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Garden Design for Small Spaces

How Does Designing a Small Garden Differ from Designing a Large Garden?


Selecting Plants for a Small Garden

This small garden works because it limits the colors to primarily yellow and blue. There's lots of catmint and salvia and shrubs with gold leaves that add color and structure all season.

Photo: © Marie Iannotti

Gardening in small spaces is generally overlooked in garden design manuals. Garden design is often presented as a list of principles or rules, and there is value in the key elements of garden design, but they are too often illustrated on a grand scale. Most of us do not have acres of land on which to carefully calculate the width versus length of our perennial borders. Many of us don’t have the time or the inclination to undertake the maintenance these acres of gardens would need.

Gardening in a small space has its limits, but it need not be limiting. In a small garden, the gardener can pay attention to detail. You can keep on top of maintenance, while still having time to sit and enjoy your small garden. In fact, many small space gardens are designed around entertaining and sitting areas, rather then the need to nurture plants.

Whatever your reasons for having a small garden, there is no reason it cannot be a well designed show stopper. Virtually any plant or garden style can be worked into a small garden space. The principles of good garden design still apply, but you’ll need to tweak them slightly.

Small Garden Design Challenges

  1. The entire garden can be viewed as a whole. Some small garden spaces will be able to accommodate a hidden turn around a path or even be divided into garden rooms, but for the most part, small gardens can be taken in whole, in one look. This means that, more than ever, your garden will be viewed as a composition.

  2. Limited space means you are going to have to make choices. You won't be able to grow every plant you love. You will need to curb your inclination to buy a plant on impulse and assume you'll find a place for it.

  3. Color should also be limited, to give your small garden cohesion. Less is more. Cooler colors will make the garden appear larger and give the garden a feeling of depth. You can compensate for the limited color palette with a variety of textures. The textural contrast will help blend the various plants and allow the garden to flow.

  4. Every plant or feature will need to serve a purpose. There is no room for wasted space or under-performing plants. Plants should offer at least two seasons of interest.

Small Garden Bonuses

  1. Design can be easier when you can take in the whole picture at once.

  2. It takes less plants to make a dramatic effect.

  3. Gardeners get to know every space and plant in a small garden. Any plant that is out of place or not thriving can be spotted and corrected quickly.

  4. Small gardens lend themselves to being enclosed. You may not want to install a stone wall, but a flowering or evergreen hedge will give the illusion of a secret garden. A simple low boxwood edge transforms a small garden into a formal garden. Hardscaping and fencing enclose and define a space for entertaining or children's play.

A small space garden lends itself to personal expression. Smaller gardens are extensions of your home and speak volumes about the sensibilities and tastes of the gardener. And if those tastes and sensibilities should change, it's much easier to rework a small garden.

Have a peek at this small garden photo gallery and see how varied small spaces can be.

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