Choosing Plants for a Small Garden

Design Considerations for a Small Space Garden

Selecting Plants for a Small Garden
This garden is primarily yellow and blue. There's lots of catmint and salvia and the shrubs with gold leaves that add color and structure all season. Photo: © Marie Iannotti

The difficulty in choosing plants for your garden is cutting down the list of plants you love to the list of plants you will use. This is even harder with a small garden. Try to avoid this challenge by creating a framework for plant selection, before you begin your list.

What Will Influence Your Decision

  1. Budget Constraints: I put this first because it is something to consider in any garden design. A small space garden should cost considerably less than its larger cousins, but there is still an expense. Don't forget to budget for any soil you must bring in or amend. If you have your heart set on expensive specimen plants, you may want to create your garden in stages, over a series of years.
  1. Pre-existing Plants: With the exception of trees, it is usually easier to remove pre-existing plants than to design around them. You can save the plants to incorporate into your design, move them to another area or give them to a grateful gardening friend.

    However, there will be times when your primary interest is in complementing an existing planting, whether a favorite tree, a hedge or a row of peonies. If that is the case, you are going to have to be very strict with yourself.

    • What types of plants will survive under the tree's shade and over its roots?
    • Will you need to remove part of the hedge, to make room for the garden space?
  2. Proportion: Small space gardens still need to have balance. The rule of thumb for garden borders is that the width is no less than 1/3 the length. But small borders tend to look better with at least a 1 to 2 ratio. A 6-foot border that is only 2 feet wide doesn't give you much space to create a sense of depth. Three or even 4 feet makes it look more like a border and less like an edge. Better still, use irregular shapes with curving lines. Space itself becomes interesting and the size diminishes in importance.
  1. The Basics: USDA Hardiness Zones and Sun Exposure: You've gone through all the effort of a site analysis for a reason. To know what plants will thrive in your garden. So now it's time to pull out that list of site conditions and see what plants suit your site. You'll have to be tough with yourself now or you'll be making work and regrets for yourself later. You can change your mind about color or style, but a perennial plant that isn't hardy in your Zone 4 garden is going to be an annual. And plants that are suffering from too little or too much sun are going to attract all kinds of problems.
  1. Your Gardening Style: Style here can mean a preference for pastels over hot colors, a theme, such as fragrance or an actual style, like cottage or woodland gardens. You'll have more leeway here than other areas, but since your space is limited, every plant counts. You may love red poppies, but they are going to become the focal point in your pastel garden.

    When choosing plants for style, it helps to group your plants. This way you can see the sore thumbs. Ferns, pulmonaria and Solomon's Seal will look lovely together. Primrose may suit the site conditions but the loud colors may be too jarring for the look of a woodland garden. Or not.

  2. Maintenance Requirements: Since this is a small space garden, maintenance will be less intensive. But be honest with yourself about what you are willing to do. Your garden may look good initially, but many perennials need to be divided every few years or they will start to die out or perhaps squeeze out their neighbors.

7. Garden Size: Obviously the smaller the garden space, the less plants you can have in it. This is especially true if you choose to use a large, focal point plant. A small space will look cluttered fast if there is too much diversity. Just think of how your home feels when toys and clothes are strewn all over the place.

8. Color Preferences: Limit your plant choices to 2-3 colors, maybe even only 2-3 different types of plants.

If you start by selecting only 3 different plants. You'll probably want at least 3 of each, so that's already 9 plants. Play with positioning them in the space and take it from there. You can always add more.

9. Quantity: How many you will need or want of each plant depends upon the size of the space and the width or spread of the plant. There are two schools of thought about how densely to plant a new garden.

If you want your garden to look mature and full its first year, you will need to space young plants more closely or buy larger plants. You will get an immediate impact, but you will also need to begin dividing sooner.

If you have the patience to allow your garden to fill in slowly, you can leave room for the plants to grow into their new home and fill in temporarily with annuals.

Average Spacing Guidelines

  • 6- 12" spread - 2 plants per sq. ft.
  • 12 - 24" spread - 1 plant per sq. ft.
  • Larger than 24" spread - 1 plant per 2 sq. feet

    10. Texture & Form: Unlike color, you will want some variety in texture and form, to give the garden depth. And with only a handful of plants, look for plants with long lasting appeal. Great foliage, perhaps variegated, colored or lacy, and a long season of bloom. You may be able to get away with a sequence of bloom if you include spring bulbs.


    Making the final choices

    There really is no final choice, since gardens are never finished, but try to be as realistic as you can. Sketching it out on graph paper first, can help you to visualize how your garden will look. This may be the best route to go, but many gardens would never get planted if we waited until we felt things were perfect and it can be hard for a new gardener to equate what's on paper with reality. Sometimes you just have to get started. You'll learn as you go.

    Just make sure that most of your plant choices fit the criteria you've outlined and the growing conditions you have to offer. Try not to squeeze in too many different plants and you're small space garden should look and grow just fine.