Tuesday, June 22, 2010

Garden Designers Roundtable: Expanding Small Spaces

This month the Bloggers of the Garden Designers Roundtable have some big ideas about working with small spaces!

In California the trend has been toward larger houses on smaller lots, and there are many condominium communities with charming but small outdoor living areas that serve multiple needs year-round. Being able to squeeze a lot out of small spaces is an important skill for designers, and can often be more challenging than designing something larger.

I think one of the most important aspects of working with small spaces is thinking about them three dimensionally. My 12' x 13' courtyard was created when the previous owner added two matching wings to the house. It has two sliding doors that enter at different heights, and two small windows.

Imagine this space as a solid cube and consider the area that would be carved out for a person to move comfortably through it. Whatever is left is potential garden, and much of it will NOT be at ground level! A well-thought out design will add the ceiling and soften the walls and add dimension and functionality to every layer in between. Here a work/storage bench, comfy seating, festive outdoor lighting, and bubbling water feature combine under a sturdy arbor with several dozen pots in all sizes, making this a cozy, sheltered spot year-round.

A small space design solution doesn't have to be lavish to be effective. In this courtyard we didn't have the luxury of digging up new beds, and needed to direct the flow diagonally from the gate to the front door. The simple loveseat is placed in the most private, sheltered spot and flanked by pots of perennials. A vine reaching for the arbor and a rustic wall planter bring the design up from ground level.

Same house, from the gate. The planted bed would actually have been sufficient to protect the entrance without hiding it from visitors, but the addition of the two red pots and the antique bell raise the whole arrangement to a new level, giving it style that transcends the modest setting and utilitarian hardscape materials.

This brick courtyard uses these same principles to add privacy without shutting the world away. An open lattice-work fence on top of the existing brick wall, planted with exuberant Cecil Brunner roses frames the semi-circular planting bed. In this garden a limited color palette keyed to the hardscape gives an elegant, restful feel that's enhanced by the sound of the small fountain.

This narrow garden designed by John Black maximizes plantable space by floating the stone steps, then ups the design ante with elegant black pebbles as mulch; it's both garden and path, and as the bamboo and other plants grow the edges will be blurred even more. The horizontal boards that cover the existing fence and the slight meander of the steps also help make the garden feel wider.

Small spaces already feel more intimate, and can be made more so with personal touches like a favorite sculpture (or, um, two!) and choice specimen trees that might be lost in a larger setting.

And of course, one should never be afraid to resort to all-out trickery if necessary. Wondering what's through that gated opening in the bamboo grove? Nothing but a mirrored aluminum closet door, built into the fence!

Combining two of our previous Roundtable topics, Containers make great Focal Points in small gardens! Planting a tree in a pot is one way to make sure it doesn't get too big, and adds just that much more color and style!

Speaking of containers, one of my clients had these enormous terra cotta pots that didn't work in her new contemporary landscape. But arranged in her sunny side yard they make a stylish AND functional edibles garden in a very small space.

Even a 6' x 6' bed tucked in a corner becomes a lovely (and lively) spot with the addition of a bubbling birdbath fountain and a faux creekbed surrounded by small shade garden gems like ferns, hellebores and variegated liriope.

This central atrium was full of plants, none very tall. I introduced a delicate Japanese Maple and a graceful Azara microphylla for height, and added the Asian-style mobile between them. A colorful pot will anchor the corner, but already you can see how much more of the space is being activated.

When working with small spaces one tendency is to use tiny furniture to avoid taking up too much room. But when you think about it, these areas are often used by only one or two people at a time. Some comfortable seating invites you right into the center of things, which is much more functional than leaving your active living space empty while you perch on a plastic chair!

Go ahead, tuck a loveseat or club chair in your designs and watch it become a favorite relaxing spot. Working small gives a designer's abilities the close-up test, and there isn't much room for error. But when the pieces all come together, virtually any corner can be a charming garden that has everything it needs to thrive.

Thanks for joining me today, but don't stop here! The other Knights and Ladies of the Roundtable are also writing on this topic, and who knows WHAT they've come up with. Let's find out, shall we?

