The Challenge of Garden Size
Gardening on Small and Large Lots
By Sara Malone and Sandy Metzger, Sonoma County Master Gardeners
People have occasionally commented to Susan, “Oh, you’ve got it easy with your small city lot”, referring to designing and gardening a smaller in-town property. Those rural dwellers are thinking of their sprawling acreage with seemingly never-ending planting, pruning, water consumption, time and energy necessary to maintain a larger lot. The city dwellers, instead, think of limited plant selection, constant pruning to keep vigorous plants in check, mature trees casting shade on beloved flowers, little space for a vegetable garden or display of special artwork or collections, and meticulous front yard maintenance to adhere to rigid homeowner association policies.
Which gardener has a tougher job? Both do, as size presents a challenge whether large or small. Of the six gardens on the June 22nd Master Gardener “Bloomin’ Backyards” garden tour, two illustrate how a gardener copes with these challenges at each end of the spectrum: Susan’s garden, in a city lot, and Amanda’s garden, in an oak woodland. Both gardeners have addressed the issues of their respective small and large properties, one personalizing and working within the confines of walls and near-zero lot line zoning, and the other working harmoniously with nature on a grand scale.
When designing a garden or selecting plants, too few gardeners give enough thought to scale. With a very small or large garden, focus on scale is vital, and often, it’s the last issue considered. That’s why sometimes you see an extremely large two-story house with tiny five-gallon trees or a diminutive fountain that fails to be a focal point. Or the opposite occurs: a small Victorian cottage dwarfed by a gigantic pergola or by a Blue Spruce that was small when planted but all too soon grew to maturity. If scale is ignored in a particularly small or large space, the small garden likely feels much smaller and is less usable, and the large garden appears as a collection of disparate elements. So, attention to scale is critical to making your small or large garden feel ‘right-sized’.
Susan, in the city of Santa Rosa, has lived in her home for more than thirty years. She has a front yard typical of the in-town subdivisions constructed decades ago: sidewalk to the front door, evergreen foundation plantings and an amply watered, fertilized, and meticulously mowed front lawn, plus a “tree lawn” between the city sidewalk and street. In most sub-divisions, old and new, new homeowners have little choice about what they can do with the public front yard. The back yard, however, is private, and Susan has transformed hers from a conventional space to a magical jewel-box of a garden.
Susan calls it her “play yard”, and it is enclosed by the “ceiling” of an enormous Modesto Ash, the Spanish wall delineating hers and the adjoining property and the exterior walls of her home and rear garden cottage. So one technique that has worked to make her small garden seem ‘right-sized’ is a bit counter-intuitive: wall in that small space and emphasize the coziness and comfort. The garden feels like a room – an outdoor extension of Susan’s home. The walls have practical considerations as well – she has much more privacy in this densely-populated city than she would without the walls.
Another technique that works in this small space is to accentuate the soothing and unifying effect of foliage. Susan has chosen shrubs such as Spirea ‘Lime Mound’ and Pittosporum ‘Siver Sheen’ for foliage as well as bloom and has even kept a small lawn in the back; and of course the Ash tree provides its green ‘ceiling’. This foliage provides a serene backdrop for her collection of fireplace pieces and special ceramics. Her attention to scale means that her trellises and garden art are sized appropriately for her space. While the Modesto Ash has grown to enormous size, so have all of the neighborhood’s redwood trees, so the Ash fits the scale of the area, if not precisely that of the garden.
If you have a small garden, don’t make the mistake of thinking that you do not need paths. Although it is possible to see all of Susan’s garden from the deck, or even from the windows, seeing is not the same as using and experiencing. The pathways of old brick and flagstone provide definition to the garden areas and beckon us to explore with our eyes groundward, spotting hidden treasures among the flowers and foliage. Since smaller gardens tend to contain specimen plants rather than large swaths of mass or color, close observation of these specimens adds to the experience. Pathways also unify and provide workspace when performing garden maintenance. It's wise to use a permeable material to mitigate run-off or puddling of rainwater. One of
Susan’s most distinctive paths is made of large, round saw-blades set onto the grass. They would be lost in a large garden, but here they charmingly lead the visitor from the terrace out onto the lawn.
One of the most common complaints from small garden owners is the lack of space to grow vegetables. Susan would admit that this is probably her biggest challenge, but what she lacks in space she makes up for in creativity. If you go on the tour in June, be sure to look for the tomatoes that she has espaliered against the sunny wall of her house! To grow vegetables in a small space one truly has to ‘think outside the box’ and incorporate them into the rest of the garden innovatively.
Containers are helpful in a small garden as a way to showcase specimens or grow herbs and vegetables. In a large garden, for example, one might have a clump or border of a favored plant – a small lot doesn’t allow for that indulgence. Rather than having a garden with one of everything lined up in a bed, using containers either singly or in groups allows the gardener to highlight one plant without making it look like an orphan. Containers also have the virtue of making it easy to change the plants – in some cases to rearrange the containers for variety. In large gardens one can move from place to place to alter the view – in small ones the gardener does not have that luxury. Susan reinforces the notion that small is an attractive asset, not a liability: her extensive collection of tiny, delicate container Bonsai specimens embodies the sense of her ‘jewel-box’ garden.
