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Be creative with small-space landscapes
by Dan Gill
by Dan Gill

email: dgill@agcenter.lsu.edu

Dan Gill earned B.S. and M.S. degrees in horticulture from Louisiana State University in Baton Rouge, and is an Associate Professor in Consumer Horticulture with the LSU AgCenter.

He is the spokesperson for the LSU AgCenter’s Get It Growing project, a statewide educational effort in home horticulture utilizing radio, Internet, TV and newsprint. Gardeners throughout Louisiana read his columns in local newspapers, watch his gardening segments on local TV stations and listen to him on local radio. In the New Orleans area, Dan appears weekly on the Channel 4 Morning News, writes a weekly gardening column for The Times-Picayune and hosts the Saturday morning WWWL Garden Show, a live call-in radio program.

Dan is co-author of the Louisiana Gardener’s Guide and author of Month-by-Month Gardening in Louisiana. His “South Louisiana Region Report” and “Only in Louisiana” columns appear monthly in the Louisiana Gardener Magazine.


January 31, 2016

Gardeners often are faced with small areas in their landscapes. Urban lots typically are fairly small, and in older neighborhoods it is especially common for the house to occupy a large part of the lot. Even where lots are larger, restricted-space areas often need to be addressed on the small scale.

Although creating small-scale gardens may seem easier to deal with than larger ones, careful planning is just as, or even more, critical. The choice and use of building materials; the choice and placement of plants, textures, shapes and colors; the activities that will take place in the landscape and the positioning and flow of traffic – all of these are matters of concern. When every square inch counts, a well-thought-out plan is essential because the viewer is going to be closer to the landscape and so more aware of every detail.

The concept of good design can mean different things to different people, and there is no one absolutely right design for a given situation. To get started in the right direction, however, certain design elements are worth considering while you ponder how to go about laying out a small-scale landscape.

Often, small gardens are located adjacent to or in close proximity to the home. This is important when considering the garden’s style. It should reflect the location and style of surrounding buildings. Look for established neighborhood features (buildings, parks, old gardens, etc.) and take inspiration from them. The building materials used in the garden also should relate to and harmonize with the building materials used in the house.

For instance, stuccoed Spanish revival homes might incorporate Spanish landscape elements into their landscape style, while homes with a relaxed Acadian-style architecture are complemented by informal, natural elements in the landscape. You can learn more about styles of landscapes and their characteristics from any good landscaping book.

When I lived in New Orleans, my home was a late 1800s Victorian Eastlake style house. The Victorian period generally favored formal elements in the landscape (symmetry, geometric layouts of beds, straight lines, etc.) and the exuberant use of color. This was the style I adopted for my very small backyard garden.

The style selected has a great influence on the way the garden is laid out, and the plants and the building materials used.

My selection of building materials also was influenced by my home and neighborhood. After looking around, I chose building materials such as laid brick, lattice, wrought iron, clapboard, French doors and stained glass for structures and surfacing, and terracotta pots to embellish the patio.

Remember that your landscape will not exist in a vacuum, and you should feel free to draw on existing surroundings for inspiration.

One last comment on style and materials – remember that the style and décor of rooms that have a view of the garden should also be considered because the garden will literally become a part of those rooms and should harmonize with them.

Once the fundamental style has emerged, each person’s garden is unique based on their tastes and needs. The actual form and layout of the garden is largely dictated by how it will be used.

The first step in the actual drawing of the landscape plan is to list your family's needs that can be fulfilled by the garden. Do you need privacy, a patio for outdoor entertainment or shade? Are you an avid gardener or do you need to minimize maintenance? How about vegetables, flowers, pets, children's play areas and work areas? Taking inspiration from John F. Kennedy, I sometimes say, "Ask not what you can do for your landscape; ask what your landscape can do for you."

After you’ve determined the general style, how the landscape will be used and what it needs to provide, it’s time to begin working on drawing a plan. The area can be carefully measured and a scale drawing produced to work with. Or simple sketches can suffice.

The desired features of the garden, based on the chosen style and needs, are arranged and re-arranged on paper until you’re satisfied with the results. If existing features will be retained, make sure you include them in the plan.

At this stage in developing your plans, you need to determine the size and shapes of planting beds, outdoor living areas and other features. This is an artistic phase and will be substantially guided by the style you have chosen. Take your time. Feel free to look through landscaping books for inspiration and ideas.

When choosing plant materials, keep in mind the smaller scale of the situation and select plants that are compact, dwarf or slow growing. It’s very easy to overplant or to select plants that grow too large for their location. This creates additional maintenance because frequent pruning will be needed to keep plants in control. Always find out the mature size of the trees and shrubs you are considering to make sure their size is appropriate.

Help, if you need it, is available. If you’re unsure of your final plan, consult with a licensed landscape architect to iron out the rough spots.

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