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Allan designs and plants flowering gardens in Montreal, Zone 5 [USDA Zone 4] .

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Entries in A Verdant Life (1)


Designing Small Garden Spaces

When I visit homes situated on small plots of land, I am sometimes dismayed at the depressing appearances of neglected small back yards. Invariably, the homeowner will reveal that there are two obstacles standing in the way of landscaping. First, there is a sense of claustrophobia generated by the small space and second, there appears to be no room to plant favorite flowers that are on a homeowner’s wish list.

Several problem-solving solutions are available to those that wish to transform small spaces. Some of the ideas posted here have been inspired by information found in a five part series on designing small gardens, by John Black, at his website, A Verdant Life.  A few of the images used here belong to Mr. Black; others illustrate the work of garden design firm  Fisher Tomlin.

John Black, A Verdant Life. Narrow trees send the eye upward.

One of the challenges of designing a small space garden is the effect that boundaries have on our brain. A small space quickly draws the eye to its perimeter. As soon the eye notices the limitations of space, the brain becomes aware of claustrophobic boundaries. One can deceive that perception and interrupt that line of sight, by creating a three-dimensional garden. To do ´╗┐that it is necessary to introduce vertical elements into the garden such as tall, narrow plants (bamboo, crepe myrtle, or birch trees), wall planters, raised planting beds or trellis structures. These elements take the eyes away from the boundaries of the small space and focus them upward.

Another challenge to the design of confined spaces is the negative role played by straight lines and the brain’s natural tendency to seek symmetry. Both of these factors draw attention to the small size of a garden. However, curved or diagonal lines and asymmetry make small spaces seem larger. To enable this perceptional trick, the gardener is encouraged to slice through a small garden with paths and beds that will wind around corners, sometimes into hidden spaces and sometimes ending at off-center focal points.

A curved path leading the eye outside is a very effective technique. Image by Fisher Tomlin.Curved, diagonal lines and asymmetry draw the eye away from the edges of the garden into the farthest interior points and create a feeling of depth and distance. A sculpture, a modest fountain, or a small pyramidal shaped climbing frame, when placed at a distance and off center, serve as eye-catching focal points. These elements are enhanced when they are dramatically lit, at night.




Fisher Tomlin. What is beyond the gate fascinates the brain.Another trick is to lead the eye out of the garden to a scene beyond.  An opening in a gate or wall draws the eye outside so that the brain focuses on what is beyond instead of the immediate surroundings.





In the case of a small square garden, where a homeowner prefers to maintain a patch of green lawn, the eyes can be tricked into ignoring the confines of that area if the lawn in the center is converted into a circle or a kidney shaped cloud. Rounded edges create movement, which cause the eyes to travel continuously.

Some landscapers believe in using small sized paving stones instead of large ones. They claim that a large quantity of small pavers will trick the brain into thinking that a space is larger than it is. That opinion is often contradicted by other landscapers who feel that large pavers will make a patio feel larger. Although this design element is important, there is no consensus on the matter.

John Black, A Verdant Life. Dark depth-creating walls are not for everyone.Color and hue play an important role in the perception of space in a garden. According to the laws of science, bright colors advance toward us and make a space feel smaller; dark colors recede, and make a small space feel larger. It is possible to create depth and dimension in small spaces  by choosing appropriate hues.

Ignoring the laws of optics, Fisher Tomlin use light colored patio stones, effectively, in this small garden space.Consider using dark colored stones for patio surfaces. Perimeter fences should be stained dark brown or olive green, or covered with dark green vines. Once again, this advice is based primarily on the science of physics and optics and may not be suitable for those homeowners that feel uncomfortable with dark colors. This advice, therefore, should  be tempered with one's  personal reaction to dark and light colors.

Dark patio stones, dark walls, and chartreuse furniture in the foreground, used deliberately by Fisher Tomlin.Fill the foreground of a small garden with the variegated or chartreuse foliage of Hosta, Heuchera or Hakonechloa. Then bridge the front and rear spaces with calming green textures such as grasses or succulents. By avoiding the use of color in this transitional area, a sense of spaciousness may be is created.

An effective use of a large pergola over a small patio area. John Black, A Verdant LifeMake dramatic statements. Instead of using many small plants, opt for a few large dramatic ones instead. Small plants make small spaces feel cluttered. It is also possible to make a dramatic statement with an oversized pergola, a large boulder, a huge plant, or a dramatic container. Any one of these will take command of its space and focus the eye of the visitor onto itself. The use of a large plant or a wave of large plants is also effective in bringing a sense of spaciousness to a small garden.

Usually, landscaped small yards run right up to the house. Planting drought tolerant plants against a wall or foundation will help to ensure that structures stay dry. Such plants require less frequent watering and, when it does rain, they act as sponges around the foundation because they absorb more rainfall than other plants.

There is room for creativity in a small garden space. Some homeowners will plant intricate mazes while others will plan hidden resting spots. Small shade gardens lend themselves to the creation of living collages based on a theme of green or texture or a combination of both.

When planting space is sparse, all vine-friendly surfaces make great locations for climbing plants. Affixing trellises or latticework to shed walls or fences is a very effective way to utilize precious growing space and to divert the eye upwards. Wire reinforcement grid, used for concrete paving, may be attached easily to flat walls and can serve as an inexpensive alternative to trellises and latticework. Early blooming shrubs such as Lilac and Forsythia can also double as trellises for later blooming climbing vines, such as Clematis. Under planting Rose bushes with climbing Clematis, low growing Geranium, or Nepeta, is another way of maximizing the use of precious space.

Summer flowering annuals can be planted in baskets hung from tree branches or veranda ceilings. Planters shaped to hug a deck post, and flat planters that hang from walls are recent introductions to the garden market and they increase the amount of planting space, as well. Another development is the tendency to treat some perennials like annuals, especially Heuchera and ornamental grasses, by planting them in pots and urns.

Another space saver is to under plant summer perennials with spring flowering bulbs. The foliage of later growing perennials will camouflage the decaying leaves of bulbs. Similar results are achieved when late blooming perennials are under planted with early spring blooming plants whose foliage disappears during the heat of summer. When pedestals topped with flowerpots are inserted into flowerbeds, they add gardening spots by filling up the unused eye level air space that may appear in the border. These space saving pedestals cum flowerpots also work well on hardscapes such as decks, patios, and gravel paths. Flowerpots also add floral interest when placed on decks, patio tables, and window ledges.

Some small gardens have room for island flower beds. In such cases, raised beds are preferable because they are easier to maintain in tight quarters. In these locations, avoid using one plant only as this will draw the eye to the edge of the bed, where it will focus on the tight space. Instead, repeat splashes of color that keep the eye moving. Furthermore, it is important to carefully mange the kinds of foliage used in these beds. While it is important to vary fine leaf foliage with bold ones in order to create movement and depth, the emphasise should be on fine leaves. Fine foliage will make a garden appear larger while bold foliage will make it seem smaller.