Big Principles of Small Garden Design

What do viruses, atoms, and diamonds have in common? They are all tiny things capable of making a big impact. Similarly, a small, well-designed garden can be just as exquisite as the garden on a luxury estate. The key is to follow a few basic principles that are vital to good design, regardless of scale. The smaller the garden, the more attention it receives. Those who visit it will observe every nook and cranny at close range, so even the most seemingly insignificant corner becomes a focal point. While garden design is typically viewed through a wide angle lens, small-garden layout is different. Here you must view every plant and every square inch through a microscope. There’s no big secret – just attention to detail and application of these five basic principles, which together result in stunning gardens no matter how small.


1. Prioritize spaces for people, then plants. Undoubtedly, you will do a lot of living, dining, entertaining, and relaxing in this small garden, so its design must reflect these needs above all else. Pick the right outdoor furniture that will fit into the space with enough room for movement. And make sure the furniture you select is a reflection of you! Do you like bold, bright colors, or softer subdued hues? Do you prefer classic styles or a more modern look? Are you a lover of artsy mosaic pieces? You can express your personal style even if you only have space for a few chairs. And this will become the cornerstone of your outdoor garden space.


2. Splurge on high-quality materials. When creating smaller living areas, you need far less material to get the job done. But since you’re building your room in the great outdoors, it’s essential that each piece stand the test of time by standing up to the elements. So whenever you can upgrade – for instance, to high-quality stone or tile rather than ordinary concrete – do. Choose bronze or copper lighting fixtures over plastic. Explore beautiful ceramic tiles for accents. Why not buy English woven willow fences instead of ordinary boards? You know what your personal budget will allow, but when only a few feet are involved, these beautiful things can suddenly become affordable. If your garden is so small that you can only accommodate a single bench, make it teak. Let your umbrella express your personality through color and style. Choose chairs that are both functional and artistic in wrought iron or stainless steel. An outdoor dining table might feature a colorful mosaic top rather than typical frosted glass. With small gardens, it’s often a few basic choices in materials that make a world of difference.


3. Enhance indoor-outdoor connections. When you look at your outdoor area combined with your indoor area, the perception of the whole space is greater than the sum of its parts. When French or sliding doors are thrown open, you will actually feel like there’s more space than there really is. We all want to enhance the appearance of our rooms. The ability to visually expand them by blending into an adjacent outdoor patio or garden is a real asset. This doesn’t only apply during the summer when the doors are open; it’s just as important in the winter when the view through a sliding glass door can visually “borrow” space. Keep indoor-outdoor connection points open and free-flowing. Don’t crowd them with clutter, furniture, drapes, or houseplants. Encroachment will block light, increase separation, and shrink the appearance of the space. The goal is to transform a doorway from a transitional space to part of an overall passive living area. Integrating the style and colors of interior décor with those of the adjacent garden will better unite them into one flowing space. Even if the materials change here and there, coordinate the color of your interior flowing or carpet with the outdoor paving material. In addition you can coordinate fabrics with exterior options and extend the color palette of indoor paint and art outdoors into your planting. Changing the style of the garden to something different from the interior will break up the space and create a lack of harmony in your area.


4. Provide visual appeal from all angles. Small gardens are usually bound by fences, hedges, and walls, so it is important to create visual interest within the garden itself. Too often you’re advised to create a single focal point; while this may work in large spaces, it isn’t enough to keep us interested in confined gardens. Instead, create a galaxy of tiny points of interest, many of them as half-hidden surprises. That is the vital role of all art and artifact – as the focus of our view. Fortunately, smaller art pieces are more affordable, allowing you to select from a wide array of original works of arts, one-of-a-kind antiques, and truly well-designed pieces. At interiors stores you’ll find enchanting accents in stone, ceramic, and metal, both old and new. In mild climates, virtually anything that can stand up to the weather is suitable. Further north you can enjoy two seasons of art – with some pieces put out for the summer months, and others that are particularly striking under snow. You don’t want to put your garden art front and center. The elements of surprise and discovery are among the most important of all design concepts, because they allow our initial perception of a garden space to evolve gradually over time. Give your guests something to discover as they leisurely sip their wine or coffee. With many subtly placed treasures in the garden, they’ll be spotted one by one over the course of many visits in different seasons. Spaces in cities literally push your garden up against the wall. This provides a great opportunity to create views with artistic vertical elements. The French invented creative treillage (decorative latticework) as a way of using perspective to trick the eye (trompe l’oeil, in French) into thinking something is further away than it is. Hand-painted scenic murals can do the same. Other opens for flat surfaces are beautifully worked metal trellises, flat sculptures, wall fountains, or even a weather-proof mirror. Give the wall art a theatrical flair by surrounding it with a beautiful framework of flowers and foliage plants.


5. Use plants that are in scale with the space. In small spaces, a single, overgrown monster shrub can spoil the whole garden. Plants that are too large doom you to perpetual pruning, and they’ll never achieve their true natural beauty. Moreover, too much clipping may prevent some from ever flowering. Make it a point to know the size of the space before you look for the right plant to fill it. Consider both the height and the area of the space available. The ideal plant will remain within these parameters through its entire life span. Combine these dimensions with the sun exposure and soil type of the space to find plants that meet these requirements. From this list you can pick the best looking candidates that fit your personal style. Dwarf forms of well known plants can be the best choices for limited space. A dwarf ‘Josee’ lilac will fit where a full-sized lilac (syringa) won’t. Unlike big hybrids, ‘Happy Returns’ and ‘Stella D’Oro’ daylilies can slip into a small spot for a pop of summer color. If you have a favorite plant that might seem too big for your garden, do a bit of research to learn if there is a smaller variety that will better fit into your available space. Your planting scheme should also strive to use many small plants with a wide range of forms, colors, and textures. This gives your garden a variety of plant qualities to admire and enjoy as each one changes in its own way through the seasons.


Combined with fun art, your garden will develop a depth of interest guaranteed to surprise even the most worldly garden aficionado. \"outdoorUsing a variety of shapes also adds to the visual interest of your garden space. Ground-hugging carpets, columnar shrubs, climbing vines, and finely shaped topiary can play off each other to create an oasis of color and shapes. Vary your leaf shapes to include fine-textured ornamental grasses. Bounce these off palmate Japanese maples or painted ferns. While your first instinct is most likely to focus on bloom color, foliage \"outdoorcolor can contribute a great visual contrast whether or not plants are in bloom. Include vivid purple Coral Bells (heucheras) and brightly variegated hostas that love the shade and complement each other beautifully. Strive for the same diversity in flower shapes and forms. You might enjoy small pink dwarf bleeding hearts, exotic toad lily, and bright coreopsis daisies. Following these five simple principles will pay off when you see your guest delight in some artistic discovery or relax in the comfort of your well-chosen chaise lounge. Only then will you see how your tiny garden space can compare to atoms and diamonds – by making a big impact! Remember – gardening is simply playing in the dirt with a purpose. So go out there and have fun!