12 Tips for Designing a Small Garden

small cottage garden, with rosa (roses), house in background, june.
Neil Holmes / Getty Images

Small gardens are intimate spaces and require careful thought when choosing hardscape features and plants, since viewers may take in the entire garden in a single glance. But the smaller scale does not mean that the garden is without interest or variety.


Click Play to Learn How to Grow a Vegetable Garden In a Small Space

Too often, garden designers focus too much on trying to make a small space seem bigger, rather than exploiting the unique charm of the given space. In the examples here, the gardeners demonstrate various ways you can make the most of a small garden space by using the scale to best advantage.

  • 01 of 12

    Start Small and Personal

    Patio Table and Garden
    Neil Holmes / Getty Images

    In this example, a modest home is brightened with a small garden built into the driveway retaining wall, entirely in scale with the home itself. A mass of rudbeckia, a few coneflowers, a morning glory vine climbing the lamp post, and some whimsical figures combine to create a personal touch. This is a very small front yard and it could easily be lost among the other yew-framed houses lining the street. But these homeowners enjoy a cheerful burst of color, every time they turn into their driveway. In a small garden such as this one, long-blooming perennials are the key to lasting interest.

    This small square garden is the first thing you notice about the house and, simple as it may be, it makes passers-by notice and smile. It is not a grand garden, but it is still somehow commanding.

  • 02 of 12

    Focus on the Welcome

    beautiful victorian home

    Jon Lovette / Getty Images 

    Here, too, the gardener has used wasted space next to the driveway to create a welcome-home garden. The plants are easy-to-grow workhorses: coneflower, sedum, daylilies, and flowering shrubs. But here the space has expanded and seems to be expanding still, winding its way around to the roadside. Gardens this free-flowing are unusual in American front yards, yet it doesn't seem out of place in this example.

    Areas along driveways and streets are often the best locations for garden planting areas in the front yards of smaller homes.

  • 03 of 12

    Create a Destination

    Flower island placed on a grassy hill.
    Marie Iannotti

    Even small gardens can use most of the design elements common in larger spaces. A good garden design will create a focal point, a destination for both the eyes and people walking through the garden. Here, a plain backyard is made interesting with a couple of modest-sized garden islands.

    The gardener has made some nice plant choices, sticking with pastels and gray foliage that complement and blend with one another. The gardener has also taken advantage of the borrowed view from the woods adjoining the yard, designing the landscape so that the islands seem to frame an entryway into a larger space. Positioning the garden beds adjacent to the adjoining wooded area makes the public woods appear to be part of the garden landscape. Even if there is no path leading beyond the flower beds, viewers are still drawn up the slope to investigate.

  • 04 of 12

    Merge Garden and House

    White house with large window overlooking flowers and shrubs.
    Marie Iannotti

    If you have a small property, you might think you just don't have the space for a billowing flower border. But a keen eye is worth more than a double-wide lot. The large windows on the gable side of this house are a wonderful architectural element. Small gardens need to make use of every available feature—in this case, the attractive architecture of the home.

    There's already a very English feel to this garden space thanks to the plant choices—roses, clematis, and lavender nepeta help create that impression. The small tree and overgrown lilac to the left serve as a backdrop for the small garden border and serve to make the space more intimate. By using fairly large clusters of just a few plant varieties, this fairly new garden gains an appearance of age, maturity, and abundance. And because the garden bed is clearly visible through the large windows, the small garden is enlarged by inviting it indoors.

    Continue to 5 of 12 below.
  • 05 of 12

    Integrate Modern Comforts

    Creating a Private space behind a house with a patio and plants.
    Marie Iannotti

    The appeal of townhome living lies mostly in the reduced need for lawn and landscape maintenance—both for aging baby boomers who no longer want the bending and lifting associated with landscape care, as well as for young professionals who just don't have the time. But living in a townhome or apartment doesn't mean you have to surrender to a backyard dominated by a concrete slab patio.

    In this example, the owners have surrounded their tiny patio with low-maintenance flowering shrubs and bulbs. There's even a cluster of river birches as a privacy screen facing the road. The garden is newly planted, but there's still enough to make the landscape immediately enjoyable. And the shrewd choice of plants will allow the garden to age slowly but comfortably.

  • 06 of 12

    Tailor the Garden to a Purpose

    Brown fencing used to surround flowering garden.
    Marie Iannotti

    The smaller your garden, the more particular you need to be about making sure it suits an intended purpose. Here, a homeowner faced with a very small backyard but extensive exposure along a busy street has integrated garden plantings with sections of traditional fencing to create an effective and attractive screen to block sound and view from the city street. Making the planting bed part of the fence treatment also creates more space to garden.

    This gardener has chosen bright bloomers with a tall growth habit that draw the eye and create a more solid screen than smaller, less colorful plants could achieve. Small trees behind and adjacent to the fencing make the garden seem larger as they mature.

  • 07 of 12

    Confine Planting Areas to the Perimeter

    Flowering garden next to house with a defined border and gazebo in the background.
    Marie Iannotti

    In small landscapes, useable lawn space can be in short supply. In this flat, rectangular lot, an owner who wanted to keep lawn space for play and entertaining has positioned the planting areas along the edges of the property and close to the house's foundation. This traditional technique is often used to maximize lawn space, and by encompassing the yard with ornamental plants, it creates a park-like feeling.

