Having a small garden has many of the same advantages as having a small house. They also encourage innovation like a small house does. And they are more fun to design, create, and maintain.
Because they have much less square footage, small gardens cost much less to landscape, water, fertilize, and maintain. They also consume less of your time in doing all the above.
I’m going to start by giving you my credentials followed by my landscaping tips for small gardens. I’ll conclude with a few green thumb tips.
Landscaping & Horticulture Credentials
I fell in love with horticulture the day I visited a relative’s garden nursery. I spent hours wandering through the rolls of shrubs and trees. It was a paradise to me. This led me to dive into garden work at home.
I assumed full responsibility for the front and back yards at our family home soon after visiting the nursery. My parents didn’t have enough money in those days to give me funds for more plants and other landscaping materials, but I kept our yards perfectly manicured and clean. I also added plants that I got for free from relatives and friends when I could.
During my first few years of college, I took a lot of horticulture classes. The college I was attending has an extensive horticulture facility that included landscaping exhibits, lawn care areas, water features, shade plant structures, greenhouses, compost bins, vegetable gardens, and more. It was very nice. Although I did not get a degree in horticulture, I did get a certificate.
I’ve continued to take landscaping and gardening classes through college extension programs and city parks and recreation departments to this day. Now that I live in a desert region, I’ve had to learn a whole new set of landscaping and gardening techniques. Fortunately, the parks and recreation department here sponsors a huge number of classes of all kinds including desert gardening and landscaping. Like quite a few other classes, these are free. These classes are 1-2 hours long and they are held at a park with a demonstration garden just down the street from where I live. 🙂 I think I’ve taken about 10 of them over the last few years.
Early in my life, I had a small landscaping business that specialized in small gardens, yards, patios, atriums, and aviaries. The way the aviary part came about is an interesting but long story that requires a separate article.
This business came about by default through requests and referrals starting with family and friends. It wasn’t a business I worked at every day, but many projects required full-time work for weeks to complete. The specialization on small projects was just my preface. I wouldn’t accept large jobs. I didn’t enjoy working on them and I didn’t have the equipment or personnel to do them properly.
Those are my credentials. Here are my landscaping tips for small gardens.
Landscaping Tips for Small Gardens
This list of tips came out much longer than I expected (3,426 words). But it includes everything that I could remember about successful landscaping with an emphasis on small gardens. Many of the tips, however, are valid for any landscaping project.
1. Think Big
Most people’s initial reaction to landscaping their small garden is that they are restricted and can’t do much with it. That is not correct. Cast out all limited thinking. A small garden can be made to look as spectacular as a large one, but just on a much smaller scale.
Sure you can’t put in a full-size swimming pool, but you might be able to install a small prefabricated fiberglass pool. If that doesn’t fit, you could consider putting in a hot tub.
As far as plants go, although there are shrubs and trees that get too large to work, there are so many other possibilities that your design aspirations can still be realized.
2. Design for Impact
Consider adding dramatic focal point features such as statues, pillars, fountains, and wall ornaments. To make the best use of limited space, wall fountains are a good choice.
Big rocks can also make a statement.
3. Divide to Expand
Dividing the space into multiple purposes, not only makes a small garden more useful it also makes it look bigger.
You may have heard Allen Smith talk about garden rooms on his television show. This is the same line of thinking that I am talking about but on a smaller scale and divided into multiple tiny rooms.
You might divide it up into two to four spaces and design each one to serve a different purpose. These spaces might include a tropical scape, desert scape, meditation area, resting bench, hot tub gazebo, covered patio, sun deck, pond, vegetable beds, outdoor kitchen or barbecue, pet potty, or discreet pet enclosure.
4. Get Crazy
Don’t restrict yourself to typical landscape features. Get crazy and try things that add a whimsical look or a representation of your personality.
Add things that you might find on an isolated back road. These might include covered wagon (18th/19th Century) parts, antique car parts, and old house fixtures like a clawfoot tub.
