Size Matters: Landscape Design for Small Spaces
One of the best things about landscaping a small space is the limitation itself. Often with large properties when everything is an option, the temptation can be to throw everything into the design. A small space forces the designer to focus rather quickly, which is a blessing in disguise.
Small spaces aren’t limited to any particular function, but generally they are limited to one to two functions at the most. This means if you have a small spot and want outdoor dining, table and chairs, bbq, and a little spot to rest a tray, you probably won’t have room for a kid’s play area or a lawn.
The very best, the most essential thing about these small space challenges is that creativity ensues. The smartest designs often arise from the need for practical solutions.
So how do you pick a focus? Tough love. You have to be ruthless in your commitment. Make sure that anything you add is in line with your design goal. With small spaces the design is not watered down, it is concentrated! Size and proportion take on greater significance. Furniture choices come into play: a wrought iron bistro set will help the space feel airy. A heavier chaise or sofa will give more visual weight to the space, anchoring and defining it.
Notice the photo below. The design is so precise that there nothing more needed. To add a container or pot or even another coloured cushion would dilute the design and to take something away would leave it unfinished. This is the balance and tension that good design offers.
Some practical ideas:
Pick a palette — three colours max is a good starting point. Decide whether you want to be energized by your space or relaxed. If you want to be energized, surround yourself with red, yellow, and orange. These are great pick me up colours and will leave you feeling refreshed. If you would rather decompress at the end of a long day, immerse yourself in green, white and blue/purple. These colours recede in the landscape giving the illusion of more space. They are great throughout the garden when mixed with calming white flowers, but if you really want to increase the feel of the space, plant the purple at the far end or opposite of where you will spend most of your time.
These soft pink roses in the photo below are complemented by the white and chartreuse and echoed in the colour of the blanket.
Layers of bright greens, chartreuse and blue greens to blue and silver. Don’t be shy — but don’t forget to repeat! Look for fuzzy plants, glossy plants, lacy plants, matte plans and variegated foliage to round out your selection.
Stay practical. Do you need a path to your gate? Do you need to hide garbage cans? Do it, otherwise you will be cursing the impracticality of your space. Just make it pretty.
Take advantage of your vertical spaces. A vine climbing up a trellis, or a green wall are great ways to get creative, but they do double duty, hiding ugly walls or neighbour’s houses. Plants in containers create a vertical step up, as do top grafted trees or shrubs. The top grafted boxwoods in the photo below allow visual space around their trunks. This helps the space to feel more open, while still being interesting. Consider planting vines and arbors in your small space for a cool and cozy feel.
It’s all about volume. You want it thick and dense, full of texture and layers. Bright glossy leaves will reflect the light and bring a freshness to your space. Have small, tight leaves down low and watch them spread out, filling the nooks and crannies. Large broad leafed plants like hostas draw your eye laterally, widening the space. Spiky plants help to draw your eye upwards which also increases the feeling of spaciousness. Variegated leaves will lighten the mood, but they are in the love ‘em or hate ‘em category, so season to taste. Don't be afraid of black to create a focal point. The olive trees below are underplanted with rectangles of black mondo grass in the stones. This repetition helps the transition from the wooden deck to the stone garden.
Get creative with your hardscape:
Notice how the deck below is oriented towards the table? This is a great designer trick to fool us into thinking the space is bigger than it really is. If the deck boards were running perpendicular to the fence, you wouldn't achieve the same effect. The stone band bisecting the deck anticipates the transition from deck to path and elevates the deck from ordinary to inspired. The smooth stone bed adds another layer of texture and visual weight creating negative space and balancing the volume of the olive trees.
Layer: Play with the traditional low, medium and high layers by planting multiples in each layer. Be sure to bring height to the corners — don’t let your eye get stuck there. I love the pot on the top of this wall - so clever. When I look at this photo, my eye travels in a zig zag pattern from bottom to top. As the textures and colours repeat up and down and left to right, it creates a feeling of movement even though the area is meant for sitting.
Remember that it takes time to figure out what you need from your small space. Homes and gardens must be lived in for a little while if we want to do justice to both what is existing and possible.
Merle and I just moved into a place with a wee back yard. Basically it’s an enclosed patio with three trees and a little bit of garden space and with a hedge on a berm. We moved at the beginning of winter, and I am waiting to see what exists before I redesign it. Truthfully, I am not sure what will be allowed to remain and what will be turfed. More importantly, we need some time — at least one summer season to determine how we might want to use the space. It’s been too cold to sit outside, and we have yet to discover what effect fully leafed out trees will have on the little space.
Waiting is easier said than done, but I know it will be worth it in the end.