Saturday, June 15, 2024

Gardening in small spaces












Do you have a small city lot? Don’t despair. Some of the nicest gardens are on the smallest lots. Here are some questions and answers to get you started on how to maximize your small garden space.

Your microclimate

How much sun do you get and from which directions? How does this change with the seasons? Where do the prevailing winds come from. Do you have fences or shrubs to shelter you? Is there shade from large trees or is it dry and sunny? Is the ground dry or damp or soggy?

Determining the general climate of your lot is a good start in deciding what kind of garden you want to create and where you can plant what.

What does the shape suggest?

What shape is the lot? Rectangular, triangular, square? L-shaped? Are there any natural curves?

Enhance a long narrow lot by adding breaks or intriguing curved pathways. Or add plantings that create walls or barriers. You can make a triangular lot look larger by playing on the perspective. Use an arbor to create a sense of destination at the apex. Or add some new angles with shrubs, trellises, dividers or even borders to minimize the triangle feeling. A square lot may call for something more formal, perhaps a Japanese inspired layout. An L-shaped lot can be divided into smaller rooms.

Dominating features

Does the lot have any dominating features such as a fence, garage wall, deck, a fire hydrant or telephone box? Should the location of neighbourhood trees be included in your overall plan? Does the lot have some other awkward or distinguishing features such as a steep slope?

One gardener we know has a multi-level deck that ends smack against a garage wall. Solution? Make the wall as interesting as possible. Add hanging plants, a window and window box, flowering vines and perhaps a wall fountain. The deck can be the home of a multitude of planters and hangings. For shade, cut a hole in the deck for a shade or fruit tree to grow through.

Terrace a slope for a rock garden with a water feature. Cover stark board fences with vines, such as sweet peas, scarlet runner beans, Virginia creeper, clematis or even climbing roses. Then break it up with hanging baskets. With enough sun and skill, you can espalier a fruit tree along a sunny fence.

Do you really need all that grass?

Reduce the grassy area. Plan some borders by tracing out the shape with a garden hose. Mark the results with some spray paint or corn meal. Include curves in your plan unless you are making a checkerboard design or wish to enhance the angles in the lot.

Can you dig up the centre of the yard and leave the edges green? Sure! Be creative.

Pots, pots, pots

Most people with small gardens will find pots an invaluable source of extra gardening space as well as a useful design tool. Interrupt a boring straight cement walkway (or driveway for that matter) with a pot or two filled to overflowing with plants. Cement steps stacked with pots take on a new and interesting life in the garden. Place pots in old wheelbarrows, on broken chairs, or on any other unoccupied elevation in the yard. Choose different shapes, sizes and heights to add interest.

Multi-level gardening

In a small garden, use of vertical space is a real bonus.

A raised bed can add eye interest and make a cramped space seem larger.

Plant Engleman’s ivy or some other climber on a sunny wall. Windows can be dressed up with window boxes overflowing with blooms and trailers. Nail a planter to a garage roof and fill with ivies, wave petunias or other trailers. Hang baskets from the fascia, a fence, a deck rail or, using an extension arm, from a wall.

Hang pots from posts, stack them on elaborate plant holders or simply set them on pedestals, overturned buckets or stumps.

Water Features

Even postage-stamp yards can have water features. All you need is a pump and a container, which can be mounted or sunk and filled with water and plants. You can add a fountain or have water appear to trickle down a wall or a terraced slope.


A stone bench under an apple tree, a hammock or macrame swing strung from a sturdy branch, or a small table and a couple of chairs on a round stone patio will not only furnish you with a place from which to enjoy your garden but will act as a focal point to create a sense of space.


You can create a sense of space by adding “rooms” to your garden. Plant a rose hedge down the centre of the lot or run a recirculating stream through the garden to create a new space. Add a raised deck in an odd corner and define its rear perimeter with mirrors.

Outdoor screens, even large planters, can be used to divide small spaces to give the illusion of more room. Arbors, covered with climbing roses or clematis, can provide perspective to a long narrow garden.


Don’t forget lights. Make them small in keeping with your garden, or use candles, which give a lovely glow to an mid summer’s night or to a winter garden. Gift and garden shops sell luminaires or candle holders into which my husband puts Christmas tree bulbs attached to extension cords. An interestingly-shaped piece of rock or a twisted wire can serve also serve as a candle holder.

Try uplighting your trees or other special features with a spot or floodlight. Or hang a pot light and downlight a white planting, then watch it glow in the evening.

Plant some perennials and shrubs

Choose your perennials with care, but choose some. Even the smallest garden can handle a clump of echinacea or Shasta daisies, or brilliant blue delphinium.

A shrub rose, one of the spectacular barberries or a beautiful dwarf spirea can fill a dreary corner. Daffodils, crocuses and snowdrops can blaze away in the springtime before the shrubs are in leaf. Grape hyacinth adds a note of cool contrast.

And yes, you can plant perennials in pots. Just be sure to over winter the pots inside in a cool, dry spot or insulate them by wrapping with house insulation or foam. Or you can even pop them, pot and all, in the ground before it freezes.

A small garden can be an intriguing and lovely gem. Chances are that you will be able to manage the climate in a small garden more efficiently and can therefore stretch the limits of your zone. And a small garden will certainly be more intimate than a large one. Just close your eyes and dream of what your small garden could be; then get to work and make your dreams come true.


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