Top Tips for Designing a Small Garden

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Sometimes, in the life of a gardener, a time comes to think about gardening in a smaller space.

Often this comes about from a decision to move to a smaller and more economical house later in life (the dreaded downsizing), but sometimes from other factors. In my case, a job change means I now divide my working time between Philadelphia and Denver, and this has given me the chance to design a small garden for a smaller house in Denver.

“We also have two other pots of flowers on the deck: one is a large spicy purple geranium and the other is a large traditional red geranium.”

It is one of those no-maintenance “patio homes”, with only a few tiny planting areas, and these you can either leave to the homeowners’ association to maintain, or you can care for them yourself.  Of course, I want to plant them, and my thinking about this interesting but very limited opportunity may be expressed in three simple rules: plan carefully, exploit all available space and choose plants wisely.  Those are the main rules and the planning itself can be divided into four activities that are logical and focused.

First, even before turning to the garden, think about what non-garden spaces can be available to the gardener.

Indoor spaces can provide a wide world of planting opportunities, from small and useful herb gardens in a sunny kitchen window, to ambitious indoor container gardening that will allow the gardener lots of room for plants and flowers.

Other members of the household have a shocking way of interfering in decisions of this kind, making cross and insinuating remarks and so on. But we gardeners have to persevere despite all manner of adversity.

Another non-garden space that can be colonized for the garden is the humble driveway, where you can install pots with interesting plants to break up the hard lines of concrete and garage doors. We used two large red pots filled with bushy dwarf Alberta spruces, fringed with pink geraniums and trailers of variegated ivy.  On the small front porch, really only a stoop, we have an urn planted with a tall, columnar abor vitae, strung with fairy lights to welcome guests.

Clematis works well in a small garden. They take up hardly any space, provide vertical interest and bloom a long time.

Decks and patios are also great non-garden spaces that should be examined for garden design potential. Plantings there integrate these structures with the garden and create a pleasant transition to the garden and yard beyond. Our deck is small, but we found room for two large and summery potted palms, a table-top pot with a rosemary topiary growing in it and a small water feature for its refreshing sound and movement. We also have two other pots of flowers on the deck: one is a large spicy purple geranium and the other is a large traditional red geranium.

All these potted plants will move indoors when the cold weather comes, providing the gardener with endless fun and pottering about during the winter months, and seriously annoying all the other inhabitants of the household.

Second, walk around your house and take a thoughtful survey of the structure of your yard and potential garden.

Pay special attention to the existing hardscape, structures and the bones of the garden.  Notice the views into and from each space, its likely micro-climate the quality of light that falls on it.

Notice the existing trees, large shrubs and terrain features that you will probably have to live with and work around.  The most notable thing about our site is that it is on the shore of a small lake, which is a delightful location that makes almost any garden design choice look good, and it has several half-grown ponderosas.

There also is a medium-sized ginnala maple on the property that is charming without overwhelming the small space.  The site has several venerable boulders, whose craggy presence will give the garden a rocky definition; lush and beautiful garden plantings always look well against severe hardscape features of this kind.  We have one other really lucky feature nearby, just off our property but forming a lovely borrowed view.  This is a small hillside covered in wild meadow grass that bristles with dozens of spears of two great “weeds” that look fantastic together: mulleins with their tiny yellow flowers, and thistles with their prickly purple flowers.

We have added a few non-plant items to give gardening interest. We have three birdbaths that we keep clean and reliably full of water.  These are visited not just by the birdlife that we like to watch – bluebirds and humming birds are very numerous and are great favorites of ours – but also all the bees and astonishing blue dragon flies that are looking for a safe place to drink in our hot summers.

We found a big tree stump and an unusual piece of driftwood that we have stuck in the garden to give it a rugged western look; such found objects cost nothing and give a lot of character to planted spaces.  We also have a small statue of St. Francis that we like to have in the garden, and he stands in front of a large and very unusual looking “scholar’s rock”, something borrowed from Asian garden design, that we have lugged from house to house for many years.

