Small Space Gardening - Gardening on a Patio or Terrace

Creating an Outdoor Room or a Small Garden Playground

Containers Decorate a Patio
 © Marie Iannotti

Space has never been an excuse for not having a garden. Patios, decks, and terraces allow you to create garden rooms that can be enjoyed right outside your door.

For some people, it is the time and effort of caring for a large, in-ground garden that seems daunting. If you love the idea of being surrounded by a garden, but you can't see yourself spending countless hours with a pruner in your hands, create a garden paradise on your patio or terrace. You could still incorporate beds and containers, but you have the added element of hardscaping. They haven't invented a stone yet that doesn't look even better next to a plant. Even concrete looks chic.

A patio garden room requires more thought than simply placing a couple of containers by a chair. For a well-designed patio garden, you will need to consider things like framing, softening the edges, creating paths, and maximizing your patio's potential.

Think About Why You Want a Garden on Your Patio or Terrace

The main purpose of a patio or terrace is to have a place to relax and entertain. Surrounding yourself with the beauty of plants will make it that much easier. Even non-gardeners now consider their patios an extension of their homes - a room without walls. Rather than just providing a view, interior design is carried from the inside out.

Framing Your Outdoor Garden Room

Creating a distinction between your patio or terrace and your lawn is how you turn this outdoor space into an outdoor room. You can accomplish this by outlining the patio with a border, by building raised planters around the edge or by creating an edge with containers.

  • Borders: Having a border around your terrace is enjoying the best of both worlds. You have a true garden to putter in and you never have to leave the comfort of your living area. The border will probably be somewhat narrow, 2 - 4 feet, but a lot can be accomplished in this space. In addition to plants that spill onto the patio, like lady's mantle and geraniums, you can create clusters of height with ornamental grasses or small shrubs. If the border runs between the house and the patio, you might want to try your hand at espalier, growing a fruit tree trained to lay flat against the house wall. The heat of the house and the openness of the branches produces a considerable yield in a small space.
  • Built-ins: Many patio designs have built-in flower boxes along the perimeter. They delineate the space and provide additional seating. But more importantly, they provide an eye level garden. You have all the advantages and control of container gardening as well as extra insulation for your plant's roots, provided by brick or stone. Many plants will do well in these circumstances, but it's especially nice to have scented plants such as roses, heliotrope, gardenias, jasmine, and sweet peas.
  • Containers: If you don't have an edge border or built-in boxes, you can always create the effect with containers. Either an entire row of matched containers, simulating built-ins, or clusters of different sizes and shapes, filled with a variety of plant material.

Any of these options will create a distinction between your living space and the openness of the rest of your property.

Softening the Hard Edges of a Patio or Terrace

Stone is beautiful, but on its own, it can look cold, hard, and uninviting. Two types of plants will be especially useful in turning your patio or terrace into a welcoming retreat.

  1. Spillers: Plants that flow out onto the stone will automatically soften the hard edges. Light, airy foliage is especially good for this. Lady's mantle (Alchemilla mollis), Love-In-A-Mist (Nigella damascena), coreopsis, lavender, and ferns are good examples. Just be sure to suit your plants to your sun exposure, because proximity to stone is going to intensify the heat and their watering needs.
  2. Creepers: Unless your patio or terrace is paved, there are bound to be spaces between your stones. You will learn soon enough that weeds will readily grow there, so why not use the spaces to grow something more attractive? There are several low growing plants that can be walked onThyme, sedum, scotch moss, and creeping Jenny  (Lysimachia nummularia) are often used for this purpose. Don't try to fill every crack. Plants can become slippery when squished or wet and you should use care that heavy traffic areas are safe. But a few selected spots will give your terrace a touch of Tuscany and a well lived in feel. You'll be surprised how quickly these plants will acclimate and find their own way around the patio.

Placing Plants Around a Patio Seating Area

The major consideration of using plants around seating areas is to be sure you leave enough space to get to them. You’ll want at least 3 feet on every side of a table, for people to get into their chairs. And use some judgment when choosing plants. Consider their rate of growth and their mature size. Some plants can be trimmed back, but small trees get larger and plants with thorns should be kept away from seating areas and paths.

Creating Privacy & Height with a Patio Garden

Privacy on your patio or terrace can easily be accomplished with well-situated raised planters and containers, as discussed earlier. You should also consider creating some height in your plantings.

A trellis or latticework used as open fencing makes an ideal spot for a vine or climbing plants such as Clematis,  honeysuckle, or morning glories. Even cucumbers can be used to create an open wall that allows air to get through, but not prying eyes.

If your terrace is too sunny or warm, you also might want to consider some sort of pergola across at least part of it, which give you one more place to plant. Climbing hydrangea, Jasmine, Magnolias, Camellias, Wisteria would all be good choices to grow on your pergola.

Another element to consider for privacy is sound. Adding a soothing sound, such as a water feature, rustling plants or wind chimes, will help to soften incoming sounds.

Planting on a patio or terrace can be an end to a means, a garden for enjoyment and not toiling, or it can be a work of art that’s within reach. Linking your home and yard with a patio garden can really be the best of small space gardening because it will allow your garden to suit your gardening aspirations.