The Art of the Small Garden

Bigger isn’t always better when it comes to outdoor spaces. Small gardens can be jewel boxes that delight the senses without requiring as much maintenance or expense as their      larger counterparts.

March 1, 2019

For years, the most appealing residential backyards featured         sprawling plots with multiple “rooms”—separate areas for cooking  and dining, growing gardens full of vegetables and flowers, and      recreational space for a pool or a children’s play area. But as more homeowners look to lower housing costs and maintenance, they’re paring down on the time and funds going toward landscape           upkeep.


small garden rendering

© Laurie Van Zandt, The Ardent Gardener 


Between smaller urban backyards and terraces and new homes     being built with smaller outdoor footprints, gardens are scaling      down proportionately. For example, a homeowner living in a bungalow with a small yard can still enjoy the trickling sounds of water,   but it might be a bubbling fountain or spa rather than elaborate     outdoor water features or a swimming pool. The same is true for   vegetable gardens. Rather than planting large raised beds, one or  two metal troughs or ceramic pots filled with a mix of vegetables   and herbs still could provide delicious fixings for a homegrown      meal.

Landscape designer Laurie Van Zandt, founder of The Ardent Gardener in Huntsville, Utah, finds her clients with smaller yards are just as happy. “Most want to putter [in the yard] but don’t want to be   gardeners,” she says. More clients want to sit with a cup of coffee   or glass of wine and enjoy their outdoor space than be wedded to   the ongoing weeding and maintenance that larger gardens often          require.


rooftop garden at night

© Amber Freda Landscape Design


However, gardens shouldn’t be done away with completely.           Greenery in small or large doses benefits a home owner’s physical and psychological well-being, and it may also help sell a listing faster and for a better price. In New York, Amber Freda, a landscape   designer who founded Amber Freda Garden Design 15 years ago,   has seen her business grow steadily. “The amount of finished        outdoor gardens rather than raw spaces has increased. They         definitely are a selling feature, especially when they have some features   such as outlets for electricity, faucets for water, and a gas    line for a grill,” she says.

Making the Best Use of Space

To help your clients with small yards or terraces create a garden     they love—that will also appeal to future buyers—keep the five      senses in mind: sight, sound, smell, taste, and touch. Also consider the area’s climate and the property’s terrain, soil, and amount of    sun and shade. Then find out what their budget is, including           installation and ongoing maintenance.  

Get inspired with these tips from garden experts, who’ve shared    some of their favorite elements that can be mixed and matched.


container veggies

© Michael Glassman


Edibles. Eating healthy has inspired homeowners to grow their       own produce, and for some, it adds an element of fun. Though       small square footage will necessitate paring down the list of          possibilities, some vegetables are propagated specifically for their  small size,   such as tomatoes, artichokes, and carrots, says          Edward Furner, a    landscape architect with Mariani Landscape in   Lake Bluff, Ill., outside Chicago. Certain fruit trees have also been  genetically developed for smaller spaces such as peaches, nectarines, and some citrus.

To both eliminate a lot of kneeling and bending, try using              galvanized horse troughs or big pots for planting since they don’t   require construction, suggests Sacramento, Calif.-based landscape designer Michael Glassman, co-author with this writer of The         Garden Bible (Images Publishing, 2015). Edible flowers could also   be considered. To make watering easy, add drip irrigation or soaker hoses.

Fire. A fire feature is among today’s top outdoor requests. For smaller yards, a fire pit, bowl, or element built into a table can provide   that romantic glow (and many are portable). Unlike fireplaces,       most fire pits don’t require permission from a local municipality,     though they may require a certain setback from the house. Van Zandt also suggests inexpensive tiki torches to add to the fire           ambiance.


water feature

© Sun Valley Landscaping Omaha, NE, a member of the National Association of Landscape Professionals


Water. While the sound of trickling water delights many, it offers another purpose: to block other noise. These days it’s easy to find a   large urn or an attractive container that can be retrofitted with a    bubbler to recirculate water, as Van Zandt did for a client who had a rock collection. She stacked them together and drilled a hole so   water could trickle out. Furner says he’s receiving more requests    from clients for small lap pools.

One type of water feature that has lost appeal is the koi pond, due to heavy maintenance, says Glassman. For drought-ravaged areas—or for homeowners who want to cut water use—Furner suggests   faux grass, which has become much more realistic in recent years. Some companies also manufacture lifelike outdoor plants, such as boxwood.

Cooking and eating. For years outdoor kitchens grew larger and      larger, with higher-end models incorporating a grill with rotisserie,  sink, and refrigerator—even a beer tap, pizza oven, countertops,   and storage. But many found the investment overkill with access to their indoor kitchens just steps away.

When helping one client who enjoys cooking and entertaining, landscape architect Jack Carman of Design for Generations in Medford, N.J., transformed the small patio outside her cottage by staining    the white concrete tan to cut the glare, then adding a grill, table with umbrella for shade, chairs, planting beds, and low-voltage lights to illuminate a path for safety.

