Hartley Magazine

All the latest news, hints, tips and advice from our experts

Small garden, big plans? 5 Easy Steps to Outdoor Living.

What to do? As the west draws ever more settlers to its wide-open spaces, the region becomes more densely packed. Development along the stretch of Interstate 25 pretty much from well north of Denver, and south nearly to Pueblo is fast becoming one giant megalopolis. Yet people want to garden, keen to turn their postage stamp into a slice of heaven, encouraged by scientifically backed evidence that tells us connecting with nature and working the soil improves physical health and mental wellbeing. As America’s “cowboy philosopher,” Will Rogers, once put it, “What this country needs is dirtier fingernails and cleaner minds.”

5 Basics for Small Spaces:

Create Comfort. The sun is quite the contender in the west, so shade is primo on the list. A simple sunshade slung between walls and or posts is elegant and easy to put up and remove over winter. I have lowered one corner so captured rain runs off into a barrel, and it also reduces the sharp snap of the shade when the wind gets up. Sunshades are available in many cheerful colors, sizes, and shapes.

Swedish artist Johan Fredrik Krouthén painted ‘View of the Garden, Linköping, 1887-88. The tranquility of the scene and the improvised shelter are enticingly simple. Nationalmuseum, Stockholm, Sweden.

Blur the boundaries. If the eye can’t discern where the garden ends, it helps to make it appear larger. And if you are using paving stones, square or rectangular, set them as a diagonal across the patio area. Use a mix of large-leaved plants with more delicately leaved subjects.

A pre-digital era (c.1999) photo of my stock tank water garden sheltered by a vast Alocasia or elephant’s ear (that’s one bulb only, honest) and banana that formed one screening wall of my terrace garden in Austin, TX. The tank was populated by little minnows that took care of the insect larvae.

Spread out. Try not to cram everything up against the house. Siting the sitting area even 15ft away from the back door is happy journey in a small landscape.

Make it moody. Candles are wonderful, but please not scented – why compete with nature’s perfume? Keep the lighting soft, luminous; some LED lights add a deathly pallor to a garden, so look for bulbs that claim a natural light, more peach than violet.

Play with music, I would always opt for a fountain, even a simple bubbler in pot set over a reservoir so the water cycles back to keep the action going is all it takes to smooth away life’s stresses. It is sound and movement in a pretty package.  And a combo of a splashing fountain, a thicket of healthy foliage and distance will preserve tranquility when your AC unit, or the neighbor’s, kicks in.

One I made earlier: at my garden in Allentown, PA, I carved out small quiet space between house and garage, spread a carpet of pebbles, a urn cum fountain, and spotlit by lime green furnishings. It remains one of my favorite spots.

Beating Bugs. Mosquitoes are a problem… as I know having lived in Austin, Texas, where the mosquitoes are the size of ponies, and Iowa, where they’re smaller but busier. I’ve painted patio ceilings Haint Blue, said in the south to keep bugs down, and tried sonic zappers and citronella candles…all pretty useless, imho. What really works is an applied repellent, particularly those that carry the word “Backwoods”, “Wilderness” or similar in their name. Any that have a predominantly eucalyptus oil base are effective too. For ponds or fountains, float Mosquito Dunks in the water to kill mosquito larvae.

With a little ingenuity, there’s so much that can be done with small spaces, but do it with gusto and as fine a finish as you can manage on your budget (another important factor!).

©Ethne Clarke, 2022.

Further reading:

Garden Design and Layout, John Brookes, Queen Anne Press, UK, 1970. A paperback loaded with design advice for small gardens, couched in mid-century modern idiom by one of England’s top landscape designers.  Available as a download from Google Books.

The Moonlit Garden, Scott Ogden, Taylor Publishing, Dallas TX, 1998.  Small gardens are intimate by design and nature, and this wonderful, expertly written book is packed with the plants you need create a seductive space.  From Amazon.

Water Features for Small Gardens, Ethne Clarke, Ward Lock, 1998. Here’s a handy little book with some 14 designs and how-to on making simple water gardens. I’ve even used it myself from time to time.  From Amazon.