I always wanted to put an “operational” clawfoot tub into a lush, private garden setting. It would work very well in a small garden as an alternative to a hot tub.
Whatever item can easily withstand the weather is a candidate. The key is to select things that make you smile, evoke pleasant memories, or bring about peaceful feelings.
5. Consider Hardscapes
There are many materials that you can use to create retaining walls, planters, patios, and walkways.
For small gardens, I particularly like to build raised and multilevel terraced planters using blocks, brick, or rock for both plants and vegetables. I like to start at a seating height and then increase to a level high enough for easy stand-up access without bending over. This design also creates the illusion of more space and depth.
I also like to install retaining walls to create more space if there are hills or slopes on the property. These walls also prevent erosion and stop spreading and trailing plants and groundcovers.
Here’s a list of hardscape materials.
- Rock & Stone – I like these materials because they create the most natural appearance. They aren’t the most economical though.
- Blocks & Brick – Block retaining walls and planters are a good value. Brick is more expensive, but it looks more fitting for a garden.
- Pavers & Tile – Pavers come in various precast shapes and uses. They are a decent value. Tile creates an elegant look. You’ll pay more for them than other materials, but I think it can be worth it if that’s the look you want.
- Concrete – I like to use concrete because it can be molded into unique shapes that would be difficult with other materials. Concrete is good for curvy or unique paths and planters. It works especially well for unique patio and stairway shapes and robust retaining walls.
- Composites – Made from recycled materials like wood, plastic, and vinyl fibers this is the product to use if you want a wood deck or walkway.
- Wood – Good for lattice patio covers and gazebos, but not for decks and walkways as wood tends to rot, crack, and warp.
6. Get Control with Covers
With a patio cover, you can create shade, block neighboring buildings from view, and you can use it as a screen to create privacy.
There are many different types of patio covers that are made with a variety of materials. Base your choice on the overall look you’re trying to achieve and then on the specific function you want it to perform.
7. Disney the Unsightly
The master in creating screens, hiding things, and separating themes is Disney. You never see the behind-the-scenes equipment or activities. And each Disney “land” appears to be by itself even though the transition from one to the next might only be a few feet. Disney’s use of shrubs, trees, and building fascias is amazing. If you consider how many different environments there are in a relatively small piece of land in Anaheim, CA the scale is similar to a small garden if you were to go for a spectacular look.
Using walls, patio covers, shrubs, and trees as screens to create privacy is a key landscaping design principle.
In a small garden, you’ve got to be smarter. You probably don’t have space for the most popular shrubs and trees used for privacy, so you have to be very selective and innovative.
One trick I’ve used quite a bit to create privacy is to add lattice to the side of a lattice patio cover. I strategically positioned a patio cover to block the view from a neighbor’s second-story master bedroom window on the south. And I placed the lattice on the side nearest the property line to block the view of the neighbor’s backyard to the north. I planted creeping vine plants to fill it in and enhance the natural look of the patio area at the same time. I also planted Leyland Cypress along the rest of the fence to create total privacy, once they were full-grown. I went back to see it about 5 years later and it was magnificent! Just as I had imagined it would be after all the plants were full-grown. Total privacy and lush greenery.
8. Work the Fences
Since any fences that are present will be closer and more visible than a larger yard, use that to your advantage.
Besides adding a lot of shrubs and trees, it’s hard to hide fences in a small garden. But there is a way that is inexpensive and effective. And it adds depth and a more natural look. Have you guessed it? Yes, climbing plants that affix themselves to fences, walls, and other vertical structures. One of my favorites is the creeping fig. Once it gets started it spreads fast and completely. It can turn a block wall into a green hillside in a few years.
9. Get Wet
Adding a pond is a rare consideration for many people when it comes to a small garden. Although they can take up a significant percentage of the space, they can transform your garden into a majestic environment.