Remember, a smaller garden is usually more personal, intimate, and manageable. If you have one, you may want to incorporate some of these pointers and "tricks" into your design to make it feel "just right" and "exactly you".
- Have a single, dramatic focal point, be it a specimen tree, fountain, statue, or other artwork.
- Pay attention to detail, as "mistakes" are more visible.
- Limit furniture, little outbuildings, or other structures.
- Use a water garden, unique mirror or window to reflect light, giving the appearance of space.
- Use a limited color palette. Clash and wild combinations of many colors create visual clutter. Remember the unifying effect of foliage.
- Layer plantings from front to back and from ground up.
- Prune shrubs and trees judiciously to "open" them up, making their mass feel less impenetrable.
- Fruit trees may be espaliered on a wall and vegetables interplanted among the flowers to better utilize space.
When Amanda and her husband bought their large, oak-studded property a decade ago, they had a vision for a natural garden that would exist in harmony with the landscape and habitat. The size alone would have discouraged some – where does one begin such an enormous project? While always keeping scale in mind, designing a large garden isn’t that different from beginning a small one: determine how you are going to use the space, which components you want to include or exclude, site those elements and design the drives and pathways to connect the different areas. Perhaps the most important concept to keep in mind with such a large space is simplicity, as much for preserving one’s sanity as for producing a coherent design. Just because the space is large doesn’t mean that it has to contain every known garden feature or every plant you’ve ever fallen in love with.
A sub tenet of ‘Simplify’ is that you do not have to landscape every square inch of a large property. In laying out her design, Amanda left large parts ‘natural’ and untouched. These areas could either be part of a later phase, or never cultivated. The plan can be dictated by finances, energy, design or a combination of all three. Another sub tenet of simplicity is repetition: choosing several plants that are both favorites of the gardener and suitable for the setting and using them throughout the property, repeating the theme and drawing the separate parts together. In Amanda’s case, the large, native oaks provide much of the mood, and she was determined to fit her design to that theme, rather than work against it. This meant leaving the oaks standing, and planting in a manner that complemented and preserved them. Her choice of local natives such as Manzanita echoes the oak woodland theme as they are repeated throughout the property.
We discussed the importance of paths in a small garden – in a large garden they are even more important: paths and drives have a critical functional role in connecting the different garden areas for both pedestrian and vehicular use, and unifying what in many cases can be disparate elements. For example, a large garden with different areas can be ‘unified’ by using the same path material throughout. Amanda has chosen to use a variety of stone or gravel, both inorganic, which blend together harmoniously. She also wisely made the pathways and drives wide and substantial enough to fit the scale of the property.
Once she sited the ‘functional’ elements of vineyard, swimming pool, chicken coop and artist’s studio in relation to the house, driveway and exposure, she was able to lay out the walkways and drives, and then set to work incorporating them into her overall theme. When she chose the sunniest, flattest location for the pool and pool-house, that logically became the tropical corner where she planted specimens such as Melianthus and citrus, evocative of tropical paradises. The oaks do not dominate here, and this is the area where, for both functional and design purposes, she chose to plant a small lawn. When one has a large garden, a unifying theme is important, though it does not mean that you must conform to it across every square inch. Having a distinctive area with different elements allows for some variation, providing the gardener a place to dabble with plants that do not work within the overlying concept for the property. What is key, however, is to make sure that both the integrity of the separate area is intact, and that the transitions to the other parts of the garden are smooth and pleasing.
In Amanda’s garden, the pool-house at one end of the tropical area provides the transition: when one walks through to the other side, the tropics have been left behind and the garden visitor emerges into a more natural environment. Stone steps lead down through abundant plantings of rosemary and artemesia, which provide an anchor for specimens such as clematis and succulents interplanted amongst them. This highlights another important concept of large-scale garden design: use plants in large enough numbers to make a statement and maintain the scale. One or two rosemary plants, large as they are, would have appeared insignificant here. Amanda has planted 40 or 50 and they don’t overwhelm. With an eye to maintenance as well as design, she has emphasized shrubs rather than herbaceous perennials. Shrubs generally require less ongoing trimming, fertilizing and grooming than flowering perennials.
Finally, the gardener can seek out some of the plant varieties that get too big for the average homeowner, but make stunning statements in a large garden. Note, for example, Amanda’s repeated use of Rosa banksia ‘Lutea’ on large trellises leading from the house down to the vineyard. Both the trellises and the rose are massive, but not out of scale with the size of the property, the road or the vineyard, so they do not appear overly large. Smaller plants would have gotten lost on those large trellises, and smaller trellises would have looked puny.
So if you find yourself with a large garden, remember that there are some basics which will help you make it ‘right-sized’:
- Simplify and Repeat– pick a theme and choose several large-scale plants that you repeat throughout the property.
- Mass is important – with a large garden, planting in groups or drifts will keep the scale appropriate. Maintain a single color within each drift or grouping.
- Unify - transitions between different garden areas should be in keeping with the overall theme, even if some of the areas are not. Again, repeating favorite color and/or plants is effective.
- Pathways and drives are critical for both design and function.
- Use large plants that fit the scale of the garden, e.g. Banksia roses or Phormium tenax, rather than small, compact varieties.
- Know when to stop – you are not designing a botanical garden, hence, the entire property does not have to be landscaped!
©Sonoma County Master Gardeners