Some gardeners disdain Shasta daisies because they are thought common and too easy to grow, but I like them for those very reasons and because their fresh, clean white is a cool foil in the over-heated midsummer garden.

Third, think carefully about each existing plant and whether it is earning its place in your garden.

You don’t have to keep it just because it is living there, you know.  Gardeners are editors, but with summary powers of life and death; don’t be afraid of your power – use it.  We have several existing large shrubs have to be taken into account, and luckily I like them both: redtwig dogwoods and white-flowered potentillas.  Also some very large knockout roses, the kind that begin a deep red and then fade to a reddish pink.

Next to them we planted a large iceberg rose, for its pure white blooms.  Here and there are some good strong accents of ornamental grasses that give some nice height and a natural texture to the garden, and echo the grasses that grow in the more wild part of the nearby landscape.  Some of the smaller grasses don’t add much character and we think they have to come out.

“Also some very large knockout roses, the kind that begin a deep red and then fade to a reddish pink. Next to them we planted a large iceberg rose, for its pure white blooms.”

Fourth, and this is the really fun part, think of the new plants you will want to include.

I usually start with irises, which I have been growing and collecting since I was a boy.  I moved about a dozen of my favorites to this small garden, and will stick them in wherever they will fit.  Over the years, as I divide them, they will add more color to the mix.  I like a class of plants that produce a soft purple haze, but they are also hardy, drought tolerant and long blooming: French lavender, Russian sage, catmint, purple coneflowers and sage.  They can go in all over the place and provide a unifying, soothing palette.  For herbs I am not very particular, except that I must have basil for fresh pesto and also chives for soups and salads.  We added two clear pink knockout roses near the reds and whites, and are planting a bunch of stachys in amongst them, for their beautiful soft gray leaves and their harmonizing flowers in mild purple.

Lavender is a very useful creature in the garden. It blooms for a long time, is hardy and tolerates drought, and its soothing purple harmonizes many color schemes.

For shadier areas on the north side of the house and under trees, I am using a combination of plants that are appropriate for this altitude but which do flower well in partial shade: blue and purple lupines, pink and white foxgloves, blue and white columbines and “Blue Angel” hostas.

In one planting area in front of a big boulder, I am planning a vignette of three prickly plants with gray-blue coloring and exotic purple flowers: a cardoon, one or two sea hollies and two or three Russian sages.  And don’t forget to think about height and growing upward into the third dimension. This is a great tactic for small gardens. We have two grapevines that are meant to grow up and span between two columns that support the deck, and they are each intertwined with a dark purple clematis. This will produce a lot of visual impact while only taking up one or two square feet of garden with their footprint.

We also have a few ivy plants growing up an ornate metal tuteur and a honeysuckle growing up a frame of wooden stakes.  On the hottest corner of the house, in blazing sun for most of the day, we are training a trumpet vine to grow up the stucco, where it will bloom in pale yellow trumpets.

The powdery blue blooms of the sea holly (or eryngo) lasts most of the summer and its spiky flowers provide bold interest in the garden.

Other plants I am going to include a couple “Shasta” daisies, as I think white always perks up a garden, especially the white flowers that bloom in the heat of midsummer.  I am also using clumps of eulalia grass for its sharp leaves and interestingly striped coloring.

And I can’t resist a handful of screaming orange poppies for no better a reason than that they are a tradition in my gardens and their electric color enlivens the late spring garden right about the time the irises are blooming.  It’s madness, I know, but we gardeners are an interesting blend of madness and tradition, are we not?  Another plant that I am besotted by and am going to make room for is one big hydrangea.  Its out-sized blue and white flowers will fit in better than the screaming orange poppies and its habit of blooming cheerfully for weeks in the heat of summer (as long as you don’t let it dry out) more than makes up for the room it takes up, in my opinion.

David Jensen writes the popular American blog “The Garden Interior,” which chronicles his garden in southern New Jersey. Please visit at You can follow David Jensen on Twitter at @GardenInterior.