Gardening in Small Spaces

Everyone defines a “small garden” differently. To someone living in the country, a small
garden might anything under half an acre. To a city dweller, a patio, balcony,
or planting strip by the front door is a small garden. And even someone living on a typical
suburban lot might only devote a small patch of ground to their garden, while
the rest of the land is used for lawn, decks, parking, play equipment, sheds,
and so forth.

No matter
what your small garden looks like, you’ve probably faced these challenges: How can I make a small garden feel
natural? How can I attract
wildlife? And how can I make a small
garden seem full, lush, and mature?

Winter is the perfect time to
redesign a garden, whether it’s large or small. You can move plants around this
time of year, make divisions, and take cuttings, then let the rainy winter
weather give the garden the deep soaking it needs to get reestablished. So here
are my suggestions for creating something extraordinary in a small space.

Think Big. Don’t assume that
having a small garden means that you should fill it with small plants. Skip the
pansies, primroses, and impatiens. These flowers only grow to about six inches
tall and will yield a miniature garden, the sort of thing you stand over and
look down upon. Remember that a garden is more than a patch of dirt to be
filled—a garden includes the airspace above that patch of dirt. Go for tall
plants that will make a statement.

I particularly like Verbena
, a tall purple verbena with stiff, narrow stems and clusters of
deep purple flowers. It’s a striking, architectural plant that is light and
airy, so it won’t conceal what’s behind it the way a large shrub might. It also
attracts butterflies and is easy to propagate.

A friend of mine planted an
enormous salvia, S. gesneriiflora “Tequila” in her small patio garden.
It grows to over six feet tall, sports deep red trumpet-shaped blossoms almost
year-round, and is a magnet for hummingbirds. Choosing one large, striking plant
to dominate a small space works well—as long as it’s a plant that you genuinely

I’ve also seen small spaces filled
with sunflowers and hollyhocks. One disadvantage to this planting scheme is
that it peaks in summer and dies off in winter. But if your goal is a brilliant
summer display, go for enormous sunflowers like “Giant Greystripe,” or maybe
the perennial Maximilian sunflower, and hollyhocks in shades of deep red and
purple. It’ll knock your socks off, and the seeds will draw birds to your garden
in the fall.

Striking Color Combinations. One
drawback to a small space is that you do have to make some choices—there just
isn’t room to plant everything. A carefully chosen color scheme can really make
an impact in a small space. Also, the color of the foliage matters more than it
might in a larger garden where the eye has more to take in. Consider silver
foliage—artemisia, lavender, or artichokes—with deep purple flowers. Or try
chartreuse foliage—helichrysum ‘Limelight’, or geranium ‘Ann Folkard’—with
magenta flowers. Bronze foliage such as canna, some of the heucheras, and some
of the ornamental grasses, look great with orange flowers. These color schemes
are too limited to carry out on a large scale, but they can look great around a
patio or a narrow planting strip.

Vertical Integration. Use
tall structures like an arbor, a lattice, or a sculpture to bring height and
intimacy to a small garden. Climbing roses, flowering vines, and annuals like
scarlet runner beans or sweet peas can enhance a small garden without taking up
too much space on the ground, as long as they’re given something to climb. And
it doesn’t have to be expensive—I’ve seen an old ladder, a bamboo teepee, and
even rusted rebar fashioned into a structure for plants to climb.

Form Over Function. Small
gardens are a great place to try out a formal garden, the sort of thing that
would be too much labor on a grander scale. Plant in stripes, squares,
triangles, or Celtic knots. Get a book on formal European gardens and find just
one bed that you can replicate. Consider a formal herb garden edged in lamb’s
ears and filled with tidy rows of sage, thyme, chives, and parsley. Add tulips
and fall crocuses at neatly-spaced intervals between the plants so you’ll have
some variety in spring and fall.

Get Wild. Even a small
garden can be a haven for birds and butterflies. I particularly like Noël
Kingsbury’s book Natural Gardening in Small Spaces; it’s packed with
ideas for creating meadows, bogs, and habitats of all kinds. Although his idea
of a small space is a little different from mine, most of his designs can be
replicated on a tiny scale. He includes a great section on establishing a
meadow, which is never easy in a large area where weeds and existing grasses
can out-compete wildflowers. But on a smaller scale, it’s easier to keep on top
of weeds during the first few years while native grasses and flowers take over.
Also, if you’re after something low-maintenance, a water-wise perennial garden
of California natives like ceanothus, Cleveland sage, and mimulus works well on
any scale.

Just Add Water. A small garden is the perfect place for
a fountain. With so much less space to
manage, you might consider splurging a little on the fountain of your
dreams. Look for something that matches
the style of your home and the materials—brick, stone, or wood—that make up the
paths and entryways around the garden. A surprising variety of plants will grown in damp spots around or in a
pond or fountain. Sedges and rushes provide seeds and nesting materials, irises
add color, and black-eyed Susan (Rudbeckia hirta) does surprisingly well
in damp soil, attracting butterflies while it’s in bloom and birds in fall who
crave the seeds. Adding a few large,
flat stones can attract newts, frogs, and other reptiles.

Use Containers Wisely. The temptation in a small garden is to fill
the space with small pots of annuals like pansies. But small pots dry out quickly, and can make a small space look
cluttered, and therefore even smaller. Instead, choose two or three large pots, and remember that they don’t
just have to go on the patio. Think
about how an enormous, cobalt blue glazed pot would look in the garden itself,
lending its height and elegance to whatever you choose to plant in it. Even something as simple as a large,
ornamental grass would look stunning in this setting. Hollowed-out tree stumps, moss-covered concrete planters, and
even old bathtubs can make a statement in a compact garden.

Create a little privacy—for
. Even a small garden can
provide habitat for nesting birds, but try to plan your space in such a way
that wildlife can have a little privacy from high-traffic areas. Place your
seating area near the door, and consider how your daily routines—checking the
mail, taking out the garbage—might lead you back and forth across the
garden. Then set up nesting boxes and
birdfeeders in the quietest corner of the garden, where they will be safe
coming and going. If it’s pollinators
your garden needs, you might even consider creating a habitat for orchard mason
bees and other solitary forager bees. These bees rarely sting, are fascinating to watch, and because their
populations are on the decline nationwide, you’ll be doing a good thing for the
environment by giving them a place to live. Bee boxes are available at most good bird and wildlife supply stores.

Go Green. A small garden is the perfect place to go
organic if you haven’t already. With
less space to weed, you can eliminate herbicides and weed by hand. (hint: pour boiling water—maybe water left over after cooking pasta—on weeds
growing through cracks in the sidewalk.) Use balanced, organic fertilizers and aged compost to keep plants
fed. Choose plants that are not as
vulnerable to attacks by insects—a good native plant nursery can help here—and
if you must use pest control, most garden centers offer a variety of “green”
alternatives, like a pet-safe snail bait, horticultural oil, and insecticidal

Dirt, Dirt, and More Dirt. The
best thing you can do to get a small garden off to a good start is to improve
the soil. Patio gardens and sidewalk strips may be filled with topsoil that was
brought in when your home was built. That kind of soil is not likely to be high
in nutrients, and if you’re packing a large number of plants into a small space,
you’ll need good soil to help the garden reach its potential. Dig out the first
foot or two of soil and mix it well with the best compost you can buy. Add
another thick layer at the base of your plants each fall. And encourage your
plants to grow together to form a canopy that covers the soil, which will help
preserve moisture, suppress weeds, and prevent runoff.

Make It Count. There’s no
room in a small garden for runners-up, for plants you merely tolerate.
Everything counts—every leaf and flower should move you. So above all, plant
what you love.