Jeanne Hilinske-Christensen, M.S., is a 5 foot, 9 inch tall horticulturist with Horticultural Handiwork Inc., in Waterford, Wisconsin, an associate lecturer, and a certified teacher. She’s never been described as petite.

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Pixie Perennials
by Jeanne Hilinske-Christensen       #Ornamentals   #Perennials

SunSparkler’s ‘Blue Elf’ sedum pairs nicely with ‘Fine Gold Leaf’ sedum in a hypertufa trough of hardy succulents.

Defined as petite, pint-sized, or pixie, short-statured perennials deserve space in the landscape among their height-endowed relatives. Their small growth habit gives them the advantage of fitting into tight spots and other space-restricted areas.

Ground cover sedums
‘Blue Elf’ sedum (Sedum x Orostachys ‘Blue Elf’) grows to a maximum height of 3 inches, but spreads 12-15 inches wide. Being an intergeneric hybrid, the result of a cross between a Sedum and an Orostachys, it is also known as xSedoro ‘Blue Elf’. (xSedoro is a combination of sed from Sedum and oro from Orostachys.) Like most stonecrops, ‘Blue Elf’ grows best in sunny, dry sites.

In late summer, its dark pink, fragrant flower clusters bloom just above the steel blue rosettes of foliage. Useful as an edging plant or en masse, this drought tolerant butterfly attractor grows great in containers. It is marketed as one of the SunSparkler series of sedums. Hardy in Zones 4-9.

Another sedum with the same size, growth habit, and site requirement as ‘Blue Elf” is ‘Emerald Carpet’ (S. tetractinum ‘Emerald Carpet’). The green rounded leaves form a mound that provides the perfect backdrop for the small, pinkish star-shaped flowers. In fall, the foliage takes on a bronze to burgundy hue, adding color to the garden dominated by the browning foliage of other garden occupants. Hardy in Zones 4-8.


Clockwise: Sedoro ‘Blue Elf’ works well in a rock garden setting. • Stachys spathulatai grows like a dwarf version of ‘Hummelo’ (S. officinalis ‘Hummelo’). • The foliage of Mukdenia becomes more attractive as the growing season progresses.

Dwarf betony
Stachys spathulata, formerly Stachys minima, grows 4-8 inches tall. Commonly known as dwarf betony, the ground hugging, dark green foliage has mat-forming abilities, making it ideal to hold soils in place. Beginning in mid-summer, the rose-purple tubular flowers bloom in whorls on stems held above the foliage. Not too particular about site conditions, it blooms best in full sun. Spent flowers can be removed to encourage rebloom. Great as an edging plant, it can also be planted in containers.  Hardy in Zones 5-8.

‘Crimson Fans’ (Mukdenia rossii ‘Crimson Fans’) is a low-growing perennial that provides three seasons of interest. Usually growing to less than 1 foot tall, the white bell-shaped flowers of this early bloomer announce spring well before many of the traditional spring-flowering bulbs. The maple-like green leaves are edged in red through summer, slowly turning dark red by fall. It provides an attractive border in a woodland garden. Grow in part shade and well-drained soils. Hardy in Zones 4-8.

‘Blue Mouse Ears’ hosta
Considered a miniature or dwarf hosta, yet despite its size, ‘Blue Mouse Ears’ can handle the bullying of heavy shade and the juglone of walnut trees (Juglans spp.).

The tips of the thick, blue-green to grey leaves curl a bit resembling a mouse ear. Hummingbird-attracting lavender flowers bloom in midsummer, adding a few more inches to its normal height of about 8 inches. It earned Hosta of the Year honors in 2008 by the American Hosta Growers Association. Hardy in Zones 3-8.

Pennsylvania sedge, also known as oak sedge, can be used in dry, shady sites as an alternative to turf.

Pennsylvania sedge
This is a bit of a misfit in the sedge world, where most prefer to grow in moist to wet sites. Not Pennsylvania sedge (Carex pensylvanica), a North American native. Although it can tolerate shady, wet conditions, it is partial to dry, well-drained soils in part shade. Growing under a height of 8 inches, the grass-like, light green foliage tends to grow in clumps, making it useful as an edging plant and a lawn substitute. Hardy in Zones 3-8.

Woolly thyme (Thymus pseudolanuginosus) is a ground-hugger that may be better suited for an ornamental planting than an herb garden. Tiny, grey leaves grow on hairy stems that may reach 6 inches in height and form a mat usually with a 1-foot spread. Since it will rot in wet conditions, excellent drainage is a must for this plant. Grow in a dry, well-drained site in full sun. It is not a prolific bloomer, yet in summer it sports tiny pink flowers. A favorite use of this plant is a filler between stepping-stones. Hardy in Zones 5-8, but may need winter protection in some Zone 5 locations.

Firewitch dianthus was the Perennial Plant Association’s 2002 Perennial Plant of the Year.

The genus Dianthus offers several petite perennials. ‘Tiny Rubies’ (D. gratianopolitanus ‘Tiny Rubies’), Firewitch (‘Feuerhexe’), and ‘Zing Rose’ (D. deltoides ‘Zing Rose’) are a few of the low-growing types with foliage height under 6 inches. They bloom late spring into summer and will rebloom if spent flowers are removed. They form mats of linear foliage and display pink or red flowers. Plant in full sun in well-drained soils. If allowed to remain wet, the crown may rot. Hardy in Zones 3-8.

As small-space gardening continues its popularity and container gardening remains steady, pixie perennials will reach new heights as valued plants. The fairy garden fad created the trend for tiny plants, and now many of these plants have escaped the land of miniatures to inhabit beds and borders in reality sized landscapes. 


A version of this article appeared in a November/December 2014 print edition of State-by-State Gardening.
Photography courtesy of, Susan Martin, Jeanne Hilinske-Christensen, and


Posted: 12/28/17   RSS | Print


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