Topic: Outdoor Living Ideas

Date Posted: Thursday, January 08, 2015
Posted by: Tanya Zanfa (Master Admin)

Landscaping a small space: design advice, plant-buying tips and mistakes to avoid

Landscaping a small space: design advice, plant-buying tips and mistakes to avoid

Landscaping in limited space can be a challenge for many residents. Older neighborhoods typically have smaller lots, and even in communities where yards are larger, there often are areas that need to be addressed on a small scale.

If you're thinking about installing a new landscape or adding hardy trees, shrubs, ground covers or vines to your yard, now in the cool season -- which runs from October to March -- is the best time to do some planting.

Once decisions about walkways, patios, fences, arbors and other hardscapes have been made, the careful selection of plants completes the process. But this can be a challenging step.

The inclination is to plant everything you can get your hands on -- the more kinds of plants the better. But plants should be selected as part of a total plan. Integrating individual ones into an overall design that carefully considers the shape, color and leaf form of neighboring plants distinguishes a garden from a plant collection.

After curbing your initial enthusiastic impulses, you can approach the design from a variety of different ways. Largely, this depends on how much emphasis you want to place on following a controlled design or on allowing the natural development of the plants.

Here are some ideas I think work well in balancing the controlled design with the more casual development.

You can consider the design on three levels. First, the structural level forms the basic framework of the garden. This primarily involves trees, large shrubs and focal points. The second level provides the bulk of the planting and includes massed shrubs, ground covers and some herbaceous material. The third level, the decorative planting, provides colorful flowers or foliage and is set against the other two.

A common error is to concentrate mainly on the flowering plants, throw in a few shrubs and allow the bulk of the planting to emerge piecemeal. What often works best is to do just the opposite.

The first stage should establish the bones of the garden. Just as the skeleton of an animal determines its shape and function, these plants become the foundation of the garden. Their selection and placement should come first and adhere to a well-considered plan. Plants used in this stage include shade and flowering trees, screens and hedges and prominent specimen plants.

Pay careful attention to their mature size as they are the largest plants that will go into the design; in small space situations, these plants create major problems if they grow too large.

Plants at the second level must fill in the spaces, creating bulk in the planted areas. They will form the background for the smaller decorative plants, but should also be visually pleasing in themselves.

Choosing flowering shrubs, for instance, helps provide seasonal color in addition to bedding plants. Vines, in all of the roles they play in the landscape, fall in this category.

These plants give the garden its stability and should generally be evergreen, although the use of a few deciduous shrubs, such as hydrangeas and flowering quince, can add interest and indicate seasonal changes. Smaller plants in this category should be used in masses or groups to keep the whole arrangement from getting too busy.

When it comes to the decorative level, you can relax your adherence to your carefully thought-out plan and rely more on the natural development of the plantings.

That doesn't mean you shouldn't do any planning. I always try to think about color schemes, placement of plants based on their height and other considerations. But decorative plantings are generally constantly changing.

Plants are frequently coming and going as annuals die and are replaced, or plants are moved to different spots where they will grow and look better. At this level, the plant collector in you may dominate -- controlled by the garden designer just enough not to create a garden riot.

You can get away with this if the rest of the garden and landscape, including the structures, walkways, patio, fences, trees and shrubs, were carefully thought out and placed. If a mistake is made at the decorative level, it's temporary or easily corrected. Putting a patio or major tree in the wrong spot, however, is not so easily dealt with.

When choosing plants for a small garden, size is of the utmost importance. You need to consider not just how big it is when you buy it, but how big it will ultimately grow and how fast. Overgrown plants can ruin the most carefully planned garden.

Scale is the key; use only plants and features that fit comfortably with each other. You should tend to favor smaller-growing species, dwarf or compact cultivars and slower-growing plant materials. (Send me an email for a list of plants appropriate for small-space landscapes.)

In small spaces, there are two interesting ways you can enrich your use of plants. When space at ground level is limited, go up.

Use fences, arbors and trellises to grow colorful vines. Use hanging baskets and wall-mounted planters and pots. You can greatly increase the plants you grow by utilizing the space above the ground.

Another great idea is to use containerized plants at entrances and on porches, decks and patios. Growing plants in pots gives them great versatility and mobility, and allows you to change the look of the landscape almost at a whim.

Whether you're creating a new landscape or improving on an existing one, now is a great time to plant. But think things through and make well-considered decisions.

A well-planned small garden is a delight both for its beauty and in how well it provides for the family who uses it.

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