Carolyn Gail Choi : Sweet Home and Garden Chicago : Chicago IL
Jenny Petersen: J Petersen Garden Design : Austin TX
Lesley Hegarty & Robert Webber : Hegarty Webber Partnership : Bristol, UK
Shirley Bovshow : Eden Makers : Los Angeles, CA
Susan Morrison : Blue Planet Garden Blog : East Bay, CA
Susan Schlenger : Landscape Design Advice : Hampton, NJ
Tara Dillard : TaraDillard.com : Atlanta, GA


  1. Great examples Laura. I especially like your courtyard layout. I also agree with you regarding using full scale furniture in small spaces when the area will be used by one or two people. Why skimp on comfort?

    Shirley Bovshow

  2. We are SUCH California girls - we used almost the exact same words at the start of our posts!

    There's lots of good advice here, but my favorites are: keying plants to hardscape and choosing one or two comfortable pieces of furniture over several spindly ones.

  3. The ideas don't meander, they pour out of you! Of course my favorite photo is your own delightful courtyard--but this is just packed with design ideas. Wall planters were not even on my radar and now....

  4. Many, many wonderful ideas here, Laura. I especially enjoyed your concept of imagining a small site as a sculpted cube of positive and negative space. I love to hear how my fellow designers visualize their projects; it gives me a new perspective, and also gives me new ways to communicate with my clients. Thank you!!

  5. Yes, it's odd, a tiny garden being more challenging than 5 acres of woodland.

    You've obviously done many small landscapes.

    They're fabulous.

    Garden & Be Well, XO Tara

  6. I love the specimen trees in small spaces--you're right, you run the risk of losing the impact of them when you plant them in larger spaces. I love your courtyard and how intimate and cozy you made it feel! Gorgeous, Laura.

  7. Thanks, everyone...what a fun topic!

    @Shirley, yes I love the comfy details. In college I enjoyed a series of abandoned sofas on the cliffs overlooking the ocean; indoor comfort in an outdoor setting is a particular kind of luxury.

    @Susan, no one can say we don't REPRESENT! I'm glad you like the 'keying' idea; sometimes contrast is nice, but a smaller color palette keeps small spaces from looking too busy.

    @Charlotte, thank you! I'm all about the ideas...

    @Jocelyn, glad you liked my 3-D visualization; it's similar to what I do to block out plan drawings; starting with a 3-4' wide traffic path that traverses the space in typical ways and in doing so suggests the size and shape of patios, walkways, flower beds...a place to start anyway.

    @Tara, I'd say the majority of my projects over the last 10 years are 1/4 acre or less, so on the small side! Thank you; your house is gorgeous...

    @Jenny, Yes, I'd say my favorite part of designing small spaces is finding plant gems that will stand up-close inspection for a long time!

  8. Laura, I thought I'd left a comment earlier, but maybe I was thinking too deeply after reading your post to remember to do it. What I wanted to tell you is that I always learn so much from your posts and wonderfully illustrative photos. Great ideas here.

  9. Laura, you have really shown how small spaces can be turned into beautiful places with a lot of atmosphere. It's so easy to think that you need a lot of place in order to have a nice garden. But you have clearly proved this to be wrong. Thanks for the inspiration!


  10. Yes, we agree with the 'thinking large' in a small space where possible - people are often afraid to do that and end up with lots of small bits and pieces eg tiny containers that don't really hang together. One generously sized pot or piece of furniture can often look so much smarter and have so much impact. Thanks for all your great ideas. Lesley and Robert

  11. Laura,
    I love some of the features you used such as the ceiling and water feature in the first project. The space looks cozy and inviting.

    But I also like how you created colorful privacy with the trellis and roses. There is something to be said for not blocking things out totally and you did a great job.

    Lastly, a tree in a pot is something I have not done...but might!

    One more thing. The large furniture rather than tiny pieces looks great and I agree it must be very inviting.

  12. Great post, Laura, with many creative ideas for small spaces.

  13. Just to add to what Lesley said above: a real masterclass in small space design and some really useful points here.
    Great to see more of your work!
    Best Wishes

  14. Great post, Laura!

    I'm loving your plant selections and cozy sitting areas.... xoxox Jenn

  15. I am very impressed with your work in small spaces. Especially your blend of plants and features such as pots and sculptures. For me as a dry stone waller I would be delighted to see more rocks showing. But then I am biased.
    Plesae keep up the beautiful work.

  16. Well now I feel challenged! I've been somewhat infatuated with the tiny house movement and have now expanded that to exterior/landscaping since I'm living in the suburbs and am in love with the idea of a tiny courtyard. Your photos are astonishing and inspire me toward creating an intimate garden. I especially appreciate how you've used vines, etc. to play with height, giving an illusion of a taller, more open space.