Putting a small space garden together takes four steps: 1. define the space, assess its use and qualities Your small space may be clearly defined by its architecture, naturally limited by walls or other permanent elements of structure, shrub rows, or tree lines. Or you may be using spray paint to mark a new path or planting to begin carving out that new, small garden. Either way, ask yourself these questions: what’s it for, who will use it, and how? Is this space to look at, to sit in alone or with others, to cook or serve food, or to move people toward it, or away from something less pleasing such as a utility area or ugly view. Assess the space for growing: how much and when does the sun reach it, if at all, and is there water available or can it be added, and does the soil offer promise or will this be a container garden? 2. guide its lines, shapes, and forms Take a look at the lines and forms already present: walls and windows, plants and fences can be emphasized or played down. Strong horizontal lines are not uplifting, and so need verticals to keep them from depressing the mood. Straight lines hurry the viewer and can be used to move people toward or through the area, such as when a conventional sidewalk turns at the corner of the house. Guests arrive and naturally follow its lead to the patio or party tent in the back garden. Curved lines slow you down, literally take more steps and time to enjoy the passage. The shapes of objects can soften architecture, mask flaws in it, and lend perspective. For example, a low block wall emerging from tall, hard wall can look stark, though it does the job of defining the space well. Add an eye-catching curved object or plant where the two meet, then place a smaller form in front of the wall to subltly reinforce the separation of space and soften its intersection. 3. select focal point, basic and decorative plants, accessories The permanent parts of a small space garden can include walls, paths, furniture, sculptures, and evergreen plants and are called the ‘bones’ of the garden. They carry your message through the year and offer stability and continuity to the design. Since the garden may look very different at times of the year, it’s important to place the focal point within the ‘bones’. A small garden nestled by a waterfall is created by its focal point, its sight, shape, and sound permanently dominating the scene. Your focal point may be subtler but not much. Choose a dramatic evergreen plant, a textured boulder, a collection of mosaic pots, a red bridge, a bird feeding station, or anything that inspires you, but stick with your focal point. Work out from there to add layers to the view in the form of decorative plants and accessories. In selecting colors, remember that pastels and dark greens create a more sedate, meditative, or even romantic mood. Primary colors bring warmer tones and encourage movement. Use white where night lighting can highlight it and blues to cool down brick walls and western exposures. 4. know when to stop and enjoy it No one small space can do everything! Build the scene beginning with lines, forms, and focal point, then put in some elements to see or sit on. Step back and look before proceeding. If your eye darts around and you aren’t moved to sit or take in the view, it’s too busy. Remove something, limit colors to 2 or 3 shades, or re-establish the focal point and start over. Plants that work in small spaces When choosing plants for small spaces, think friendly bedmates in small spaces, go for plants with similar growth rates, and focus on two or three colors rather than a rainbow. Check out these plants and groups to achieve desirable combinations in small spaces: Consistently distinctive forms and shapes • Iris with spear-shaped leaves to life the eye and spirit • Mahonia for sharp contrast in leaf shape and color • Ferns to fill spaces with soft and sharp textures • Boxwood for solid green lines Flowers aplenty, shallow and limited root systems • Perennial dianthus with matted, silvery quilled leaves • Nymph salvias in shades of coral, pink, and red • Elfin impatiens for most consistent performance • Bulbs including daffodils, perennial gladiolas, and grape hyacinth • Ground covers with discreet habits like ajuga Bold tropical forms with fast growth rates • Cannalilies for spade shapes and huge flowerheads • Rice paper plant (Tetrapanex) brings plate-sized star shapes • Fatsia offers shiny stars, flowers, and upright form • Banana plants create height in weeks, not months Dwarf varieties of garden favorites • Gardenia radicans creeps low and smells as sweet as its tall cousin • Sasanquas in shades of pink and red form two foot evergreen mounds • Dwarf barberry, juniper, and crepe myrtle add color and texture accents • Small ornamental grasses deliver contrast without crowding Go vertical with vines • Morning glory and moonvine (Ipomea) • ‘Tater vine • Passionflower • Chocolate vine (Akebia) Bullies and rampant reseeders – use one alone to fill a difficult space: • Horse tail (Equisetum) • Cashmere bouquet (Clerodendrum) • Balsam, four o’clocks, melampodium, mexican hat Note: Parts of this blog were included in a feature story for MS Gardener in 2004.