Our mission is to share the wonders of the natural world by publishing books from experts in the fields of gardening, horticulture, and natural history. Grow with us.

Small garden, big impact

by timber press on May 8, 2018

in Design, Gardening

A vivid blue garden wall provides attractive contrast to surrounding plants.

The intimate scale of a small backyard can become a real asset. By incorporating details that add layers of visual intrigue, you can create a uniquely intense, interactive garden experience that isn’t easily replicated in large backyards or broader landscapes.

In many ways, small gardens are a boon, as it is possible to create more atmosphere with much less effort. Still, there’s no question that they can feel confining. Fortunately, the yardstick that measures a successful garden is less about the perfection of its individual components, and more about how we respond to the space as a whole.

That’s where illusion comes in. Incorporating a few simple techniques that give the impression your garden is bigger than it really is will combat that too-small feeling. Well incorporated, mirrors can be a simple but effective tool for expanding a garden’s perceived boundaries. There’s a reason a mirror over the fireplace mantel is such a popular design choice in living rooms — reflecting back a portion of the room is an easy way to add spaciousness and elegance to an enclosed area. A mirror hung on an outdoor wall or fence performs a similar function. When positioned near a seating area, it helps give the space a finished appearance, and by reflecting back the details of the garden, it creates the illusion that the space is larger than it actually is.

The addition of level changes, colorful plants, containers, and accessories adds layers of interest to a small space.

Incorporating mirrors in more adventurous ways can add a truly magical element to a garden. Since a mirror hung outdoors is not expected, it’s often not instantly recognized as such. Nestled among the foliage, reflecting back the greenery of the garden, it feels like a viewport to another realm. To maximize the impact of unconventionally placed mirrors, play around with locations. High on a fence, a small mirror masquerades as a window to a different part of the garden. Leaned against a wall lower down, it creates the impression of a child-sized door to a secret garden, particularly if a few artfully placed stepping-stones lead up to it.

For maximum effect, place mirrors in heavily planted areas. Partially obscuring a mirror with plants and outdoor décor makes it that much harder to identify, adding to the likelihood that people will walk over to it to investigate. It is important to be aware of what the mirror faces — branches, leaves, and flowers are what you want the mirror to reflect. Hanging one opposite a blank wall or open stretch of garden will destroy the fantasy. If the place you want to hang a mirror doesn’t have the best reflected view, you can always try tilting it toward a greener part of the garden.

There are a few practical considerations when placing mirrors in the garden. Shady areas, where bright sunlight won’t be reflected back, are ideal. Not only will placement in these darker locations keep annoying or even hazardous flashes of light from reflecting back into the garden, but a shadier spot will also minimize the possibility that the mirror is in the flight path of birds.

Any strategy that leaves the impression there is more garden to explore will add to the illusion of extra space. While the tendency may be to focus all your design energy on the primary living spaces in the backyard, remember that you don’t have to relegate a side yard to becoming a utilitarian storage area or uninspiring pass-through. Even when it is impractical to fully landscape your home’s side yards, using even a portion of them to visually extend a garden’s area will avoid making it look like your garden ends abruptly at the edges of the house. Stopping the backyard’s interesting areas flush with the sides of the house creates an unbroken line, reinforcing the long, narrow profile the overall layout should be trying to minimize.

Don’t stop patios or pathways flush with the edge of the house. Continuing hardscape around the corner of the house — even a few feet — creates the illusion of a larger space.

Even when the design focus is primarily on the main backyard, you can incorporate what I’ve dubbed “disappearing pathways.” Extending a path and its surrounding plantings just a few feet around the corner creates the illusion of spaciousness and leads the viewer to believe there’s more garden to see. The fact that the pathway may lead to nothing more exciting than trash receptacles or the compost bin can stay your little secret.

Walls are a time-honored method for adding structure to a garden, but in small backyards, using plants to create separation between spaces accomplishes the same goal, without overwhelming the yard or blocking it off visually from borrowed views or other areas of the garden. Sheared, dense shrubs can also have the undesired effect of making a garden seem as if it’s been separated into small, disconnected spaces, inadvertently creating a cramped feeling — the opposite of what you want to achieve when adding greenery. To make a small yard feel luxuriously private without crowding, consider what are dubbed see-through plants.

One carefully sited piece of living wall art is enough to turn a simple fence into a focal point wall.

Tall and airy plants create a permeable border that subtly separates one area from the next, as the gaps between their branches or leaves allow glimpses of the garden beyond. Grasses are an obvious choice for this, but many perennials and annuals provide a similar effect. Look for plants with an open framework of stems, as opposed to mounding plants with an abundance of leaves or flowers.

See-through plants like tall verbena (Verbena bonariensis) act as permeable garden walls.

For the most part, herbaceous plants—those with soft stems, such as most perennials—work best to create a see-through effect, as woodier shrubs tend to be tightly formed. Plants that are less densely leafed and can be pruned into an open, attractive shape are the exception. Moderately sized manzanitas (Arctostaphylos densiflora) such as ‘Howard McMinn’ or ‘Sentinel’ are good examples. With attractive cinnamon-colored bark and naturally sculptural forms, both of these cultivars can be trained into small, open tree shapes to create a tall, permeable border.



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.

Click image to look inside this book:

Previous post:

Next post: