Garden Coach's Blog for Gardeners

Some Thoughts on Gardening in Small Spaces

By: gardencoach, 9:15 PM GMT on March 17, 2013

Many gardeners with limited space experience frustration and disappointment because the plants they set their hearts on are just too big. Over the years I’ve heard so many of these laments in my plant selection classes that I now introduce the topic right at the beginning of my talk – small garden space does not mean you cannot have the plants you want. Gone are the days when your only option was to buy regular sized plants, then cut them back until they’re stunted and deformed in order to fit into the small space available.

Small scale gardening is no longer the exclusive territory of postage stamp-sized urban front yards and apartment balconies. This is a topic that becomes more important as the profile of our neighborhoods changes. Gone are the modest-sized suburban homes set on huge, sprawling landscapes of just a generation ago. Larger homes are being built on smaller lots. Homeowners used to be faced with landscaping a half acre blank slate. Their new challenge is finding a way to create a pleasing garden space in close quarters.

Also, within even large garden spaces there are smaller areas that might use more compact plants. One important consideration when you are integrating dwarfs or miniatures into a space containing regular sized plants is to make certain the larger plants are nearly at maturity. Otherwise, the smaller scale plants are almost sure to be overwhelmed by the larger varieties.

There are huge numbers of dwarf and miniature plants, some naturally small, others cultivars created by human hands. Other species are extraordinarily slow growing, a huge plus for the small landscape. Gardening on a small scale can be as every bit as rewarding as having a huge landscape. As with so many other gardening challenges, you just have to think it through to come up with some useful solutions.



Beloved plants like Buddleja (butterfly bush) and Syringa (lilac) can be huge and sprawling, a fact that brings heartache to gardeners with nothing but small plots. There are now dwarf varieties of each of these and many other sizable plants, every bit as beautiful as the larger specimens and completely in scale in a small space. Burpee has developed a series of small Buddleja called Nanho, and the ‘Nanho Purple’ grows only 5-6’ by 5-6’. Even smaller are two other cultivars called ‘Lo and Behold’ and ‘Blue Chip’, miniscule in comparison to their huge relatives at only 2-3’ by 2-3’. Think also of miniature roses, miniature Hosta, tiny Phormium (New Zealand flax) like ‘Jack Sprat’ and ‘Tiny Tim’. Very often, the cultivars names give away the fact that the plant is pint-sized.


A large Phormium, taller than the hedge behind it


A much smaller Phormium cultivar, planted in front of the border

The same is true for perennials as well. The wildly popular Verbena bonariensis, at 5-6’ tall with an equal spread, can overwhelm a tiny space, but Verbena bonariensis ‘Lollipop’, a naturally occurring dwarf, is demure at 2-3’ by 2-3” and a perfect plant to tuck into a small space. Hostas are beloved plants that can spread several feet wide. It’s now possible to choose from a wide selection of mini hostas that are measured in inches rather than feet, and the same is true for daylilies.


Standard size verbena towers over other plants and crowds the border


The 'Lollipop' cultivar fits into the garden without overpowering it

Give some consideration to alpine and rock garden plants. These are native to areas where soils are lean and winds scour the land constantly. Plants that thrive in that setting are naturally diminutive in size. They have adapted to an inhospitable existence by keeping small. They are perfect candidates for a smaller garden space because they are low growers, looking right at home in the front of the border. These include many of the Sedum (stonecrop), Fragraria (alpine strawberries), and Lewisia.

Watching out for the spread of a plant is crucial in a small garden, where wider plants can overpower everything else nearby. Verticality is desirable in a small space because it gives the impression of size without filling up space. Think of the newfound appreciation for green walls and vertical gardens. They are perfect for tiny, sometimes awkward spaces where it seems nothing looks quite right and employ everything from roof gutters to pre-made pockets as planters. We'll be discussing the popularity and usefulness of vertical gardening in a future post.



This living wall adds interest and takes up no horizontal space

Consider vines as well. There are many beautiful vines that fill space without being overpowering. I don’t think I would recommend Wisteria or Campsis (trumpet vine) because of their huge size and weight, but many varieties of Clematis, jasmine, Bougainvillea>/i>, and rose, form a delicate wall of color that doesn’t overwhelm a smaller area.


Like living walls, vines can provide lots of coverage in limited space

Think of grasses for textural interest in a small garden. There are two types to look for: small, delicate and tall, narrow varieties. Several species of Fescue, Acorus and Carex remain below one foot in height, while Pennisetum alopecureoides ‘Little Bunny’ gets only slightly taller while in bloom. The taller grasses that don’t take up much horizontal space could be ,i>Calamagrostis x acutiflora
‘Karl Forster’ and Sorghastrum nutans ‘Sioux Blue’, both 5 to 6’ tall (in bloom) but only 18” to 2 feet wide.


A garden using several species of small scale ornamental grasses

There is a huge array of dwarf conifers available in the nursery trade, and even a number of nurseries devoted to them. In addition to being small, almost all of them are extraordinarily slow growers. A dwarf Arizona cypress, Cupressus glabra ‘Chaparral’, takes 10 years to reach its maximum height of 10 feet. They come in a huge variety of shapes and the color selection, including grey, lime green, silver, and yellow, is quite breathtaking. Some of these tiny trees put on more horizontal than vertical growth, so be extra careful when checking height and spread.



A display of young dwarf conifers showing the range of foliage color and shapes

As for other trees, look for the smaller scale species. Several Cornus (dogwood) and Acer palmatum (Japanese maple), and Malus (crabapple) all are less than 15 feet tall. Magnolia stellata is a spectacular bloomer that is only 15 to 20 feet tall. A longtime personal favorite of mine is Azara microphylla (box leaf azara), an evergreen winter bloomer that grows 12 to 20 feet tall and can be kept narrow by removing the lower branches.

Also, consider using larger scale shrubs as trees. Here in the West, we often use the native redbud, Cercis occidentalis, as a tree. It never grows more than 12 to 20 feet tall and wide.



Western Redbud looks like a tree but is technically a shrub. This one has had its lower limbs removed to give a treelike appearance

Containers are great for small spaces, especially balconies and patios. Window boxes and planters can give you two levels of plantings in a limited area. A vine or climber can be placed on the trellis in the rear of the planter while the middle and front of the container can be filled with a variety of plants, including some that will cascade over the front and side edges.

Another bonus is that planting in containers keep larger plants small, giving you an opportunity to try out plants that may have been previously off limits.


This tidy planter holds a large selection of plants

Remember that the movement toward small scale plants applies to edibles as well. There is an astounding array of dwarf fruit trees, and virtually every vegetable now has a smaller scale variety. Even sunflowers, such as the multi-stem 2 1/2 foot tall 'Junior', can be successfully grown in
small spaces.

If you garden in a small space, gone are the days when you feel left out. If you are challenged at all by your own cramped quarters, what I hope you learn here is that you can make the most of what you have by taking advantage of the wide array of plants that are available. Within nearly every category of plant type and species are smaller scale, compact, even miniature varieties that meet your particular needs.

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About gardencoach

Susan Handjian is a garden educator in the San Francisco Bay Area. She was a contributing editor of Plants and Landscapes for Summer-Dry Climates.