Dwarf Madness!

20 May

What in the world has happened to garden center plants, people? Sunflowers and Asters in bloom at only  4” tall? Nicotianas with no scent and Dianthus that die a month or less after planting? Yes dear gardeners, this nasty trend which started more than 10 years ago is accelerating quicker than you can squash a bug. Last February, in front of my neighborhood supermarket, I felt super horrified as I noticed the African Marigolds on display by the front door. They were in full bloom (in 6 packs!) at no more than 5” tall. Gadzooks!

African Marigolds? Or tennis-balls-on-a-stick?


Ahhh, that's better. Day of the Dead Marigolds growing to a proper 3' tall.

African Marigolds are supposed to be huge. To 3 or more feet tall and 3 feet across. If you’re a young gardener, you may not even remember them being so grand and fabulous with their bushy multi-branching form and loads of 4”-across, extra double, dense blooms fantastic for cutting. Here at the nursery we call them “Day of the Dead Marigolds” as they are still grown in Mexico and South America to create altars and stunning displays for the holiday.

How incredibly fabulous is this? The red flowers are Celosias! Many more gorgeous Marigold images at http://flavorsofthesun.blogspot.com/2010/11/images-from-day-of-dead.html

So you can imagine my chagrin to see what the nursery industry has done to them, all in the name of being able to serve the customer what they say we want – 6 packs and 4″ pots in full bloom. And for heaven’s sake it was February ! Umm … freezing! Obviously, they were greenhouse grown, so now you can watch them die in your yard from the cold which they are so not fond of.

I know that “each to his own” and I’m glad when anybody gets outside and digs their hands in the earth, but don’t you think it’s sad that taller varieties, with all their grace, lovely form and charm are being pushed out (and forgotten), only to be replaced with squat, charmless blobs of color? What can you do with them? Line them up like orange and yellow tennis balls just like at the gas station? Nice.

What can we say? We have no words.

More and more plants are being sold all dwarfed and squatty. Many of our seed sources are dropping the taller varieties across the board and it has become harder and harder to find original proper sized species.

Here’s another calamity :

Wait a minute, what's going on here?!

Photo courtesy Karen Cairone. http://lifeamongtheleaves.blogspot.com/

Okay, you gotta give the person who designed this carpet bedding some points here for being creative with what they had to work with. But wouldn’t you prefer your Ageratums to look like this?

Ageratum Blue horizon in pot   2

Ageratum houstonianum growing to its rightful height of 3 feet.

To 3’ tall and 30” across, Ageratum houstonianum ‘Blue Horizon’ has big, fluffy, butterfly enticing, sweetly scented flower clusters – great for cutting. That’s a 15 gallon pot you see here and those blooms lasted for months. When dead headed they go on blooming all summer! That’s another big problem with those boinky dwarf plants. The bloom time is very short, especially when they’ve been blooming at the growers and then at the garden center before someone comes along to buy them.

Okay, one last depressing example. Dianthus. Dianthus is one of my all time favorite, awesome and reliable perennial standbys. They’re in full bloom in my back yard and at the nursery right now and they are really, really showy. They totally make my gardens pop with their profuse bloom and romantic colors and fragrance.

dianthus pinkerton purpleton

Dianthus 'Pinkerton' blooming its heart out at the nursery.

Truthfully I don’t think you can even find them at many nurseries or garden centers any more. Because they’ve been replaced with this:


These are Dianthus sinensis. Squat, die-pretty-darn-fast, scentless and disappointing annuals (which are often sold as perennials!). They grow to 6” tall at best. You’ll never see them bloom like the one plant of Dianthus plumarius ‘Pinkerton.” Nowadays, I’m afraid a lot of folks think I’m delusional when I tell them how much I love my Dianthus. Our beloved “Pinks,” (Dianthus plumarius and D. gratianopolitanus) are one of the oldest of all cultivated perennial plants and they are in danger of becoming so obscure and hard to find that they may soon be banished to garden memory oblivion. It makes me sad that up and coming young gardeners may never discover how great they are.

Lastly, a great garden includes plants of varying heights, forms and textures, of course. But with these “box store” offerings, everything ends up being the same size! Well, that’s not very fun. And I don’t think it’s as aesthetically pleasing – or rewarding enough – to really draw folks into the wonders of gardening.

37 Responses to “Dwarf Madness!”

  1. Alison May 20, 2011 at 7:46 pm #

    Totally agree with you about dwarf plants- I am not a fan of their squatness!

