Small Gardening

The gardening world has been buzzing about small gardens. Interest in this topic might reflect a trend toward a preference for smaller properties or a growing desire among gardeners to limit the time and energy they commit to gardening.

A small garden could be the entirety of a small property or an area within a large property. A large property might include several small gardens (sometimes called “rooms”) or one small garden plus undeveloped space, or something between those extremes.

In either case, the goal for small gardening should be quality gardening.

“We would do well to follow a common rule for our daily lives—do less, and do it better.” — Dale E. Turner

(I don’t recognize the person who said that, but I agree with the sentiment.)

When developing a small garden, all the usual criteria for plant selection and cultivation apply: ensure that the soil is fertile, friable and well drained, and choose plants that are appropriate for the garden’s climate, sun exposure and prevailing winds.

Basic landscaping design ideas are important in a smaller garden.

  • Repeat a limited number of plant varieties, and just two or three flower colors. A random collection of plants and a rainbow of blossoms can be confusing, in a design sense, while repetition provides a coherent an ultimately more pleasing effect. Carefully planned combinations of foliage colors also can work well, especially when planting succulents, which are available in many interesting colors.
  • Place the taller plants in back. This is my favorite — and simplest —landscaping design concept. Following it requires care in plant selection. The first level of research is to read the label, which should indicate the plant’s mature height and width. If necessary, use the plant’s botanical name to look it up on the Internet, or in Sunset’s Western Garden Book, or another plant reference book.

If a plant grows beyond your expectations, move it to a more appropriate location. If it’s too big to move, it may be time for “shovel pruning.” Replace that overgrown treasure with a better choice.

  • Use curves and different elevations to add interest. If your small garden space is basically an uninteresting flat rectangle, consider introducing a curved path around a naturalistic mound.

In addition, three broad guidelines come to mind.

First, specify a theme beyond “small size.” The garden might focus on a genus (rose, iris, clematis, etc.), a category of plants (succulents, white blossoms, herbs), a plant community (California natives, South African bulbs, aquatic plants) or any other theme of interest. A theme provides coherence to the garden and a systematic approach to plant selection.

Second, provide a story line for visitors. The garden planner could guide a visitor’s attention by establishing a focal point: a well-placed, exceptional plant, a piece of garden art, or a water feature, etc. After that initial impression, the gardener or discrete signs might encourage a visitor to examine a series of specimen plants. A rose garden, for example, might showcase several hybrid teas or species roses for comparison.

Finally, plan the maintenance of the small garden for close inspection. No garden looks good when unkempt, but a neglected small garden can be particularly unsatisfying to both the gardener and the visitor. While fallen leaves, a forgotten watering hose and a few weeds can be tolerated in a large, sprawling garden, a small garden should be raked and pruned and tidied regularly. By virtue of being small, it should also be manageable.

The small garden is to a large garden as a sonnet is to free verse.

A small garden can yield big enjoyment!

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