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A cozy, small-space garden

By: Sherri Ribbey
Take a tour of this cozy, small-space garden for big ideas about English garden design, simple white and green color schemes and creating a casual atmosphere for entertaining and relaxing.

cozy-garden-lead: Just a handful of containers makes a big impact in a small space. Flanking the sidewalk with topiaries in containers calls attention to the front door.

Take a walk in this small Northern California town and you might come across this charming home and cozy, small space garden. There’s just something welcoming about its neatly trimmed hedges and topiary in numerous sizes and shapes. If John Ritter is out working in his garden, he’ll be happy to answer any questions you have and may even take you on a tour to see the rest of the yard. His front porch is a popular gathering place for friends old and new, especially on Friday nights — what better way to pass a lazy summer evening than chatting with friends, glass of wine in hand? The party may start on the front porch but it continues in the backyard. Let’s take a look.

cozy-garden-illustrated-garden-plan: This overhead view of the garden shows how well John has maximized the space in his small yard.

Make use of a small space with cozy garden rooms

After a short walk to the backyard, you’ll see that there’s a lot packed into this small space without it feeling cramped or crowded. Check out the illustration above to see the layout. John bought the house 20 years ago and did a lot of work indoors before taking on the neglected yard. He removed most of the existing plants except for the mature trees. After that, he got to work creating outdoor rooms that reflect his love of English gardens’ symmetry and balance.

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Fragrant hedges create a private retreat

To match the hedge up front, there’s another star jasmine hedge in the backyard to provide a sense of continuity, some privacy and a sweet scent. Even though it’s pruned to a low hedge in the front yard, star jasmine can grow to 20 feet. To grow vertically instead of sprawling, it needs some support. This garden uses lattice panels that allow the twining stems to weave in and out.

cozy-garden-seating-area: Gravel is a popular material for English garden paths, which is part of the reason it’s used here.
Besides that, it’s economical and easy to maintain with a little raking in autumn when the leaves fall.

A DIY table big enough to entertain

To get a table large enough for entertaining at a price that didn’t break the budget, John made his own from pressure-treated dimensional lumber. After 15 years this 8-foot-by-3-foot table still looks great. It’s made from two 8-foot-long 4×4s cut in half for the legs, three 8-foot-long 2×4s to create the apron and a piece of plywood for the top. A local craftsman put sheet metal over it and rolled the edges so no one was injured by sharp corners.

cozy-garden-firepit: Wicker lookalikes, these chairs are actually a manmade material over an aluminum frame so they can stay outdoors all year.

Get cozy with a fire

When dinner is over and the evening cools down, wander over to the firepit to warm up. John liked this firepit, purchased at a local hardware store, that had a hood to keep the sparks contained, the rain out and direct the warmth from the fire out. What he didn’t like were the small, wobbly legs. So he removed them and hired a stone mason to help him build the base. Once the outer ring was in place they added concrete to the center and carefully pressed the body of the firepit into the wet concrete, making sure it was level.

cozy-garden-boxwood-topiary: It’s time to move topiary boxwoods up to a larger pot size when you notice that growth isn’t as vigorous.

Topiary adds a touch of the classic

Nothing says “English garden style” quite so well as topiary. John has been growing them for a long time — the one in the photo above is 45 years old! Here’s his best topiary growing tips:

  • Start with small specimens of either Japanese or English boxwood. They grow well in this USDA zone 9 garden and spend winter in the pots quite easily. If you live where winters get below freezing, growing boxwood in the ground will be easier than overwintering it in a container.
  • Water, prune and feed to keep the topiaries looking their best. Regular applications of MaxSea plant food with a 16-16-16 formula every six weeks provides plenty of nutrients.
  • Move these shrubs up to larger containers every three to five years. John uses terra-cotta for a consistent look throughout the yard, but the largest plants were so big that terra-cotta became cost-prohibitive. Instead he got 40-gallon galvanized stock tanks and added drainage holes. They add a modern touch to the otherwise classic English style, and they make a big impact in this cozy, small space garden.

Keep a small space well pruned

Pruning isn’t as difficult as it might seem. John just eyeballs the shape — twice a year for the slower growing English boxwood and three times for the Japanese boxwood. Hand pruners are the tool of choice because you get a cleaner cut than with power trimmers. Plus it’s easier to accidentally cut into the wood with power trimmers, producing a bald spot that takes a long time to grow back in.

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cozy-garden-seating-area-in-the-evening: Hide the light fixtures behind furniture, containers or other plants to keep the focus on what the light reveals instead of the fixture.

Cozy at night, too

This backyard is just as inviting at night as it is during the day. Easy-to-install lighting and the right plants set the mood and make it a casual space comfortable to relax in and talk with friends late into the evening.

Some tips about night lighting in a small space

As the sun goes down, the lights you see in the photo above have just come on, illuminating the seating area. This cozy glow is thanks to the low-voltage lighting system found throughout the garden. It takes the high volts from the house and runs it through a transformer to lower the current to a level safe enough to install yourself. Transformers are sold according to wattage — get one that’s too small and the lights will be dim, too large and it shortens the lifespan of your lights. Find the right transformer size by adding up the wattage of all the lights you want to install and getting one with a slightly higher capacity.

Use lighting to highlight your garden’s best features

When it comes to positioning lights, first consider safety issues, such as steps, that you don’t want guests to stumble over or into. After that, it’s a matter of highlighting special features. John gives special attention to the topiaries by focusing a spotlight on the wall behind them, which turns them into shapely silhouettes at night.

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cozy-garden-pathway-topiary-white-garden: White captures your attention every time. You can’t miss the bright white chair and star jasmine blooms
against the deep green foliage.

Keep a simple color scheme with classic white garden flowers

While other colors fade into the shadows as the sun goes down, white flowers become luminous. It’s the perfect choice for dressing up your outdoor entertaining space and providing a show both day and night. Just take a look at the star jasmine hedge above. Remove the electric lights and this backyard would still have a welcome feel.

The long-blooming white-flowering plants John has chosen to grow in his yard ensure that he has a beautiful view for friends to enjoy in any season. And many of them have a delicious scent, too. Check out a few that you can count on to bloom from spring to fall in the slideshow below. Use them in your own garden to brighten up the patio where family and friends gather and create a backyard that’s inviting any time of the year during the day and at night.

Click through to see 4 favorite white garden flowers with varying blooms times.

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Published: Oct. 7, 2019
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