  2. trey May 20, 2011 at 8:50 pm #

    I think the trend started when companies produced them and people started demanding the flowers be blooming when they are purchased. Instant gratification. Often that results in growers producing these dwarf varieties simply so they sell. What happens after, well you have described in your “rant”. Blah! When I started in the biz some 30 years ago flowers we’re always sold young, and mostly never in bloom. It was known they we’re healthier and more vigorous that way. Thank goodness for Annie’s. One of a kind.

  3. Scott Hokunson May 20, 2011 at 9:21 pm #

    Amen, bring back the tall drama in our gardens!

  4. Edward Knapton May 20, 2011 at 9:36 pm #

    I have been growing flowers for 35 years or so and the public as far as I can remember always wanted plants in bloom. The reason we have small plant is that the large growers can squeeze more plants per square foot in the greenhouse. They would love it it they could sell plants that did not have flowers on them. Less shipping problems less disease problems, shorter crop cycles. If you look at numbers and not dollars they produce probably 75% of the bedding plants in the US. The breeders have specifically breed plants that are small. Perhaps I am wrong but if a plant is genetically small – it usually has less growing ability – thus the blah effect consumers get when they plant the plants. Even Proven Winners has genetically small plants.

  5. Don Shor May 20, 2011 at 9:38 pm #

    Stock! Blooming in 12-count six-packs! ‘nuf said.

  6. Kat May 20, 2011 at 9:56 pm #

    How about when growers go even further and use so much growth retardant on the poor plants they don’t even grow beyond their pot size stage? I blame those instant makeover garden shows. Plop in some full bloom color on a weekend and your done. Instant garden. Call it outdoor decorating if you want, but a real garden takes time. And it takes some planning and effort too. I personally cherish the customers that are willing to make the effort. I know that their rewards will be tenfold.

  7. Debbi May 20, 2011 at 10:25 pm #

    I thought I was going crazy. All of the above were favorites of mine when I first started gardening as a young teen. Now years later I wondered if I had imagined how beautiful they once were. Now I know I’m not losing my mind and what has really happened to these standards…what a shame. Isn’t there room for both???

  8. Fred Hoffman May 20, 2011 at 10:44 pm #

    Those new hybrid varieties are thwarting your efforts to bring bees to your yard. As the Xerces Society (xerces.org) explains, Scent is another attractant used by plants to attract bees. Flowers secrete scents from glands which are usually found on the petals.Avoid horticultural plants that are described as “double.” This usually means that the plant has been selected to develop extra petals instead of anthers. So there will be little or no pollen available for bees. All bees need pollen as food for their offspring, and will not be attracted to double flowers unless they happen to produce lots of nectar. Marigolds, mums, (unless early varieties) many roses will attract few bees species unless you plant the single varieties. Bees love Cosmos, Zinnia, and Dahlia (remember, not doubles) Plants in the mint family, especially Rosemary, are generally good choices. Sunflowers attract lots of native bees. The pollen less or ornamental varieties have only nectar rewards. These were developed because they are less messy when put in vases since the flowers don’t drop pollen everywhere. Planting sunflower varieties with pollen will attract more bees. And, NATIVE PLANTS ARE FOUR TIME MORE ATTRACTIVE TO NATIVE BEES THAN EXOTIC FLOWERS. HEIRLOOM VARIETIES OF HERBS AND PERENNIALS CAN ALSO PROVIDE GOOD FORAGING FOR BEES. Sorry, didn’t mean to yell. Yes I did.

    • EmmaC May 23, 2011 at 9:48 pm #

      LOL! I loved your last sentence. Please do keep YELLING! The world needs more people yelling about this stuff.

  9. Margery May 20, 2011 at 11:54 pm #

    Right on—I totally agree with your take on the ugly plants out there in nurseries. At Annie’s I never see boring plants!

  10. dogsinthegarden May 21, 2011 at 12:31 am #

    Not only does the dwarfism make me nutty, it’s this whole new retail approach of selling large pots with overgrown (and blooming) plants — in my case, because I can’t FIT these overgrown plants into my rocky garden bed without hurting myself (bad back). Give me our strong, vital older variety cottage garden plants.

    Speaking of which, what about those really UGLY dwarf foxgloves? Or hollyhocks? Yuck.

  11. Julie May 21, 2011 at 1:11 am #

    Thank you! Thought it was just me last year when I bought a six pack of coleus and they didn’t grow much past my ankle. Where are the “old ones” that grew to my knees? And they’ve hybrid-ed them to the point that the leaves are so large that they look weird. Our very own Dallas Arboretum was just bemoaning that it’s almost impossible to get a rain lily in the trade because, you know, it’s probably won’t be in bloom at the store and thus won’t sell. While we’re ranting, I’m sick of
    super-super-size blooms on the new stuff. It just ain’t right.

