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Small Space Gardens

Small gardens have some of their own special design rules. Less space doesn't mean less work. If anything, it means more focus on detail and resisting the temptation to add too much variety.

The planning and design of small garden spaces, patio areas, balconies or theme gardens is often much harder and complex than that of an entire front or backyard planting. All of the elements of good design must be observed, but on a smaller and more intimate scale. It is almost as if we were to take a look at the space through a microscope and see the inner workings of the activities and aspects of a miniature world of it's own. The use of 'dwarf' shrubs is only the beginning, with careful study into the horticultural term of a 'dwarf' shrub. Technically, any plant that grows to a smaller size than that of the 'parent' plant is a 'dwarf'. In some cases that could mean a plant of 10 to 12 feet in height, as the original plant would typically reach 30 to 40 feet in height - "All dwarf plants are not created equal."

Making the most of what little space you have depends partly on the plants used and partly on the design.

Small Space Garden Design Considerations

Generally, the major elements of Landscape Design are Form, Texture, Color and Scale. Each aspect can be analyzed for all of the materials and properties of the space to be considered:

FORM: This aspect of the design is not only the form, shape or scope of the area to be planned, it also addresses the individual elements of the materials to be used - plants, statuary, paving materials, fencing, arbors, etc.

TEXTURE: From large & course to fine & minute, the size of the plant and its leaves and flowers have a great impact on the feeling and effect of the space. All of the elements from stone and statuary to benches and fencing contribute to the overall space.

COLOR: Whether the design reflects a one-color or multi-color collage, all the aspects of plant leaves, flowers, bark and stem play a tremendous part in the effect of the overall space. This carries over with all the 'hardscape' elements of the space as well.

SCALE: This is often the most overlooked portion of the design. It not only applies to the entire space, but should take into account the ultimate size of the plant material. The size of the individual elements greatly impacts the 'feeling' of the entire space and it's individual elements.

Before the preparation of the Design, each of these elements should be addressed, in detail, in order to achieve the ultimate use and enjoyment of the space.


Before we can establish the Shape of the area, we must determine the Use of the area. Is it for entertainment of larger groups or the quiet meditation for one or two? Do we need eating in many areas, or one quiet retreat? Does the space need to be Formal, or Informal, Natural or Manicured? All of this helps to design the walkways, seating areas, plantings and form of the area: Square, Circular or a combination.

Form also affects the individual elements of the plan:

  • Plantings: upright, columnar, rounded, spreading
  • Stone: flat, rounded, boulders, stacked or vertical
  • Statuary: ornate, natural, animals, bugs or people
  • Water: waterfalls, ponds, fountains or birdbaths
  • Paving: large pavers to small brick pavers to concrete or pea gravel or mulch

While the overall boundaries of the space say much for the Form, the whole is only the sum of the parts. Each part affects the total. Discussion should include fencing for enclosure or privacy, arbor or trellis or roof for protection from the sun or rain. Walls or mounding for the creation of levels or separation.


This is the area for the greatest affect on the overall feeling of the space. By the simple selection of the size and texture of the leaves of plants, one can create the effect of making the space seem larger or smaller. If you place plants with large, coarse textured leaves at the beginning of a space and diminish the size and texture of the leaves as you travel through the area, it tends to add depth to the area. The opposite textural selection will make the area seem more intimate and cozy. The same holds true for the selection of other elements of the design, from paving to statuary, to stone and garden art.


Leaves, flowers, bark, stems, berries. Adding color to the landscape can come from different aspects of plants other than just flower colors. Variegated leaves, shades of green that various trees, shrubs and groundcovers can exhibit, all add to your color pallet. Evergreen and deciduous plants can provide year-round interest to the landscape. Add to that the multitudes of flowers that these plants can offer, not to mention the flowers of annuals and perennials, the options can be very confusing. Whether a single color of flowers is selected, or a patchwork quilt of hues and shades, year-round colors are available for sun and shade sites. The use of colored stone, paving, statuary, furniture and other hardscape features can either contrast or complement the plantings used in the design and provide constant excitement and interest. Repetition of the same color or groups of colors throughout the setting can tie together several small areas within the site.


Keeping the individual elements of the plan in the correct size and physical relationship will add continuity to the entire design. The orderly progression of all elements and their spaces will create a 'human' scale to the total space. Scale is greatly influenced by the selection of plantings that will maintain themselves within the space without major pruning. Mother Nature wins in a pruning battle to keep a plant small or within a space that is too small. The use of plants that keep a 'natural' shape will not only keep the maintenance to a minimum, it will develop a sense of consistency to the area. The use of large pots or urns will allow small and natural plants to achieve the aspect of height without the mass of a tall plant. As with texture, the use of large scale materials in the beginning of a space that graduate to smaller materials to the back of the space create an illusion of a greater space.

Along with these basic elements of landscape design, there are other features that can extend the use and enjoyment of even the smallest of spaces. When you add the use of nighttime lighting to the mix, a completely new and exciting space is revealed. A rather unique addition to create the illusion of greater space is adding a mirror, or multiple mirrors to reflect another view to the space. Mirrors can be angled to give another vantage point to the area, by providing a view from the back of an area that would be otherwise inaccessible. Mirrors can also provide light to an otherwise dark area.

Material Suggestions

  • Coarse texture: Leatherleaf Mahonia, Fatsia Japonica, Aspidistra or others
  • Medium texture: Holly Fern, Encore Azalea, Indian Hawthorne, Hosta Lily or others
  • Fine Texture: Arbovitae Fern, Autumn Fern, Gumpo Azalea, Liriope Mondo Grass or others
  • Colors: Whatever is in bloom, or variegated plants used above
  • Hardscape: small statue, wall plaques, gazing ball, "Mosquito" on a stick, mossy boulder, large and small colored pots, self-contained fountain

Using Plants that Don't Overwhelm the Space

Using a lot of plants to create a lush look can be tricky. Repetition of a few varieties is the key to using a lot of plants in small gardens. Usually, it's a big variety and not the amount of plants that seems overwhelming in small space gardens. So if you're going to use 3 trees, for example, plant 3 same species instead of 3 different types. The same applies for other plantings as well.

Pick a few plant varieties and 2 — 3 colors and repeat them throughout the garden.

Also read: Container Gardening