    In this example, the technique creates a considerable amount of visual interest as the eye follows a line of plantings from the garage around the entire yard before shifting to the foundation's plantings. Walking the perimeter of the border can also give an up-close adventure, thanks to diverse plantings that invite close inspection. In total, this simply designed landscape is considerably more interesting than most small-scale properties.

  • 08 of 12

    Simplicity Is the Most Effective Strategy

    Plants in outdoor containers resting on a stone fence.
    Marie Iannotti

    In a small landscape with interesting architectural features, the garden design is best kept very simple to avoid making the landscape look too busy. In this example, simple potted geraniums—not a choice that generally wins any garden awards—are positioned along a stone wall that already has a wonderful texture. These simple spots of greenery and color add enormously to the landscape.

    Aged terra-cotta pots and a sprinkling of evergreens and succulents break up the monotony and introduce new forms and textures. What was once a simple gravel walkway linking the house and garage is now a restful garden walk accessorized with an iron bench.

    Continue to 9 of 12 below.
  • 09 of 12

    Choose Hardscape Materials Carefully

    Gray house with large grassy area and flowers.
    Marie Iannotti

    In a very large property, you may have room to experiment with all types of materials for walkways, retaining walls, patios, and other landscape features. Such eclectic styles can often work well in very large landscapes. But smaller homes call for the use of landscape building materials complement or match those used in the home itself. This rustic wooden building with a country architecture calls for natural landscape materials, such as the stone retaining wall and garden wall. Note how this owner has echoed the use of terra-cotta planters throughout the property. Limiting the hardscape materials to natural stone and terra-cotta makes for a nicely unified garden design.

    • Retaining walls can be an effective strategy on any property with sharply sloping land, creating flat planting areas and minimizing slopes to mow.

    Another technique that can work fairly well in small landscapes is to use a relatively small number of larger plants, arranging them in a pyramid fashion with the largest specimens in the center. The impulse in a small garden is often to cram as many plants as possible into it, but this actually makes the garden look overly cluttered and without purpose. Less is often more when it comes to small gardens.

  • 10 of 12

    Focus on Patio Living

    Flowering garden with climbing clematis surrounding a patio with chairs.
    Marie Iannotti

    Patio living is for outdoor lovers, and there is no easier way to link your home and your yard than to garden on the patio. Enjoying plants in a small yard is made easy by planting on or alongside the patio surface. It can be as simple as using containers for gardening and making good use of any vertical opportunities. 

    This gardener has created a garden wall with an assortment of climbing clematis of various sizes and bloom periods, ensuring that something is always flowering. The lamb's ear is a good choice for edging the patio; the fuzzy gray softens the gray pavers, as do the other plants that spill over the edges. Yet nothing here requires a great deal of maintenance. This is not a large space, but it is lush.

  • 11 of 12

    Yes, You Can Grow Vegetables

    Fenced area just for vegetable gardening.
    Marie Iannotti

    Some people just have to have a vegetable garden, and you'll be pleased to know that it is perfectly possible in a very small garden space, if you plan effectively. You may have to squeeze yours into the only sunny spot in your yard, but a small-space vegetable garden can still have plenty of style.

    In this example, the gardener has included raised beds with seating, an easy-to-maintain gravel path, a seating area for when you can't wait to sample the produce, and deer fencing in an art nouveau style. Sometimes, something as boring as fencing can make all the difference in defining a space. Fences can also give you a vertical dimension for growing climbing plants, such as cucumbers or pole beans.

    It can be difficult to make a small landscape serve all purposes, and it may be necessary to define your garden as "all-vegetable" or "all-ornamental." But it is still possible for a vegetable garden to be attractive through the spot use of annual flowers. Remember that many edibles have their own beauty, such as the ripe lushness of tomatoes or the bright yellow of sunflowers. And good design is its own form of beauty, as demonstrated in the lovely geometry of this vegetable garden.

  • 12 of 12

    Grow Fruit in Small Gardens

    Fruit trees growing near a shed.
    Marie Iannotti

    Full-scale fruit trees are usually not well suited for small gardens, but fortunately, there are plenty of dwarf fruit trees and bushes you can consider. Many of these are even suitable for growing in large pots. And strawberries are quite easy to grow in patio containers positioned in small sunny areas around your yard. But using orchard trees in a small space may require special strategies.

    Espalier is the art of growing fruit and other trees flat against a wall, pruning and training them to grow two-dimensionally. The art first became popular in the walled gardens of medieval Europe. Besides taking up less space, training the trees against a sunny wall creates a warm microclimate. Fruit trees that wouldn't ordinarily bear in cooler zones can be fooled into thinking they are a warmer zone. Additionally, the open framework of an espalier lets in more sun, encouraging more blossoms and faster ripening. A final benefit is how beautiful the trees look basking in the sun against your home.

    Apples and pears are the most common fruit trees used with this technique. Stone fruits such as peaches, cherries, and plums can also be trained, although the pruning schedule will be different. The trees in this example are planted in a border not much more than a foot wide.