Whether you’re on a rambling ranch estate or a zero-lot-line property in town, you have some small spaces that need to be landscaped. It could be along a driveway or near a pool or spa, or it might be in an enclosed entryway alcove — almost everyone with a house will have one or two spots needing landscaping.
For a couple of reasons, these small spots will be some of the most challenging spaces you’ll ever design. First, they’re likely to be near paths and walks, so they’ll be viewed “up close and personal.” Second, they’re going to require that you really know the tools with which you’re working — the plants that will be filling the voids. That’s where we’ll start.
If you’ve ever built and furnished a dollhouse, you know about miniaturizing your thinking. You still have the same goals, but you just think in a different scale.
I’m going to borrow a line from one of the advertisers on my radio program, an electric service provider, that urges us not to plant tall trees beneath power lines. They say you should “know before you grow,” and that very same mindset works great when you’re decorating small spaces outdoors. It’s all a matter of scale.
You can probably already judge things like patio furniture and outdoor living accessories in terms of scale and texture, but you need to do so for your landscape plant choices as well.
Plant breeders have been introducing scores of dwarf shrubs and small shade trees each year for the past couple of decades. Those will be the keys to your success. Don’t plant something that will outgrow its space.
No matter how good it looks when the job is done, pruning is only a temporary fix.
One of the most troubling of all the questions I get begins, “Neil, how far back can I trim my __?” It means that the homeowner has made a mistake, and rather than admitting it and moving the plant to a more spacious area, the person is trying to solve the problem with pruning tools. No matter how good it looks when the job is done, it’s only a temporary fix.
So, getting to more specific solutions, the best of the small shade trees would include Mexican and Traveler redbuds, Teddy Bear Southern magnolias, tree-form crape myrtles (not as good where fallen petals would be a problem), Warren’s Red possumhaw hollies, tree-form yaupon hollies and Japanese maples.
If you need small shrubs that will stay at less than 4 or 5 feet tall at maturity, good choices would be improved forms of Japanese boxwood, dwarf yaupon holly, Carissa holly, dwarf Chinese holly and dwarf Burford holly (last three hollies are prickly, so avoid placing near a walkway), the various nandinas, rosemary cultivars, dwarf aucuba (total shade only), Anthony Waterer spiraea (deciduous) and dwarf abelias.
Most ground covers would technically fit into smaller spaces, but in this case, texture also becomes a consideration. Large-leafed ground covers may be too striking visually. This might be the time to use dwarf mondograss, ajuga, smaller-leafed English ivies (shade only) and even the popular northern ground cover pachysandra (Japanese spurge).
When it comes to annuals and perennials, ask plenty of questions before you buy. Check reference books, read the plant labels, and ask your Texas Certified Nursery Professional for advice. What you don’t want is something that becomes rank and overpowering.
Annuals may be your better bet. They’re colorful from the time that you plant them all the way up to the time you replace them.
In fact, annuals may be your better bet by far. They’re colorful from the time that you plant them all the way up to the time you replace them.
Use wall space and attractive patio pots to steal room for more plants without crowding the beds. Hayracks and wrought iron shelves can hang from masonry walls. Stands and pedestals can give you extra space to view plants almost at eye level.
There are a lot of fine “hardscaping” elements you can bring into small spaces. Where you’re used to using grapefruit-sized river rock in larger areas, use golfball-sized stones where things are tight. They make a nice alternative to planting still more ground covers, and you can choose colors that complement the rest of the area.
Patio furniture certainly has its own textures. Simple, durable and lightweight types are most universally appealing. Large chairs and tables with overstuffed pillows will make a small space appear even tinier — probably not something you want to do.
If you want the sound of running water, there are plenty of small, “plug-and-play” fountains that can be used right out of the box. Enjoy your music outdoors with one or two of the small, portable Bluetooth-compatible speakers. They have very good range and amazing acoustics in very small packages.
And finally there are fragrances. There are good odds that your small space will be confined by walls and fences, and that means that the sweet smells of plants like pinks and pansies will hang around in there with you.
Small spaces are exciting in the landscape. Just keep things simple and tasteful and you’ll love your results.
Neil Sperry publishes Gardens magazine and hosts “Texas Gardening” from 8 to 10 a.m. Sundays on WBAP/820 AM. Reach him during those hours at 800-288-9227. Online: http://neilsperry.com.