How to Right-Size Your Garden and Simplify Your Life

Rethink your planting space to fit your needs and you'll learn just how much garden is enough

By Susan Tweit July 28, 2017 | Courtesy of

Life changes often mean many adjustments, including to the garden. Perhaps you’ve maintained a large property and now are moving to something smaller. Maybe a job transfer has relocated you to a city and, instead of a yard, you have only a patio or balcony for a garden space. Or it may just be time to tweak your current landscape as your needs change. 

Keep reading to learn what’s important to consider when reimagining your space for new circumstances. Also included here are tips for designing a right-size garden for maximum impact — one that’s tailored just for you.

1. What are your garden values? Rethinking what will make a garden work for you means first ascertaining what says “garden” to you. Then find the sweet spot between dreams and the space parameters.

First ask yourself to think about what kind of garden you imagine. Are you gardening to enjoy edibles? To attract pollinators and songbirds? Purely for aesthetic pleasure? 

Then consider how you will use the garden. Is your garden a private sanctuary? A public entertaining space? A combination?

Write up a short list of favorite, or must-have, plants. Add favorite color combinations and shapes. Don’t forget hardscape — garden elements such as shade structures, water features and patios.

2. Think about what you have to work with. Once you know your garden values, it’s time to evaluate your site. Start by collecting data. How big is your area? Walk the space and measure it. Use a hose to outline garden areas, or draw outlines on the ground with spray paint. 

Consider your time, budget and physical abilities. How much time do you want to spend, or can you spend, on your garden? How much money do you want to spend on planting and future maintenance? 

Are you starting from scratch or modifying existing landscaping? Make sure to identify any problem areas that will need extra work, whether that’s drainage issues, decaying hardscape or plantings that will need replacement. 

Now it’s time to plan your right-size garden. Here are some ideas for small spaces, all of which easily can be scaled up or down.

3. Make a statement with a few bold plants — as long as they don’t overwhelm or outgrow the space. Just a few plants can make a big impact. Choose what’s suited to your new space. Don’t plant a full-size spruce tree in a patio container. On the other hand, don’t be too timid either. 

In the small front-entry garden space shown here, a concrete planter built into a set of curving stairs on a steep slope contains Oregon grape (Mahonia aquifolium, USDA zones 5 to 9; find your zone). The medium-size evergreen Western native shrub softens the hard angles of the concrete and gives presence to the small space without overwhelming it. 

Around that shrub is a drift of native annual wildflowers, one of which has rooted in the crack between the stairs and concrete wall. This bit of volunteer landscaping adds a touch of playfulness to an otherwise formal space. 

That planter is the entire front garden of this hillside house, and it’s just enough.

4. Small changes can have big effects. It doesn’t take much to change the look and feel of a landscape. In this garden the clients wanted to add pollinator plants to a lawn in the front yard while retaining the character of the historic neighborhood. 

The designer removed lawn at the base of the small front porch and put in a curving perennial bed featuring native wildflowers and grasses that will flower over the course of the season and attract hummingbirds, butterflies and native bees. To round out that bed, the designer cooled and brightened up the hot and dry stretch next to the sidewalk and parking strip with Russian sage (Perovskia atriplicifolia, zones 5 to 9) and English lavender (Lavandula angustifolia, zones 5 to 9), underplanted with daffodils. 

The clients enjoy the new gardens so much that they are considering replacing more of the lawn with plants that nurture pollinators.

5. A few containers on a deck or balcony can transform the space. Containers can make a garden. The trick lies in choosing the right plants and the right containers. Container size is critical: Choose the biggest ones you can afford and that will fit in your space. Small containers mean a small soil volume, which means they dry out quickly and may need watering multiple times a day. That’s hard on plants and gardeners. Choose containers that go with the style, materials and color of the location. The client for this garden wanted to add color to a modern, industrial-style steel deck. The clean lines of the ceramic containers complement the deck design and are in colors that echo those of the house. 

