Discover harmonious yard designs. Explore container and vertical gardening.
Maybe you have always loved gardening, but your “great outdoors” is now a patio, balcony or small yard. “A potted fern will do it,” you might say, shaking your head in resignation. But, instead of giving up, it’s time to get creative.
Memorable gardens don’t always rely on wide-open spaces. Picture the walled gardens of New Orleans or the courtyard gardens of Carmel. These gardens translate to outdoor rooms, where you can relax and enjoy the surroundings. Small gardens can be particularly charming because you view the composition as a whole. Each element flows into the next without a jarring note.
By using soft colors and compatible textures, you can create a space so tidy and peaceful that you may wonder why you ever contemplated a larger yard.
Even if your yard is just a little patch, use the space productively by unifying and beautifying it with a cohesive theme. First, remove all clutter—yards tend to collect old garden tools and broken pots—so you can see the potential. Think of plants that look good together in colors that complement your home. A jumbled look can break up a small space.) Start by considering permanent objects. A lamppost or free-standing mailbox will brighten the picture when adorned with a vining clematis or morning glory.
Do you have a forlorn strip of land by the driveway or a neglected hillside with potential as a rock garden? Enhance them with well-coordinated small shrubs, annuals or perennials. Follow guidelines for successful planting as they apply to light, soil, water, and fertilizer.
Paths or walkways create movement as well as structure in the garden, while border plants naturally soften the mood.
Now that you’re ready to enjoy your respite, work in some outdoor furnishings— a wicker bench or wrought iron café table. Furniture, accessories and plants should all share the same mood, creating a congenial atmosphere that all will enjoy as an outdoor extension of your home.
Maybe you have only a patio or balcony. No matter, you want it to look its best. Container gardening is an excellent way to bring the outdoors to your doorstep.
There are myriad container choices, which can extend the theme of your home’s style and colors. Basic terra cotta pots are always fine, but you can get a little more individualistic with anything from a collection of small glazed pots to a pair of hand-painted pottery planters. If your home is traditional, you might opt for decorative stone or wrought iron patio planters. For an old English cottage look, reflecting today’s environmental trend, hayrack planters contrast strips of black iron with coco fiber liners. Frequently seen as window boxes, they help plants retain moisture. And, don’t overlook the innovative containers you may have around the house. Think of an old bucket, watering can, or wheelbarrow in its natural “antique-y” state or repainted for “shabby chic.” What fun!
Once you’ve settled on the containers, as with any garden, choose your color palette before going to the nursery—it’s too easy to get swept away by the garden center selection and decide, “I’ll take one of each.” If vibrant purple and bright orange won’t work with your surroundings, choose more subtle tones to help unify your small space. Also, observe the direction your space faces and choose plants fitting your sun, shade, or combination profile. Most plants are tagged with light requirements.
Consider how much effort you can devote to your container garden. Maybe your schedule insists, “easy care.” In that case, no-fuss annuals will brighten your space without getting too complicated. You can start simple with one type of annual—a single color can make a big impact. Or vary some pots with different shades of the same plant. Think of pink and blue petunia containers, plus a window box or hanging baskets. What a splash! You can also split pots between two different annuals. An example: contrast pink petunias with blue ageratum in different pots—both thrive in sun. And there are many other compatibles for both sun and shade. With more shade, purple torenia could contrast with white tuberous begonia.
If you have the time, you may be ready for the challenge of combining several types of plants. In putting together mixed containers, garden experts talk about using “thrillers, fillers, and spillers,” which can include annuals, perennials, bulbs, and leafy favorites. Categories can even overlap with different varieties of a plant.
A thriller is the attention-getting centerpiece. With good sun, this tall eye-catcher might be angelface angelonia, black-eyed Susan, purple fountain grass, dahlias or salvia. For shade: caladium, ferns, hosta, heuchera, impatiens. Medium size fillers are reliables that enhance other plants. In sun, try diamond frost euphorbia, penta, nemesia, vinca rosea. Shade fillers: begonia, torenia, Japanese painted fern or astilbe. Spillers cascade happily over sides of pots. For sun: artemesia, diascia, portulaca, brachycome, calibrochoa, sweet potato vine, verbena. Shade: lobelia, maidenhair fern, variegated vinca vine.
For example, in sun, a blue salvia thriller could contrast with bright pink pentas (starflowers) as fillers. Dainty white bacopa could take the spiller role. Have fun creating your own combos.
Start with a light, quality potting medium, promoting aeration and drainage, as in garden center packaged potting mix (that may not be soil at all.) Helpful components include aged bark, perlite, vermiculite, and sphagnum peat moss.
Water well. Pots can dry out very quickly, so daily or twice-daily watering can be needed when temperatures hit the 80s. Water deeply and slowly, morning or evening.
Assure good drainage, preventing root rot. Ideally, the bottom of your pot has small holes (half-inch to an inch are best.) If necessary, add holes carefully, choosing the right drill and drill bit size.
Double potting also facilitates drainage. Slip a plain pot (usually plastic) with drainage inside the larger outside decorative pot. Elevate the inside pot with a saucer, or anything preventing plants from sitting in drainage water. Empty any accumulated water often.
Feed often, since nutrients leach from drain holes along with the drainage when potted plants are watered. Use a liquid fertilizer to supply nutrition when planting and at recommended intervals.
Another way to have a nice crop of flowers in a small space is vertical gardening. It adds landscape dimension and minimizes your job of bending.
A popular approach uses wall planters of recycled materials to hold multiple rows of plants securely in pouches. Find them at garden centers to efficiently cover a wall with greenery and allow you to add plants and switch pouches for variety. Keeping them hydrated can be as simple as hand watering from top and letting water run through. Pricier wooden vertical units can feature built-in drip irrigation systems and a motor circulating excess water.
Consider vertical gardening as a time-efficient way to grow a few plants or to create a great backdrop for outdoor living. Vertical gardens have even been used to make skyscraper walls go green.
Today’s vertical gardening may seem like something relatively new, since the trend developed around the ’80s. But don’t forget that Grandma’s garden had interesting verticals, too. How about her arbor with a fragrant climbing new dawn or damask rose? Climbers are stunning accents on an arbor or trellis, assuming your area has ground for planting. (Otherwise, use an extra-large planter like an oak half barrel.)
Many other climbers are eye-catchers, too. Clematis, wisteria, and bougainvilla all adapt to sun or partial shade. More shade-tolerant vines include climbing hydrangea, wintercreeper evergreen, English ivy.
Hanging plants from a fence or wall can introduce a spot of color where needed.
Accessories are important in your outdoor space, with an exception: Don’t overdo it. Your space is small; your floral designs are eye-catching, so accessories should be limited and important, not overdone and cluttered.
There are so many possibilities for accents—sundials, statuary and fountains all compete for space. If the containers themselves are decorative, there is less need for accessories.
Plan accessories to enhance your plantings, not compete with them. A few interesting items should call up just the right amount of attention.
Small space gardening: a booklistAll of these book are available at the Mt. Lebanon Library or through the Carnegie Library System
Catherine Abbott The Everything Small-Space Gardening Book 
Martyn Cox Big Gardens in Small Spaces 
Maria Finn A Little Piece of Earth 
Gordon Hayward Small Buildings, Small Gardens: Creating Gardens Around Structures 
Peter McHoy Designing and Planting Small Gardens 
Andrew Wilson Small Garden Handbook