Small gardens are places of great opportunity, where design and smart plant choices can have a big impact. Even in a limited space, there's plenty of room to grow.
Think of a small garden as a chance to make a grand design in miniature, says Richard Woldorsky, a landscape designer at Bachman's Landscaping and Garden Services in Minneapolis. In gardens of any size, it's important to decide how you want to use the space -- and in a small garden, that's even truer because you simply have less space to work with. You can still have a dining area, a spot to hang a hammock, and a pretty flower garden, but you'll have to be creative to fit them all in. Some areas may have to serve more than one function. Above all, "You want to maximize every bit of space -- the walls, the edges and the base material," Woldorsky says.
Elizabeth Przygoda-Montgomery, a landscape designer and owner of Boxhill Design in Tucson, Arizona, says "there's no right or wrong" in small garden design. She looks for design cues in the architecture of the house, following its strong, straight lines out into the garden and picking up on the materials and colors in a home to make the garden an extension of the living space. Like Woldorsky, she emphasizes to clients the importance of making every inch count. "It can be fun," she says. Even a garden as long and skinny as a bowling alley can be "purposeful and artistic and striking, with a wave of color," Przygoda-Montgomery says.
If you're not sure where to start, take a look at circulation patterns through your garden. The path from the back door should lead gracefully through the garden to flower beds, a patio or a dining area. Whether the walks are straight or curved, the path should feel comfortable and natural. If you have a glorious specimen tree -- perhaps a crab apple, dogwood or Japanese maple -- you might think of it as a destination and plan the rest of your garden accordingly, Woldorsky suggests.
Putting plants to work is one of the secrets of success in small gardens. Slender vertical plants, such as upright hollies, hornbeams or arborvitaes, can frame views or be used as screens. Vertical plants also draw your eye up and keep the space from feeling too confining. If you don't have room for trees, consider building a cozy pergola, which will create shade for a seating area and will never outgrow its space. You can grow vines or roses up the side of it, giving your eye and the whole space a lift.
Shrubs will give the garden plantings interest, substance and depth, but look for small-scale choices, whether you favor evergreens or flowering shrubs. More is not necessarily better -- in a limited space, you're better off with a couple of well-chosen specimens, perhaps planted around the perimeter of the garden. Even if your garden is informal, imposing discipline and maintaining order will make the space more attractive and more functional.
Make flowers part of your plan, too, Woldorsky says. Flowers are bright and ever changing, and they really draw you outside. They also attract birds and butterflies, which make any garden more lively and beautiful.
If you don't have room for a flower bed, you can do a lot with flowerpots. Containers tend to serve as important sculptural elements in small gardens: They make emphatic punctuation marks at the base of the stairs, along the edge of a patio or at the bottom of a path. Go for big flowerpots, Przygoda-Montgomery says. One large pot on either side of a path has more impact than half a dozen smaller containers. Plants thrive in bigger pots and are easier to take care of, and you won't be tripping over them.
Successful small gardens depend on thoughtful decisions. In some ways, they're easier to design than larger properties because some possibilities are ruled out, Przygoda-Montgomery says. You can't count on sweeping views, but you can create striking vignettes. A pond is probably out of the question, but you could try a small fountain. "Less really is more," she says. "If you have a small space and it's done right, it's really strong." Focus your ideas, choose plants that fit the scale of your space and be sure to edit unnecessary clutter. In a small garden, details aren't lost -- they sparkle.
-- Independent garden shops often offer design services for gardens of every size and style. Bachman's Landscaping and Garden Services in Minneapolis (bachmanslandscaping.com) has a group of staff designers, including Richard Woldorsky.
-- Elizabeth Przygoda-Montgomery is a landscape designer and owner of Boxhill Design (shopboxhill.com) in Tucson, Arizona. The shop specializes in stylish products for outdoor living, including dual-purpose furniture just right for small gardens.