How to make the most of your small garden space

Containers, smart design and savvy plant choices are the key to a small garden with big impact.

If you lack horizontal room for your garden, consider going vertical. These wall planters by Pot Inc. bring the garden to any vertical space, like the side of a shed or fence. (Photo by Nicole Phillips)

If you lack horizontal room for your garden, consider going vertical. These wall planters by Pot Inc. bring the garden to any vertical space, like the side of a shed or fence. (Photo by Nicole Phillips)

As houses grow and yards shrink, it’s getting harder to find the space to plant everything we would love to have in our gardens.

In many cases, a tree — no matter how dwarf — will not fit. And even shrubs — if they are not compact — gobble up far too much real estate.

The design principles for working with small spaces are essentially the same as any other landscape: Color, line, form and texture are still the elements that make it all work.

The trick is to figure out how to shrink everything to fit the space and keep it all in scale.

We can still build some excitement with contrasting foliage sizes and colors and other artistic accents — as long as we don’t have too many.

Likewise, cohesiveness can be achieved by repeating foliage textures, shapes or colors, and sticking to a single theme or style. The ever-elusive goal is to find that perfect balance.

Architects like to create the illusion that a space is larger than it is by placing larger, bolder objects closer to our eyes, and smaller, finer ones farther away. This technique exaggerates the perspective of distance. The same effect can be achieved by placing warm colors like red and orange, which “come toward us,” close up and cooler colors like blues, which tend to recede visually, farther away. In a small-space garden, these techniques have their limitations, but knowing how we perceive space can help us in the design process.

Pots are perfect

I firmly believe that containers are a must in the small-space garden. There is usually only so much ground to plant in, and often a large chunk of the area will be paved or decked for cooking, eating or just relaxing.

Containers come in all shapes, sizes, and materials, so pick a style you prefer and stick to it. This will build cohesiveness. For years I used all natural, rustic-looking ceramic pots in my patio to avoid distracting from the plants in them. But I eventually got bored and wanted a change, so I have slowly replaced them all with brightly colored ones. It’s no different than our furniture. Sometimes you just need to get new stuff and create a fresh look.

Just because your space may be small, it doesn’t mean that it can’t be interesting throughout the year. I’ve talked in the past about how not to have a boring yard, and it is no different in a small space. Choose your plants wisely so there is something of interest every day of the year. Again, build some contrast, but don’t try to plant one of everything you like. I find that repeating some of the smaller grasses, like Japanese forest grass, black mondo, or orange sedge, will help hold it all together. Repetition has its place — in moderation.

Think vertical

When you run out of room horizontally, think about going vertical.

There are all sorts of crazy examples on Pinterest of how creative gardeners have managed to build trellises and frames to support their vining plants, like clematis, honeysuckle or beans and cucumbers. My wife uses an 8-foot-tall obelisk with a 1-foot base to grow her beans on every year, and it takes up very little space. Recycled pallets can be modified to grow veggies and flowers in as well as perforated drain pipes.

Don’t forget: We can grow plants on our fences as well. Pay attention to the exposure though; a fence running east and west will have a full shade on the north side and a full sun on the south side, which can make a huge impact on what we can grow.

The Master Gardener demo garden at Jennings Park in Marysville has some wonderful examples of vertical gardening. Go check it out.

Whenever possible, stick to dwarf forms of plants. Gardeners have many choices these days for compact trees, shrubs, perennials, flowers and even veggies. Many of these will also grow quite well in containers — provided they are large enough.

Breeders have shrunk many of the old-time shrubs that grandma had smothering her house, so don’t shy away from a forsythia or wiegela. Many of the new ones will also repeat bloom in the late summer.

Steve Smith is the owner of Sunnyside Nursery in Marysville. He can be reached at

Free classes

Find out about Japanese maples at a class set for 10 a.m. April 28 at Sunnyside Nursery, 3915 Sunnyside Blvd., Marysville.

Also, learn more about working with small garden spaces at a class conducted by landscape designer Marti Civarra at 11 a.m. April 29 at Sunnyside Nursery.

For more information, go to

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