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Small Space Garden Design Ideas from the Pros

By: Marisa Reyes
Learn how to make the most out of small garden spaces from 4 designers.

Elevating Small Space Gardens

In a small space, cultivating a lush and thriving garden may seem like a daunting challenge, especially if you’re up against environmental obstacles such as heavy rainfall, extreme heat or drought. But it isn’t impossible!

I’ve asked four garden design pros to share their techniques, products and favorite plants to make the most of a limited space. Whether you have a smaller backyard or garden on a patio or rooftop, you’ll find plenty of ideas here! 

Pearce Butcher:Pearce Butcher elevates small garden spaces by matching the hardscaping with the home exterior

Small space garden design elements at work

Pearce Butcher, Pearce B Designs, Greenville, SC

Pearce Butcher loves using the principles of design — order, repetition, proportion, color and balance — to create a place her clients can relax in and enjoy.

Use a 45-degree angle in your garden design 

Dividing the garden into symmetrical quadrants using a 45-degree angle makes a small space feel bigger. This allows you to create longer pathways and sight lines, drawing the eye to the corners of the garden. For example, she designed the patio above to sit perpendicular to the house and property lines by rotating it 45 degrees. Her sketch of this design, above, shows how this technique allows you to add more variety to the shapes in a space.

Go big with groups 

Pearce says, “You want your landscape to look like a well-designed bookshelf, not spilled Legos.” So she plants in large groups and uses repetition to keep it simple and cohesive. Too many different varieties can make a small space feel cluttered and overwhelming. Instead, stick to a mix of complementary foliage textures and a simple color palette to achieve a balanced look.

Backyard patio: Brick banding around the outdoor patio area ties the home
to the exterior hardscaping.

Complement the exterior and interior

Extend elements of your home’s architecture and interior style into the garden. Blurring the lines between indoors and out helps make the garden feel larger. If you have a brick house or patio, line your pathways with brick like Pearce did to accentuate the exterior of her clients’ home in the photo above. Or if you have natural stones in the landscape around your property, repeat those in your hardscaping to match.

Double-duty furniture

Furniture that serves multiple purposes is a perfect way to expand the use and comfort of your small garden. A stool makes a great side table or extra seating. A firepit (like the one above) can be covered to serve as a coffee table. Backless benches can be used as seating facing either direction or as low tables.

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174-sm-spaces-shakers-prayer-siberian-iris: 'Shakers Prayer' Siberian iris is a great plant that tolerates soggy soil.

Water-loving plants for small space gardens

Drainage is often a challenge in small gardens because there is less room to create berms and swales needed to move water around. That’s why Pearce likes to use moisture-loving plants that tolerate soggy soil in her garden designs. Here are a few of her favorites:

  • Dwarf fothergilla (Fothergilla gardenii)
    Shrub; fragrant white bottlebush spikes bloom in spring; full sun to part shade; 18 to 36 in. tall, 12 to 48 in. wide; cold hardy in USDA zones 5 to 8

  • Siberian iris (Iris sibirica)
    Perennial; white, yellow, violet, blue, pink or maroon flowers in spring; full sun to part shade; 24 to 48 in. tall, 18 to 36 in. wide; cold hardy in USDA zones 3 to 9

  • Virginia sweetspire (Itea virginica)
    Shrub; fragrant white bottlebrush flowers in late spring to early summer; shades of red, orange and gold foliage in fall; full sun to part shade; 3 to 5 ft. tall and wide; cold hardy in USDA zones 5 to 9

Kristin Monji Garden design: Kristin Monji specializes in small space rooftop gardens like this one.

Plan ahead to make the most of small space gardens

Kristin Monji, Birch and Basil Design, New York, NY

Creating designs for small gardens, rooftops and balconies that use every inch of space to its full potential is what Kristin Monji does best. While small spaces can be challenging, they force you to get creative and dive into organized planning to create a place where people can gather and enjoy, and that’s what Kristin really loves about designing them.

Draw it out

Measure the area and make a floor plan. Think about the top five nonplant elements you want — furniture placement, hardscaping and structures like pergolas. This will help you see what works and what doesn’t, and it allows you to play around with different ideas before you commit to buying or installing something.

