Gardeners are often faced with small spaces when landscaping. In urban areas, lots are typically fairly small. Even in situations where lots are larger, restricted-space areas often need to be addressed on the small scale.
Although creating small-scale gardens may seem easier to deal with than larger ones, careful planning is just as, or even more, critical. The choice and use of building materials; the choice and placement of plants, textures, shapes and colors; the activities that will take place in the landscape; and the positioning and flow of traffic are all matters of concern. When every square inch counts, a well thought out plan is essential because the prospective viewer is going to be closer to the landscape and thus more aware of every detail.
The concept of good design can mean different things to different people, and no one design is absolutely right for a given situation. To get you started in the right direction, however, certain design considerations are worth bearing in mind when you are pondering how to go about laying out a small-scale landscape.
Often, small gardens are located adjacent to or in close proximity to the home. This is important when considering the style of your garden. The style of the garden should reflect the location and style of surrounding buildings. Look for established neighborhood features, such as neighborhood buildings, parks or old gardens, and take inspiration from them. The building materials used in the garden should also relate to and harmonize with the building materials used in the house.
For instance, stucco Spanish revival homes might incorporate Spanish landscape elements into their landscape style, while homes with a relaxed Acadian-style architecture are complemented by informal, natural elements in the landscape. You can learn more about styles of landscapes and their characteristics from any good landscaping book.
When I lived in New Orleans, my home was a late 1800s Victorian Eastlake-style house. The Victorian period generally favored formal elements in the landscape – symmetry, geometric layouts of beds, straight lines – and the exuberant use of color. This was the style I adopted for my very small backyard garden. The style selected has a great influence on the way the garden is laid out and the plants and the building materials used.
My selection of building materials was also influenced by my home and neighborhood. After looking around, I chose such building materials such as laid brick, lattice, wrought iron, clapboard, French doors and stained glass for structures and surfaces and terra-cotta pots to embellish the patio. Remember, your landscape will not exist in a vacuum, and you should feel free to draw on existing surroundings for inspiration.
One last comment on style and materials: Remember that the style and décor of rooms that have a view of the garden should also be considered because the garden will visually become a part of those rooms and should harmonize with them.
Everyone’s garden is unique based on their tastes and needs. Once the fundamental style of a garden has emerged, the actual form and layout are largely dictated by how it will be used.
The first step in drawing a landscape plan is to list your family’s needs that can be fulfilled by the garden. Do you need privacy, a patio for outdoor entertainment or shade? Are you an avid gardener, or do you need to minimize maintenance? How about vegetables, flowers, pets, children’s play areas and work areas? Taking inspiration from John F. Kennedy, I sometimes say, “Ask not what you can do for your landscape; ask what your landscape can do for you.”
After you have determined the general style, how the landscape will be used and what it needs to provide, it’s time to begin drawing a plan. The area can be carefully measured and a scale drawing produced to work with, or simple sketches can suffice.
The desired features of the garden, based on the chosen style and needs, are arranged and re-arranged on paper until you are satisfied with the results. If existing features will be retained, make sure you include them in the plan.
At this stage in developing your plan, you need to determine the size and shapes of beds, outdoor living areas and other features. This is an artistic phase and will be substantially guided by the style you have chosen. Take your time. Feel free to look through landscaping books for inspiration and ideas.
When choosing plant materials, keep in mind the smaller scale of the situation, and select plants that are compact, dwarf or slow-growing. It is very easy to over-plant or select plants that grow too large for their location. This creates additional maintenance as frequent pruning will be needed to keep plants in control. Always find out the mature size of the trees and shrubs you are considering to make sure their size is appropriate.
Help, if you need it, is available. If you are unsure of your final plan, consult with a licensed landscape architect to iron out the rough spots.