If you have a particularly small space, you can add rock to a block fence or wall of your house to use as a backdrop. This will allow the pond to be more compact and still look proportional.
10. Prepare for Glory
The most significant factor for success is in preparing the area for the landscape and garden. This means removing unwanted vegetation and other material, grading for desired elevations and proper drainage, and tilling and amending the soil. This represents a large portion of the total labor and it’s the hardest part of the job, but it’s the most important step. Get this right and the rest goes smoothly and your plants, trees, and other vegetation will flourish!
Since you’re working with a small garden, it’s more likely that you can afford to do this right.
If you want a magnificent garden, invest in a soil test, soil amendments, and as much premixed soil as you need. You can get premixed soil delivered in many areas by the truckload if you need that much.
This investment is the golden key to having those glorious moments in the new small garden that you envision.
11. Automate Your Water
Installing an automatic sprinkler system is a must. They don’t forget when and how much to water. And they do their job even when you’re on vacation.
Just be sure you have 100 percent coverage. Don’t be overly conservative with how many sprinkler heads you install. It’s better to have a little overspray into other zones than dead grass, dead groundcover, or dead shrubs.
If you get a little imaginative, you can create a miniature version of the water show at the Bellagio in Las Vegas. I did this very thing in the backyard of a house I once owned.
12. Water with Micros
In small spaces where you have plants like succulents and cacti that don’t require much water, you might want to use micro sprinkler heads.
They come with different sprays and spray patterns. Some of them have a tiny valve handle on the side to adjust the water volume.
13. Install Outdoor Air Conditioning
By adding misters along the edge of your patio cover, you can not only cool yourself during the summer but it also looks cool – any time of the year.
Esthetically, misters create a rainforest or resort look and feel.
14. Rock Your World
Rocks add a lot of beauty and naturalness to any landscape. I think I’ve used them in every landscape I’ve ever done.
I particularly like using large rocks to accent planter areas to enhance the natural look. I also like using rocks and pebbles to create dry creeks and dry ponds.
Rocks can be used to build a planter area, retaining wall, waterfall, pond, and much more. Rocks can also be used to hide control boxes, garden lights, garden speakers, and sprinklers.
15. Light Your Masterpiece
Low-voltage garden lights add a lot of beauty to a nighttime landscape. Without them, it’s nearly impossible to fully appreciate a nice garden at night.
Garden lights should be used to highlight exceptional features in your garden like special shrubs and trees, statues, ponds, waterfalls, and more.
I have yet to see a solar garden light that does a sufficient job. So I don’t recommend them.
16. Punctuate with Sound
I don’t know what it is about wind chimes, but I love them! I suppose that is the combination of the pleasing sounds and the distinct rhythm that only a gentle breeze can create.
Waterfalls also produce very relaxing sounds that remind us of nature. Since the sound they create is very consistent, they can be used to cancel out noise that is at a similar decibel level like distant automobile traffic.
I’m not a big fan of garden speakers unless what is being played contributes to the natural or meditative feel of the garden. This would include nature sounds, singing birds, and soft instrumental new age and classical music. Anything else ruins the ambiance of a beautifully landscaped garden. Call me old fashion, but I’ve felt that way since my early 20s.
17. Shun the Grass
Although I love the smell, look, and feel of grass, I don’t like it in home landscapes. In fact, I have never installed it in any size garden.
Here are the reasons I don’t like grass.
- There are much better choices.
- It consumes a disproportionately large amount of water.
- It requires mandatory mowing, edging, and sweeping every 1-2 weeks.
- It is hard to remove and prevent regrowth if you change your mind.
- It attracts unwanted pests.
If you need a lawn for any reason, just go to a park or a public athletic field.
“Where does my dog do his/her business?” you say. Dogs don’t have to have a lawn for this. We taught them to use a lawn by having 90 percent of our yards planted with this material.
18. Be a Know it All Buyer
Here are the most common things people overlook when they buy a plant, groundcover, or tree.