  12. Sarah K Owen May 21, 2011 at 1:15 am #

    Thank you for confirming what I have been stubbornly clinging to all these years! I have been addicted to dianthus plumaris for decades, and have found ways to have it, regardless of its scarcity. So may interesting posts here, and the topic is my favorite! We have quite a bit of mint, which attracts hordes of bees, as does rosemary. And the common sunflower, which reseeds every year in our garden is another beekeeper!

  13. Martha/all the dirt May 21, 2011 at 1:33 am #

    My gardens are pretty much a mess. Tall plants growing helter skelter with medium and short ones. And adding to the mess are bees, butterflies, moths, skippers and other fying friends. It is never tidy even when the weeding is done.
    It makes me happy beyond belief.

  14. Ian May 21, 2011 at 1:49 am #

    Great post! I couldn’t agree more! I would even extend this to woody plants. Not that too many dwarf types are bred, (well sometimes), but somehow I think mainstream gardening culture teaches people to have this subconscious fear of larger shrubs and trees. Am I nuts? Probably. But what else is new. And, Fred, preach it man!!!

  15. Anjil May 21, 2011 at 2:18 am #

    That is beautiful, Annie. And yes, the corps are doing it with food, with flowers, with everything that is (or was) beloved, true and real.

    Thank you for ranting. And thank you on behalf of the birds, bees & butterflies toooo !!!


  16. Sue Langley May 21, 2011 at 4:27 am #

    Thanks, Annie, for this! When I was a beginning gardener, I didn’t know what any flower looked like. I actully enjoyed buying six paks of plants NOT in bloom (which I could do back in the when) so I could be surprised when they did bloom. I have always sought out the smaller nurseries because the people there are more knowledgeable. This is another reasons to avoid big retail stores.

  17. Debbie Platt May 21, 2011 at 5:39 am #

    YES!!! I am sooo glad that you agree that the squaty sunflowers are not a good thing!!! Especially pollenless!!! What about the Birds and the Bees!!! I am so happy you posted this article!!!

  18. Jill May 21, 2011 at 8:50 am #

    I’m with you!

  19. stone May 21, 2011 at 3:15 pm #

    Bedding plants… Yuck!
    I recently went on a secret garden tour, and noticed that most of the “gardens” seemed freshly decanted… Not my idea of gardening…
    Show me a bed that looks like God had a hand…
    Those instant garden beds? I call that flower arranging…. not gardening.
    And those annuals sold in bloom? already through…

    But my attitude toward gardening wouldn’t move plants out the door every few months, the way those instant gardens do… So…
    Those dwarf plants give you something to put in those porch rail planters…. If you can figure out how to keep them from drying out…

  20. Patty Hicks May 21, 2011 at 3:54 pm #

    Preach it girlfriend and AMEN! Thank you for the honest well spoken rant!

    I worked at retail garden centers for a few years and for the life of me it always always bothered me too! Short plants with HUGE flowers! What is up with that! They looked all wrong. People somehow get this perverted idea that things stay tiny and it has nothing to do with creating beautiful gardens. Makes me crazy. I absolutely love your photo illustrations. I’ll be sharing your post with a lot of folks. Keep up the good work and keep speaking your mind!

  21. Julia Regan May 22, 2011 at 1:39 am #

    I have fought this loss of fragrance especialy for over 20 years by buying from companies that have the real thing and the size issue came a little later I think and once again I haVe bought standard sized plants and have gotten some garden centers to order the old fashioned ones for me.It makes me sick and angry that box stores hve done this but they have been in cahouts with seed companies who want seeds not to reproduce so you must buy new ones every year to increase their profits and lastly the size issue I think has been encourages by the big landscapers who want uniformity. WHAT A SAD WORLD IT WILL BE IF THEY WIN AND INDIVIDUALITY LEAVES OUR GARDENS AS WELL AS US AS PEOPLE !!

  22. Carla Riggs May 22, 2011 at 9:20 pm #

    I’ve been complaining about this for years… it’s even hard to purchase seed for regular sized plants now! I miss my tall Matthiola, so enchantingly fragrant. And the 5′ tall delphiniums the hummingbirds love?
    Bah, humbug on these tiny midgets.
    Thank you for objecting to this craziness.

  23. rosekraft May 23, 2011 at 6:25 pm #

    Wholesale nurseries force bromeliads into premature bloom as a matter of course – essentially dooming them to an early demise as all their energy is diverted into flowering.
    Especially sad for a plant family that, when grown with a little care, can have multiple generations spilling out of a single pot.

  24. Sue Barnett May 23, 2011 at 6:53 pm #

    Thank you Annie for keeping these plants from dying out!

    I totally agree. There are no boring box store dwarf plants in my garden and I have to really look around to find the full size ones.

