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"Small Space Gardening – Where there is a Will there is a Way," by the Whistling Gardener

Steve Smith is owner of Sunnyside Nursery in Marysville.  Photo courtesy of Sunnyside Nursery.
Steve Smith is owner of Sunnyside Nursery in Marysville. Photo courtesy of Sunnyside Nursery.

This column is being reproduced with the permission of Steve Smith, The Whistling Gardener, and owner of Sunnyside Nursery in Marysville.

As houses continue to get larger and yards smaller, it is becoming more and more challenging to find the space to plant everything that we would love to have in our gardens.

In many cases, a tree - no matter how dwarf - may not fit into the space, and even shrubs - if they are not compact - will gobble up far too much real estate. It can become a real design challenge to maximize the space we have to work with.

The design principles for working with small spaces are essentially the same as any other landscape in that color, line, form, and texture are still the elements that make it all work. The trick is to figure out how to “shrink” everything down to fit the space and keep it all in scale.

We can still build some excitement with contrasting foliage sizes and colors and other artistic accents - as long as we don’t have too many. Likewise, cohesiveness can be achieved by repeating foliage textures, shapes, or colors and sticking to a single theme or style. The ever-elusive goal is to find that perfect balance.

Architects like to create the illusion that a space is larger than it is by placing larger (bolder) objects closer to our eyes and smaller and finer ones farther away, which tends to exaggerate the perspective of distance.

This same effect can also be achieved by locating warm colors like red and orange (which “come toward us”) close up and cooler colors like blues farther away (which tend to recede visually). In a small space garden these techniques have their limitations, but knowing how we perceive space can help us in the design process.

I firmly believe that containers are a must in the small space garden. There is usually only so much ground to plant in and often a large percentage of the area will be paved or decked for purposes of cooking, eating, just relaxing and enjoying a soothing water feature or observing the birds and wildlife.

Containers come in all shapes, sizes, and materials, so pick a style you prefer and stick to it. This will build cohesiveness. For years I used all natural, rustic-looking ceramic pots in my patio so as not to distract from the plants in them, but I eventually got bored and wanted a change so I have slowly replaced them all with brightly colored ones. It’s no different than our furniture. Sometimes you just need to get new stuff and create a fresh look.

Just because your space may be small, it doesn’t mean that it can’t be interesting year ‘round. I’ve talked in the past about how not to have a boring yard and it is no different in a small space. Choose your plants wisely so there is something of interest every day of the year.

Again, build some contrast but don’t try to plant one of everything you like. I find that repeating some of the smaller grasses like Japanese Forest grass, Black Mondo, or Orange Sedge will help hold it all together. Repetition has its place in moderation.

When you run out of room horizontally think about going vertical. There are all sorts of crazy examples on Pinterest of how creative gardeners have managed to build trellises and frames to support their vining plants like clematis, honeysuckle or beans and cucumbers.

My wife uses an eight-foot tall obelisk with a one-foot base to grow her beans on every year and it takes up very little space.

Recycled pallets can be modified to grow veggies and flowers in as well as perforated drain pipes. The Master Gardener demo garden at Jennings Park in Marysville has some wonderful examples of vertical gardening. Go check it out.

And don’t forget, we can grow plants on our fences as well. Pay attention to the exposure though, a fence running east and west will have a full shade north side and a full sun south side, which can make a huge impact on what we can grow.

Whenever possible, stick to dwarf forms of plants. Gardeners have many choices these days for compact trees, shrubs, perennials, flowers and even veggies. Many of these will also grow quite well in containers, provided they are large enough.

Breeders have shrunk down many of the old time shrubs that grandma had smothering her house, so don’t shy away from a Forsythia or Wiegela. Many of the new ones will also repeat bloom in the late summer.

Whether you want to grow veggies or flowers or just create a garden retreat in the privacy of your own back yard, you can learn more about working with small spaces by attending our free class on Sunday, April 29th at 11am and learn all the tricks of the trade from professional landscape designer Marti Civarra. See you there.

Steve Smith is the owner of Sunnyside Nursery in Marysville, WA, and can be reached at

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