Add height

Use a tree as a focal point. Select multi-stemmed trees with unique foliage that offer seasonal interest, such as Japanese maples (Acer palmatum). Kristin loves to use them in small gardens because they are great for growing in containers and many grow just 8 to 10 feet tall. Plant a tree in the farthest corner of the landscape from the house to draw the eye to areas of the garden that you typically wouldn’t notice right away. Or plant them in movable pots.

Small space patio garden Kristin Monji: Too many small pieces of furniture can make a patio appear cluttered. Instead, select bigger ones, like this sectional, to make a small space feel more open.

The bigger the better

Don’t clutter your space with multiple pieces of small furniture — this can cause your garden to feel busy. Instead, select bigger pieces that make a statement, such as a large coffee table or sectional patio set. And custom built-ins, such as benches and lounges, are a great option to help maximize every square foot of those areas where standard furniture won’t fit.

Multipurpose planters

Cluster three to five pots in a variety of sizes and change up the plantings from time to time to add seasonal interest. Kristin likes to use annuals with cascading effects, such as calibrachoa (Calibrachoa hybrids), creeping Jenny (Lysimachia nummularia ‘Aurea’) and sweet potato vine (Ipomoea batatas), in her designs. But don’t limit yourself to ornamentals: Cucumbers, tomatoes, basil and other herbs can live happily with your flowers and combine function and beauty.

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Cats Pajamas catmint: Cat's Pajamas catmint is covered in fragrant blooms from late spring to summer.

Long-Blooming Plants

When space is at a premium, it helps if each plant has several seasons of interest. Here are a few of Kristin’s favorites:

  • Catmint (Nepeta spp. and hybrids)
    Perennial; fragrant lavender, blue, white, pink or purple flowers from late spring to summer; full sun; 6 to 48 in. tall, 12 to 48 in. wide; cold hardy in USDA zones 3 to 9

  • Coral bells (Heuchera spp. and hybrids)
    Perennial; white, pink, red or purple blooms from late spring to summer; green, burgundy, chartreuse or amber foliage; full sun to part shade; 6 to 24 in. tall, 10 to 36 in. wide; cold hardy in USDA zones 3 to 9

  • Lemon verbena (Aloysia citrodora)
    Tender perennial (usually grown as an annual); fragrant white to pale lilac flowers from midsummer to early fall; full sun; 2 to 4 ft. tall and wide; cold hardy in USDA zones 8 to 10

  • Panicle hydrangea (Hydrangea paniculata)
    Shrub; white or green flowers that age to pink from summer to fall; full sun to part shade; 3 to 25 ft. tall, 3 to 16 ft. wide; cold hardy in USDA zones 3 to 8

Sara Meier container arrangement: Repeat plants of the same color in different textures like blues and silvers for a cohesive and balanced look.

Smart plant choices for small garden spaces

Sara A. Meier, Green Thumb SAM, Meridian, ID

No matter how big or small, everyone should have an outdoor space they love. And Sara Meier is always up for a challenge when it comes to designing spaces for her clients. Here are a few of her favorite plants and design techniques to try in your garden.

Plan for the senses

A little fragrance goes a long way in a small space. Plant herbs like rosemary (Rosmarinus officinalis), oregano (Origanum vulgare), and lavender (Lavandula spp. and hybrids) in containers and touch their leaves as you walk by to release their scents. And creeping thyme (Thymus serpyllum) will smell delightful every time you step on it.

Use repetition

Sara encourages people to grow plants that repeat the same color in different textures. She loves to use variations of silvers and blues, like in the photo above, to tie a composition together and bring a calming feel to the garden. Grow plants with dark foliage and flowers for a moody and dramatic combination, or repeat shades of yellows and oranges to make a space feel happy and uplifting.

Plant for every season

Sara draws a four-list chart for all the plants she’s considering in a garden, giving spring, summer, fall and winter each a column. Under each season, she lists plants that are at their peak. It might not always be flowers: Evergreen foliage, beautiful bark and bright berries go in the winter column; showy autumn color and interesting seedheads go in the fall column. If one season is light on interest, then she knows what to look for. She also appreciates plants that have long bloom times and multiple seasons of interest, such as hydrangeas (Hydrangea spp. and hybrids) and ornamental grasses, which hold both color and form from summer to fall.