- It doesn’t do well in their part of the world.
- It doesn’t do well with the sun exposure where it will be planted.
- It doesn’t do well in the type and condition of the soil where it will be planted.
- It grows much, much larger than the allocated space and the expectations of the buyer.
To make sure you’re picking the right plants, get a copy of the “Sunset Western Garden Book.” This book is known as the garden bible and it contains a wealth of information on every aspect of gardening. Or find a reputable online resource that you can refer to regularly.
Get into the habit of reading the labels attached to most plants. They usually tell you how big the plant or tree will get and what sun exposure it does best in.
Here’s another thing to keep in mind. Just because a plant is at your local garden center does not necessarily mean that it will survive in your climate. I know it doesn’t make any sense but it’s true, especially at national big-box chain stores.
19. Fall in Love with Dwarfs
Since it’s a small garden, it’s crucial that you determine how big each scrub and tree will get before you buy them by referring to books like the “Sunset Western Garden Book” or a reputable site on the Internet.
Not determining how big a shrub or tree will be when it’s fully grown is a very common mistake. When it comes to a small garden, this outcome can easily destroy your intended design.
One way to make sure that the plants you pick will fit in your small garden even when they are full-grown is by selecting dwarfs. There is a wide spectrum of commonly used plants that have a dwarf variety. A good example of this is the agapanthus or Lilly of the Nile. Its dwarf variety is the peter pan. Another dwarf that I regularly used in tropical landscapes is the pygmy date palm or phoenix roebelenii. Although they can grow to 8-10 feet, which is much shorter than most palms, they grow very slowly and they are beautiful. It’s one of my favorites by far!
20. Maintain Your Creation
Be sure to install a thorough irrigation system with an automatic timer. This will ensure that your plants get adequate water even when you’re away.
Be sure to fertilize as the instructions indicate to make sure that your plants stay beautiful and healthy.
You’ll also need to keep an eye out for pests and diseases. Much of this can be determined by periodic close inspections of both sides of leaves in different parts of the plant. If you find something, take a sample to your local garden center or do some research on the Internet. Natural, non-toxic methods are highly recommended.
Periodic pruning and trimming are particularly important in a small garden since everything is more up close and space is limited. With pruning, you can control the size, shape, and direction of the growth. Trimming keeps them to the size and shape you want. Trimming is also a way of maintaining the overall design of your garden.
I’ve always enjoyed pruning and trimming because they can have such an immediate impact on the appearance of a garden. It’s like being a garden sculptor. Put on some classical music, grab a cup of “green” tea, and be Michelangelo for a few hours.
21. Sign Your Work
My signature has always been an extraordinarily beautiful rock in a highly select location.
Pick your most meaningful landscape feature and make it yours by putting it in just the right place.
Your signature landscaping feature should be significant enough to draw the attention of other garden lovers. Those who are not gardening enthusiasts will probably not notice.
Have fun with this.
22. Enjoy with Variety
I’ve seen many people who spend a lot of money and time creating their dream garden and then rarely spend time in it. Some only go into it with their eyes through a window.
My suggestion is that you enjoy it in a variety of ways including the unusual. Have breakfast and dinner in your garden during the summer. Go out there before dawn and watch the sunrise. Set in it and reflect at sunset. Have barbecues, brunches, high tea, and other social functions in your small garden. Most importantly, use it regularly as your private sanctuary.
23. Get Green Thumbs
Having a green thumb is easy if you follow these simple tips from my horticulture professor.
- If a plant starts to turn yellow or brown and/or begins to droop, the problem is one of these three things.
- Too much water or not enough water.
- Too much sun or not enough sun.
- Too much fertilizer or not enough fertilizer.
- If you get into the habit of looking at plants carefully, you’ll develop the ability to determine what they may need. Do they droop? Are they the right color? Is their color bright? Are there indications of pests? Are there indications of diseases?
Now you’re ready to create your own small garden paradise.