomatoes, by the way, split quite often for the same reasons that citrus does.
In general, citrus trees should be watered infrequently, but deeply. Garn Wallace, a soil and plant scientist in Torrance, recommends the following regime: once a month, put a barely trickling hose under your tree and leave it for 48 hours. Citrus trees develop tap roots when irrigated in this manner and become accustomed to going without water for 30 days at a time.  A four inch layer of mulch will help maintain soil moisture at a constant level.
To make sure your water goes where you want it to go, and then stays there, build a berm (a circular hill of earth) several inches out from the trunk, and build another berm around the drip line – the place where water drips off the tree during rain — beneath the canopy perimeter. In between these two berms is the area that will be filled with water once a month.
By the way, those incredibly hot days we experienced this summer are not bad for citrus, as long as watering is properly done. Thousands of acres of lemons, for example, yield heavy crops in the Arizona desert.

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