Solid Ideas for a Smaller Garden

By George Graine, Fairfax Master Gardener
“The tiniest garden is often the loveliest”
—Vita Sackville-West

Less Is More BookIf you are considering downsizing your home, this will probably mean less yard work. If you desire to mow less lawn or even eliminate the lawn, this too means less yard work and maintenance. And if this is your goal then a new book, “The Less Is More Garden: Big Ideas for Designing Your Small Yard” by Susan Morrison (Timber Press, 2018), is the right tonic to avoid a hortache. Here you will find a cornucopia of ideas that are bound to change the way you may have gardened in the past. Reading garden designer Morrison’s book, you will surely find inspiration as well as discover how to enhance a small-sized garden. Her book shows how a small space can yield a big solution. In other words, less is more, plus you can be assured of her practical and helpful design ideas. What does the author mean by “small” in the world of landscape design? She defines this as a quarter acre or less including the house footprint. To borrow from the book preface, the-less-is-more garden approach means:

  • Less space, more enjoyment
  • Less effort, more beauty
  • Less maintenance, more relaxation
  • Less gardening-by-the-numbers, more YOU

There is no right or wrong way to garden! The garden you want is one that you can enjoy because it is designed to maximize the available space relative to your lifestyle needs. Your garden should make sense for you and your family and visiting friends. Think in terms of your needs rather than by being bound to a specific and detailed conventional design from a landscaper’s text book.

To be clear, getting serious about design can be confusing and even intimidating. Take a deep breath as you wonder and then consider, in a logical manner, the practical aspects of a garden that will reflect your needs. Morrison makes an important point regarding three key factors. These include (1) scale and proportion in order to make the available space feel balanced, (2) circulation, meaning how folks will maneuver in the space and (3) comfort. These three factors are important considerations and the book discusses them in greater detail using text and color photos for all of the points being made.

Whereas some gardens may look like calendar art, know that your garden is where you want to spend time so that any design you come up with should keep that in mind as a positive thought. To help in this regard, Morrison includes four design templates with extensive explanations that explore how and why good design will enhance your outdoor living space for relaxing, eating and entertaining. Note that any garden design also needs to include important practical considerations, for example, where to keep (hide) the trash can, recycle bin, BBQ grill, air conditioning unit and shed for a mower and garden tools. All should be included in the design development process. Whereas the templates were designed for an entirely new installation, you may want to explore the invaluable section that analyzes how an existing garden can be improved. Of course, the templates noted above can serve as an excellent think piece because the ideas presented along with the color photos provide many principles of good design. By the way, if you have not strolled through a full service garden center recently, you are in for a big surprise. Growers and plant propagators have developed many new plants that will add texture, color, variety and more to an existing landscape. For example, easy-to-care-for weeping ornamental trees, various-sized ornamental grasses (that you do not mow) and the plant family du jour — succulents (beyond the familiar hens and chicks) — will provide an exciting new look with minimum maintenance.

A small garden can have a big impact! If you think like a magician, you should realize that the illusion of space is paramount. You will want to deflect a hemmed-in feeling of a small space. As an example, a mirror hung over a fireplace in a living room is a technique often used by interior designers to open up the room — ergo, an illusion. To carry out the idea of garden illusion, you should plant in an unexpected space. Do this so that the eye does not take in the entire garden all at the same time. Nooks and crannies need not only apply to an English muffin. Here is another idea. As you round the bend, suddenly you come upon a focal point. What’s there? This could be an unusual plant, container, sculpture or disappearing water feature (that birds love). The sense of discovery is also part of the fun of gardening.

Another illusionary approach to expand the small garden is to turn a wall or fence into living art, i.e., a vertical planting space. Many climber and trellis plants are available in addition to the ubiquitous clematis. By the way, some vegetables such as string beans and cucumbers have a climbing habit and you can intersperse them amongst flowering and vining plants. A variety of succulents (noted earlier) can be grown in a wooden frame of any size and attached to a wall or fence. This makes for a spectacular artistic scene. Also, adding some outdoor lighting will enhance the space especially for summertime entertaining.

Not to be slighted, sections on patios, decks, pathways, stairs and retaining walls are clearly explained. Morrison shows how these hardscape features can be a part of your plan when integrated into the small garden landscape. Before proceeding with most of these ideas it is probably best to hire a qualified contractor so that your dream design will be in adherence with county regulations.

In summary, a bigger garden is not always a better garden. You will gain a high degree of pleasure and know that your outdoor personal space has been enhanced with a small garden. A more limited space will result in fewer plants, but you will gain a lot of free time because maintenance will be greatly reduced. Know that the gardener’s mantra is Right Plant — Right Place. Now add Right Function!