Drive into an older neighborhood. Take a look at the lot sizes.
Those were smaller houses back then, and they were on quarter-acre (or larger) plots of ground. It was a time of tall trees, wide shrubs and large expanses of turfgrass.
But those times have changed.
Some of the older houses have been torn down and replaced by dwellings two or three times their size. Today’s urban space may allow only 15 or 20 feet to a side or back fence. The front yard may not have space for a regular shade tree, and there’s hardly room for a game of croquet, let alone the neighborhood football scrimmage.
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How can we scale it all back so we still have attractive landscapes, yet don’t end up whacking the plants because they’ve outgrown their bounds? It requires a little rethinking and planning. I have suggestions.
Landscaping on a small scale
Here are several ideas that might be of help as your design your new and more compact urban landscape.
▪ Start with a plan. This isn’t any different than what I’d tell you if you were designing for an acre, but it’s a whole lot more critical with that smaller property. When you don’t have much room, every square foot has to account for itself. That’s the whole philosophy of the “tiny house” movement, and it spills out into “tiny gardens” as well.
It helps if some of your plants can do double duty: shrubs and small fruit trees that can also provide shade or color (pears, plums, figs, pomegranates), or attractive vegetables that can be a part of the patio pots and color beds (leaf lettuce, purple cabbage, peppers, basil and other herbs, etc.). Know every plant’s mature height and width, and be sure that each of them fits.
▪ Ask your nursery professional to show you dwarf forms of long-proven performers. Plant breeders have been selecting for types that stay shorter and more compact without sacrificing good looks and vigor. There are literally scores of new choices that didn’t exist just a few years ago. They look just as good, but they use far less space.
▪ Keep the landscape plan simple. It’s easy for a small space to become cluttered when we try to do too much within it. You never have to apologize for simple and tasteful.
▪ Choose privacy plants carefully. Because your landscape is likely to be quite close to the neighbors, you’ll want plants to help at the boundary. But tall shrubs are usually wide, and there goes valuable ground space. Vertical shrubs can look restless, and there aren’t that many good ones anyway. Above all, don’t plant a row of one type of plant to act as the wall, because that’s exactly what it will look like.
Alternate suggestion: use dwarf southern magnolias such as Teddy Bear, or in larger spaces, Little Gem magnolias. Plant one or three of them (odd numbers are more visually restful) in some form of a row. They will grow up and over the fence, leaving you with ground space in the meantime. Or use trellises so you can get the height you need without robbing the width. However, again you’ll want to avoid the appearance of creating a tall wall with the trellis and the plants that grow on it.
▪ Keep your color beds in check. Small spots of color, if they’re placed with an eye toward good design, can have an even bigger impact than a long and uninteresting flowerbed against the side of a yard. You don’t have to overwhelm your little area. Small landscapes are viewed up-close, and those pockets of color work very well.
▪ Showcase your plants in decorative pots. Any plant you grow in an attractive container is put on a pedestal. It’s elevated to a position of prominence. Whether it’s a planting of colorful annuals or a shrub or small tree, it will make a much stronger statement when it’s shown in a pot.
Remember, plants in containers give up 10 or 20 degrees of winter hardiness because their root systems are more exposed. They’ll also require more frequent watering and feeding because they have less soil reservoir on which to draw.
▪ Use “useless” space. Hanging baskets add a third dimension to backyard designs. Wall-hanging pots soften wood and masonry enclosures. If you have a rear fence, and if you have a narrow area behind it, plant a tumbling vine such as Madame Galen trumpetcreeper, Lady Banksia rose or Carolina jessamine.
Plant it on the outside and let it tumble and spill over into your back yard. You’ll have the feeling of shrubbery, but without the stem stubble beneath it.
And how about those long, narrow areas along fences and walls? Instead of planting turf that will become hard to maintain, and instead of using river rock to fill in the void, let it be an herb garden of smaller types.