Wildlife-friendly. The right plants will attract hummingbirds,           butterflies, bees, moths, flies, beetles, and other pollinators that    give back to a garden of any size, says Missy Henriksen, vice         president of public affairs at the National Association of Landscape Professionals. “Choose plants that flower at different times of the    year, which will vary by region,” she says. Many online guides offer information, including the U.S. Department of Agriculture.


small garden with path, water fountain

© Lifescape Colorado, Denver, CO, a member of the National Association of Landscape Professionals


Soul-nourishing. A small garden can become a spiritual retreat,      helping homeowners unwind and destress. Glassman built a raised platform for one client to practice tai chi. A lawn panel can offer the same option with a mat placed atop grass. Hospitals have become a good source of information since many have installed their own    gardens to help patients recover and offer a respite place for family members and staff as well. The Mercy Medical Center in Baltimore, Md., has three rooftop gardens, including a water feature in its      Mary Catherine Bunting Center.

Privacy. Shielding gardens and outdoor spaces from neighbors has become more of a priority as homeowners gravitate to urban areas and downtown suburbs. One way is to go vertical and plant along a garage, outbuilding, or fence to camouflage or block out neighboring properties. Choose perennials in colder climates to eliminate the need to replant. Glassman prefers to use an iron or wood trellis      rather than grow greenery directly on a dwelling because it’s easier to perform maintenance. He favors potato, trumpet, and creeping    fig vines that grow densely in his northern California climate.        Another option for privacy is to plant shrubs or trees with multiple   trunks. Henriksen says succulents have become a popular option.   But with any choice, the homeowner should ask how big the plant will grow when it matures so that they leave enough room,           Glassman says.

Container gardens are a third alternative. Henriksen recommends   that each pot have three types of plants: a “thriller” or tall plant     that makes a strong statement in form or color, a “filler” that fills    the space and hides the soil, and a “spiller” that weeps over the     edge. Master gardener Carole Aine Langrall, owner of The Flower   Spy in Santa Fe, N.M., and Baltimore likes to limit the palette to a   few hues and textures to give the illusion of more space.


garden shed

© Jim Charlier


Decorative. Whether it’s   hardy artwork, whimsical   found objects, or wind      chimes, decorative elements personalize a space.    However, decorative items should be limited so they don’t overcrowd a small   garden, Van Zandt says.   One striking piece can      create a beautiful focal point to direct the eye, says Henriksen.

But paring down isn’t for   everyone. Many of the 400 amateur gardeners who   open their colorful, quirky, original gardens in Buffalo, N.Y.’s annual Garden Walk Buffalo weekend event each July           disregard the simplicity mantra. Graphic designer Jim Charlier, who participates yearly, recently co-authored the book Buffalo-Style     Gardens (St. Lynn’s Press, 2019) with garden writer Sally             Cunningham. He designed his small garden for eating and entertaining,       planted a collection of climbing plants to block neighboring homes, and built a green potting shed that mimics his 1897 green Dutch Colonial-style home to hold tools. The pedigree of a garden   featured on the 25-year-old tour—the largest of its type in the       country—definitely helps to sell homes, Charlier says.

Up in the Air: Handling Rooftop Gardens

More attention is being paid to using all outdoor areas, including     urban rooftops. But working on outdoor spaces that are high up     adds additional challenges.

Make sure your clients consult a structural engineer to determine   how much furniture, decking, and soil a terrace, balcony, or roof    can support and how to transport those items up top. Where an     elevator may not be large enough, a crane is required, which          increases costs, says landscape architect Marc Nissim, owner of the Harmony Design Group in Westfield, N.J.


rooftop garden

© Amber Freda Landscape Design


Landscape designer Amber Freda, whose eponymous firm is based  in New York, helped clients with a garden in that city’s West Village neighborhood where restrictions limited them to 35 pounds per      square foot. The building also didn’t have an elevator. Her solution: lightweight potting soil and custom red cedar planters.

Local weather conditions may dictate certain precautions as well.   Furniture may need to be bolted down so it doesn’t fly away with    strong wind gusts. Flooring needs to be durable to withstand the    elements. Nissim likes ipe planks, a dense wood decking material   that snaps together and doesn’t require repainting. There’s also less costly porcelain pavers that are hard and durable yet not as        heavy as paving stones.

A good irrigation system should be available since water tends to   evaporate faster up high versus on the ground. “Look at what grows well on a mountain and that’s often the best solution for a rooftop or high garden,” says Freda.

Barbara Ballinger

Barbara Ballinger is a freelance writer and the author of several books on real estate, architecture, and remodeling, including The Kitchen Bible: Designing the Perfect Culinary Space (Images Publishing, 2014). Barbara’s most recent book is The Garden Bible: Designing Your Perfect Outdoor Space, co-authored with Michael Glassman    (Images, 2015).