    There is a nursery called Green Acres in Roseville, CA where I live, and because they have a decent variety there (including a reasonable selection of non-dwarfed plants), they are jam packed with customers every weekend. You may want to condsider selling to them since they are an easy shipping distance from Richmond. Keep up the good fight!

    Another pick I have is the proliferation of all these garden soil mixes loaded with enough chemical fertilizer to burn your plants and/or Roundup! It’s hard to find just plain potting mix soil anymore. All this chemical soil takes the “gardening out of gardening”. Kind of scary!

  25. EmmaC May 23, 2011 at 9:45 pm #

    I’m learning so much as a young gardener. I started out with an interest in heirloom veggies and one day Annie’s Annuals catalogue was in my mailbox! What a TREASURE! I fell in love immediately. I had no idea so many heirloom flowers existed that have now been altered into flowers far less appealing. It’s just like what they did to that poor Red delicious apple. Anyway, I have a great love of bees,butterflies, and birds and wanted to attract them and give them what they really need. I’ve been purchasing from Annie’s annuals but as they do not grow seeds if anyone is interested in heirloom annual and perennial seed as well as veggies, a GREAT place is Baker creek catalogue. They have a fantastic variety and a beautiful catalogue. Though not quite as wonderful as Annie’s. Check them out. They have most of the flower seeds Annie mentioned in this article.

    • EmmaC May 23, 2011 at 9:46 pm #

      I meant as they do not SELL seeds! obviously they are growing seeds. DUH

    • EmmaC May 23, 2011 at 9:47 pm #

      Oops forgot to provide a link.

  26. anniesannuals May 23, 2011 at 10:02 pm #

    Thank you everyone , for all your awesome comments !
    to be continued…

    • Julie Dryden-Brown May 24, 2011 at 5:47 pm #

      For all the reasons detailed above I almost exclusively buy Annie’s Annuals from my local retail nursery. My Annie’s Agrostemma are in their fifth year, having self-sown faithfully despite heavy clay and crowded conditions. Last year I thought would be their last and didn’t notice this year’s crop until it bloomed, a tall and silky counterpoint to Cistus ‘Blanche’. Thanks for all the beauty, Annie!

  27. Gwen Schroeder June 5, 2011 at 7:55 pm #

    After hearing about drawfing on Farmer Fred last Sunday, I went to Home Depot and requested a refund for the plants I purchased in March. Explanning they had got me two years in arow. Alyssum being taller then the Impatiences after two months. Not being able to see them for the Alyssum. They gave me a refund. Then I went to their Facebook page and commented on this….Lets stop this madness.

  28. Sue Barnett July 25, 2014 at 10:00 am #

    Not only that, but the Box stores also sell soil with both fertilizer and roundup in it to go with the boinked plants! People are spoiled rotten nowadays and expect total fingertip convenience with everything. If they can poison the heck out of their soil to they don’t have to bend their big fat bodies over to pull a weed, that’s all to the good as far as they are concerned. – Also, these Box stores WANT the plants to die in a few weeks so you have to keep coming back to buy more!


  1. Rant on Annie! « The Blogging Nurseryman by Trey Pitsenberger - May 20, 2011

    […] fantastic blog post by Annie of Annie’s Annuals. When I read stuff like this it makes me proud to be an independent nurseryman. Thank goodness […]

  2. The box stores are breeding plants for easier shipping » The Blogging Nurseryman by Trey Pitsenberger - May 24, 2011

    […] last post was a link to Annie of Annie’s Annuals and her most excellent rant, “Dwarf Madness”. It concerns some breeders, and their mad science. It seems they are breeding plants to flower […]

  3. Big, Unruly Plants: The Gardener’s Deepest Fear? « THE DESERT NORTHWEST [blog] - September 21, 2011

    […] and cute as possible and bloom in a pot. Along a similar vein, Annie’s Annuals blog – and this is a great read I highly recommend – discusses what we might call “boink-ism” to describe sorry, overbred dwarf versions of […]

  4. Annuals: A Major Waste of Time, Effort, and Resources??? « THE DESERT NORTHWEST [blog] - November 11, 2011

    […] at all, and show gardeners how to do likewise. The problem is that the sort of “boink-ism” that Annie’s Annuals blogged about has infiltrated every area of society, it seems. People, and especially new gardeners, don’t […]

  5. Does it Matter Where You Buy Your Plants? | Sorticulturist - May 10, 2013

    […] post from Annie’s Annuals inspired this post. I love old-styled dianthus. Increasingly, inferior plants have been making it […]

Leave a Reply to Sue Langley Cancel reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s

%d bloggers like this: