Landscaping in Small Yards: Book Review

Lick Your Postage-Stamp Yard With the RHS's "Small Garden Handbook"

Closeup of two gerbera daisy flowers, one pink, one yellow.
Ron Sutherland/Photolibrary/Getty Images

Andrew Wilson's Small Garden Handbook (Royal Horticultural Society) will supply you with a plethora of design ideas if you're forced to landscape in a small yard. But don't think that the usefulness of this text is limited to those with so-called "postage stamp yards." There's plenty here to help the owners of larger yards, as well.

That's because the book is essentially an introduction to residential landscaping, presenting examples of formal garden design, cottage gardens, the naturalistic landscape design, the minimalist style and more.

Its case studies feature small yards, yes. But even massive yards are often broken up into smaller spaces, to which the concepts in Wilson's book would be entirely applicable.

There's nothing like well-planned, quality hardscape to give a small yard an immediate boost, and this book has plenty of pictures and discussion of various hardscape materials. The landscaping in some of the most effective case studies is comprised of little more than an inviting patio, a sense of enclosure achieved through suitable landscaping along the property line, and some architectural plants in the patio landscaping. Bold tropical plants can be excellent choices on a patio, at least for the summer months (in the North). Northerners seeking architectural plants with more staying power in their climates might opt instead for some of the taller ornamental grasses.

Water features figure prominently in the book; in fact, a whole chapter is devoted to them.

Some of the water features in the pictures look rather expensive. Indeed, one criticism that could be lodged against Small Garden Handbook is that a preponderance of the designs featured look rather pricey. To bolster this claim, I would point to the number of times "glasshouses" are mentioned (that's British for what we Americans call "greenhouses"), as if they were an ordinary part of people's landscaping.

These structures can be very expensive.

Luckily, balance between high-end and low-end is achieved in some other places in the book. For example, in the chapter on boundaries, ideas for moderately-priced fencing mingle happily with those for more expensive walls. If you're working with a pre-existing wall or fence and wish to disguise it (as opposed to replacing it, which could be expensive), Wilson advises obscuring the structure by growing a vine up it. Boston ivy and Virginia creeper, two vines related to each other, are commonly used for this purpose.

It is not, of course, always necessary to have hardscape on the boundary. Hedgerows (hedges) often do the trick. The yew bush makes Wilson's list of the top five hedge plants. Buy your plants when they're small at the nursery (and therefore cheaper) if you don't mind waiting. Such living privacy fences can be a reasonably frugal approach to making your small yard more private.

Another example where the reader is given the option to be frugal can be found in the mentions of raised beds, which are so variable that there is, no doubt, at least one kind for every budget. You can even build a combination raised bed and bench for the ultimate in efficiency.

Helpful tidbits of wisdom are sprinkled throughout the book. On p.188, for example, there's a deeper exploration than one typically encounters of the height and spread descriptions used in garden catalogs. Sometimes we tend to interpret these a bit too dogmatically, the author points out. "Spread measurements are much more variable [than height measurements -- ed.], because it is often based on optimum conditions, and it ignores the impact of surroundings and competing plants. Individual plants perform very differently when planted alongside other plants, and their planting spreads vary accordingly, even though anticipated heights generally remain as described."

American readers may encounter a few landscaping terms in this book with which they're unfamiliar, but this shouldn't be a major stumbling block.

Small Garden Handbook is chockablock full of ideas for a wide variety of readers. You may well want to find a place for it on your bookshelf regardless of where you live, regardless of your property's size, and regardless of your budget.

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