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Seven son flower: Seven-son flower makes a great focal point in small space gardens.

Water-wise plants for small space gardens

The most successful gardens come from mimicking the natural environment in which you live. Gardens in Sara’s community only average 11 inches of rain every year. Here are a few of her favorite drought-tolerant plants:

  • Mojave sage (Salvia pachyphylla) 
    Perennial; purple flowers from mid-to late summer; full sun; 18 to 24 in. tall, 24 to 30 in. wide; cold hardy in USDA zones 5 to 10

  • Seven-son flower (Heptacodium miconioides)
    Shrub; creamy white flowers with showy deep red calyxes from late summer to early fall followed by red-purple berries; full sun; 15 to 20 ft. tall, 8 to 10 ft. wide; cold hardy in USDA zones 5 to 9

  • Silver edged horehound (Marrubium rotundifolium)
    Perennial; insignificant white flowers appear over its fuzzy green foliage edged with silver from late spring to early summer; full sun; 6 to 10 in. tall, 18 to 24 in. wide; cold hardy in USDA zones 4 to 9

Sara Bendrick portrait and garden pathway: This mosaic path adds an extra
detail that you might be more likely to notice in a small space.

Think outside the box for small space gardens

Sara Bendrick, Sarita Landscapes Inc., San Diego, CA

Sara Bendrick loves to incorporate a natural, curvy and eclectic style to every project she works on. Here are a few of her tips for small gardens.

Zoom in with detail

Sara says, “In a small yard, there are fewer things for your eyes to go to.” So little details can make a big impact. For example, add a mosaic path like the one you see above. Not only is it a practical feature, it’s an art piece. Or add a water feature like a plug-in fountain or a small pond in the corner of a yard to highlight different areas of the landscape.

Break the grid

Most of us have square or rectangle yards. Sara likes to break this shape up visually by adding a larger item in a corner. For example, a tree or a sculpture can help break away from the standard shape and make it more interesting.

Patio vertical planting:  Living, or green, walls, are a great way
to add more plants to a small space if you
don’t have room in the ground to plant.

Use the vertical plane

Use all the space in your garden, including the walls, to add more greenery or art. A fence doesn’t have to just be a fence. Especially if your yard is mostly concrete and you don’t have space for plants in the ground, you can use a trellis, vertical planter or install planting pockets, as Sara did in the garden above. Or you could paint a mural or attach decorative panels to add interest.

Create depth

Layering plants is a great way to generate depth in a small space. You don’t want your entire planting to be the same height; instead, combine plants that offer a range of heights. Low-growing annuals look great at the front of a border and Sara loves to use dwarf conifers in her designs because they provide structure and color to the garden all year.

Parrys agave: Parry's agave is a sun-loving tender perennial.

Sun-Loving Plants

In areas where drought and reflected or atmospheric heat is high, using plants that can handle dry conditions and take a beating from the sun will be important. Sara recommends trying these:

  • Feather reed grass (Calamagrostis x acutiflora ‘Karl Foerster’)
    Perennial; pink plumes mature to tan from late spring to fall; full sun; 3 to 5 ft. tall, 2 to 3 ft. wide; cold hardy in USDA zones 5 to 9

  • Palo verde tree (Cercidium x ‘Desert Museum’)
    Tree; large yellow flowers from spring to summer; full sun; 25 to 30 ft. tall and wide; cold hardy in USDA zones 8 to 9

  • Parry’s agave (Agave parryi)
    Tender perennial (usually grown as an annual); yellow flower spikes emerge 10 to 20 ft. above foliage when plants mature; full sun; 2 to 3 ft. tall, 3 to 4 ft. wide; cold hardy in USDA zones 8 to 12

Product Recommendations

Here are some supplies and tools we find essential in our everyday work in the garden. We may receive a commission from sales referred by our links; however, we have carefully selected these products for their usefulness and quality.

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garden design garden designers issue 174 november december 2023 plant recommendations

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