Even if you love plants and trees, and can't ever seem to have enough, you can enjoy a small garden just as much by making every plant the best that it can be and by using space effectively. Start by using best organic-gardening practices such as building good soil. Then select the right plant for...
SIMPLE AS it seems, the most effective green strategy is to use less of everything. I remembered this a bit late last weekend after ending up with an embarrassingly large pile of plastic pots after a planting binge. It’s painful to toss all those pots into the garbage, and a good reminder to cut back, slow down and simplify.
A smaller-scale garden equals fewer plants, less water, less time and energy. But what’s so often left out of that equation is the satisfaction of gardening small. A petite garden is intimate and welcoming. That’s why people divide their bigger gardens up into more personally scaled garden rooms. Who says you need more than one such room?
The first gardening book I ever bought, on a trip to Vancouver many years ago, was John Brookes’ “The Small Garden.” After growing up in a large, woodsy suburban garden, I was enchanted by the urban courtyards in the book, the tidily fenced or walled spaces filled with pots, furniture and art, as well as plants.
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While John Brookes’ book is so sophisticated I’d still recommend it, there’s a newer book, also by a Brit, that’s practical and dirt-gardener friendly. In “Big Gardens in Small Spaces: Out-of-the-Box Advice for Boxed-in Gardeners” (Timber Press, $27.95), Martyn Cox features his own exuberant London garden. Cox is all about enjoying every inch of your garden, and offers clever ideas from wall-mounted sheds to growing vegetables and herbs in pots and even shady corners (lettuce, chives, coriander, parsley, mint, alpine strawberries and currants can all take some shade).
Gardeners, especially plant worshippers, need such smart strategies so they don’t feel deprived by downscaled gardens. Here are some pointers from Cox, as well as from my scant 2,500-square-foot garden on Whidbey, where I’ve squeezed in berries, vegetables, herbs and flowers, plus a very few trees, shrubs and perennials.
• Start with good organic-gardening practices so that your plants radiate health. You don’t have space for malingerers. This means building good soil, growing plants in the conditions that suit them best, regular weeding and watering, and grouping plants with similar cultivation needs. Don’t even try to grow lawn in the shade; better yet, get rid of your lawn altogether.
• Look for materials and objects that do double duty. An undrilled pot or feed trough can make a pretty water garden, and also hold a tall papyrus for height and exotica. A sculptural or colorful bench can be a focal point as well as a place to sit. Patterned or colored paving texturizes the garden while providing a dry, hard surface.
• Be picky, very picky, and give garden room only to what you love best. This is a discipline, but, hey, there’s never room to grow every plant you crave, anyway. If you can’t live without hostas, plant a single ‘Sum and Substance,’ which is the largest, most chartreuse of the bunch. Grow the pinkest, most ruffled, most fragrant rose — whatever you consider to be quintessential. If you don’t settle for second best you won’t need so many plants. I know, I know, it’s a theory. But we can make it work with thoughtful choices.
• A single, strong design concept unifies a garden, makes it comprehensible and restful to the eyes and the soul. This means you need fewer plants and accessories because the garden stands on its own without much embellishment.
• This may seem counterintuitive, but fewer, larger-scale elements (furniture, pots, art) make a small space feel roomier. While it’s tempting to go diminutive, don’t. Generously scaled decks and terraces, comfy furniture, and hefty arbors scale up smaller gardens and make them more inviting and usable.
• Using vertical as well as horizontal space lends height, privacy and dimension to the garden as well as more room for plants. Grow vines up screens and arbors, espalier sasanqua camellias or fruit trees, tuck plants into wall pockets and thread fencing with climbing plants. There’s no reason pumpkins and squashes can’t be grown up trellises rather than sprawling on the ground.
When a garden is small, every detail stands out to full advantage. This is the luxury of enough. When each well-selected or favorite item or plant in your garden is made the most of, you’ll never miss the acreage.
Oh, and Flower World in Maltby (9322 196th St. S.E., Snohomish; 425-481-7565) recycles plastic pots. Why don’t more nurseries follow suit?
Valerie Easton is a Seattle freelance writer and author of “The New Low-Maintenance Garden.” Check out her blog at www.valeaston.com.