Use potting soil enriched with plenty of organic matter like aged compost, and add water-holding and inert silicon crystals for the best moisture retention in any size container. Also, choose plants that will thrive in containers. A full-size tree will never be happy in a container, for instance, because it needs a rooting space as large as its canopy; a dwarf tree would be a better choice. 

The plants in this container garden were chosen specifically to attract hummingbirds and require little watering. They include several hyssops (Agastachespp.), Sunset crater beardtongue (Penstemon clutei, zones 4 to 8), and gaura(Gaura lindheimeri, zone 5), plus little bluestem (Schizachyrium scoparium, zones 2 to 9) and prairie sagewort (Artemisia frigida, zones 3 to 10) for foliage interest.

6. Containers can produce significant amounts of edibles. This photo shows an entire kitchen garden, including both perennial and annual herbslettuceand pot-greens, beans and peasbroccolicarrots and tomatoes, all in containers. Look for varieties of edible plants specifically bred for containers, including squashes, tomatoes and others that normally need larger spaces. 

Containers are ideal for right-sizing an edible garden because they easily can be configured to fit limited or odd-shaped spaces. And they can sit on balconies, decks or patios (assuming raised structures can support the considerable weight of soil, container and plants). 

Sizable containers offer the benefits of raised beds, elevating soil and plants to a comfortable height for planting, weeding and harvest, and offer some protection against grazers, including squirrels and rabbits. Containers also constrain plants likely to spread, such as raspberries or mint. They allow for different watering and feeding “zones” for plants with different requirements separated by container.

Consider unusual containers. Galvanized metal stock tanks or watering troughs, for instance, work well for larger plants or garden areas. (Make sure any container has sufficient drainage to avoid water-logged soil.) I’ve successfully grown full-size heritage tomato plants in stock tanks, along with other edibles not normally suited to container gardening, including raspberries, rhubarb and asparagus.

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7. Right-sizing can lead to more useful and more pleasing spaces. Rethinking a space can inspire creative solutions. This photo shows a front yard “sitting patio” plus pollinator garden that replaced an unused and weedy front lawn. 

The clients wanted a more intimate space from their small front yard, a conventional lawn-bordered-with-foundation-shrubs landscaping scheme that was basically wasted space. Their requests: a place to sit on summer mornings or winter afternoons (the yard faces south), habitat for pollinators and songbirds and a path for pedestrians and cyclists going directly from the street to their front door. 

The design begins with a low mound near the street side of the yard for visual separation. The mound was landscaped with colorful perennials specifically chosen to attract hummingbirds, butterflies and native bees. A curving brick pathway winds diagonally through the yard behind the mound to the front door. The path widens into two seating areas, one shaded and one sunny. The lawn is gone. 

The project transformed an unloved front yard into an intimate and cozy space. The clients report seeing the first hummingbirds and butterflies as the plants were going into the ground. They’ve also met many of their neighbors, who have stopped by to admire the re-designed space.

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8. Water features add serenity. A smaller space can mean more noise and distraction from beyond the garden. Adding a water feature can be the perfect remedy. 

Water features can be as small as the 5-gallon glazed pot in this photo, which is home to a single showstopping dwarf waterlily. That mini-pond is soothing on the corner of a deck next to a busy downtown area. Galvanized stock tanks and other larger containers also can be used for small pond-like water features. 

For the tranquil sound of running water in a small space, consider a stand-alone recirculating fountain or a wall fountain. Either will need an outdoor plug for the pump or a solar panel for sustainable and portable power generation. 

“Right-sizing” a garden doesn’t have to mean sacrificing the pleasures and benefits that come with growing and tending your favorite plants. By prodding us to rethink our gardens, smaller spaces can offer more of what gardening gives us: beauty, fresh food, the benefits of nurturing nature nearby and the joy of hanging out with plants and their community of lives.

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