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Less space? More enjoyment!

by Timber Press on February 8, 2018

in Design, Gardening

Once upon a time, small gardens were mainly confined to the condos, courtyards, and terraces of crowded urban areas while the typical suburban landscape tended to be large and sprawling. Today, small has become the new normal. And that is an opportunity, not a restriction.

In the past forty years, America’s suburban lots have shrunk, from the Southeast to the Midwest to the West Coast. In fact, the term small garden is gradually losing its meaning, as many of us live on a quarter, an eighth, or even less of an acre. Urban and suburban aren’t so different anymore.

In my practice as a landscape designer, most of the backyards I design measure less than 2500 square feet; layouts are rarely more than 40 by 60 feet. I no longer think of that as small; it has become standard. Interestingly, while active gardeners are often concerned with fitting everything into a space that is generally smaller than the backyards they grew up in, I am just as likely to hear from homeowners more interested in creating a space that will be as simple as possible to maintain. In our time-crunched, overworked, two-career society, taking the time to envision, create, and maintain a garden can seem overwhelming. No one wants another to-do list item, but most of us want a backyard that’s a refuge: a place where we can unwind, entertain, and enjoy ourselves in whatever forms those pursuits take.

This shift in how we live, work, and play is what led me to develop the less is more approach to garden design and outdoor living. My clients want to spend more time enjoying the outdoors, but less time fussing with and maintaining their space. I understand what they’re looking for, because the hypothetical family I’ve described could be mine.

I spent my middle school and teenage years in a ranch-style home on a quarter-acre lot in Southern California. While the house was a mere 1600 square feet, the large backyard more than made up for the elbow bumping my family of four tolerated inside. We spent as much time as we could outdoors. Our backyard was home to a swimming pool, two full-sized patios, flower beds, fruit trees, and a vegetable garden, not to mention plenty of lawn on which to play games and run around. With that much space, it’s easy to accommodate an active, multi-generational, outdoor lifestyle. Of course, my childhood memories aren’t just about fun in the sun. Looking after a space that big took a lot of effort. Growing up as the designated lawn mower and pool cleaner meant my Saturday mornings weren’t exactly my own.

Fast-forward to my first house in a newly constructed development. Despite the fact that the backyard was a fraction of the size of my childhood home’s yard, I did what so many of us do, and modeled the landscape on what I had growing up. While I didn’t have the space or the budget for a swimming pool, I replicated the garden I remembered as closely as I could. I made sure there was lots of lawn, and surrounded it with beautiful flower beds. This only left room for one smallish patio, and no dedicated areas to grow a few tomato plants, or to enjoy a good book or a nap. As for practical considerations, such as privacy screening from my all-too-close neighbors, well, I didn’t think about that until after I’d filled all my planting beds with blooming shrubs and annuals.

While we enjoyed our sunny backyard, my husband and I spent far less time outside than my family had while I was growing up. And because I had created a landscape that included two of the most time-intensive aspects of garden care—a lawn and fussy flowers—the small space required a lot of effort to maintain. This became a problem for two busy professionals who traveled a lot, as yard upkeep was constantly at the top of our chore list. (More so for my husband than for me. After all those years chained to a weekly mowing schedule, I refused to ever push a lawnmower again.) We eventually moved to a new home in Northern California, where we finally got it right. Our new backyard was even smaller—only 18 feet deep by 60 feet wide. But this time, I embraced the less is more philosophy. At its heart, this approach to garden design means:

• Less space, more enjoyment
• Less effort, more beauty
• Less maintenance, more relaxation
• Less gardening-by-the-numbers, more YOU

The pleasure I took in creating the garden of my dreams is what inspired me to trade in my business suits and briefcase for jeans and a drafting table. As a garden designer, I discovered many of my clients were making the same mistakes I had with my first garden. Despite living in California, my typical clients are not movie stars or dot-com millionaires. They are ordinary people just like me, looking to get the most out of modest-sized lots, while juggling jobs, kids, and busy lives. If this describes you, and you are hoping to get more out of your garden with less time and effort, this book will help you. Twelve years of designing gardens and consulting with homeowners has taught me that the same issues come up over and over again, regardless of budget or lifestyle goals. Whether you are designing a new landscape from the ground up, rehabilitating an existing one, or just hoping to take your current yard to a new level with a few easy fixes, the less is more approach to garden design will get you there.

Susan Morrison is a nationally recognized landscape designer and authority on small-space garden design. She has shared her strategies on the PBS series Growing a Greener World and in publications such as Fine Gardening. Morrison has also served as editor-in-chief of The Designer, a digital magazine produced by the Association of Professional Landscape Designers.

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