Small Space Gardening

By Melinda Myers - horticulturist and gardening expert
May 23, 2020

Gardening in a small yard or balcony doesn’t have to prevent you from growing edibles, flowers and more. There are lots of ways to creatively maximize the beauty, edibility and enjoyment in these small spaces

I was a small space gardener for about 35 years. First as an apartment dweller converting front steps and balconies into lush gardens and then as a homeowner on a small city lot. What I liked best was finding creative ways to include as many edibles and ornamentals in my garden as possible. I was always looking for spaces and methods to allow me to include both my favorite plants and new ones I just had to try.

Small spaces offer boundaries providing a set amount of space in which to create your garden. These sometimes include attractive backdrops like the wall of your or your neighbor’s house, tall hedge or fence.  You’ll have a clear beginning and end point to your garden or landscape.

gardening on a small patio

Now that I am gardening on 11 acres the opportunities are endless but can also be overwhelming. I hate to block the expansive views I longed for when gardening in the city. But I do miss the intimacy my small city garden provided. I am not complaining; just trying to make those of you gardening in small spaces feel better about what you may see as a limitation.

You need fewer plants to make an impact when gardening a smaller space. 

I found it easy to justify splurging on a few exceptional specimens. As you select plants consider those that provide multiple benefits and seasonal interest. Small-scale trees, shrubs and evergreens form the framework of a landscape, provide year-round structure and privacy. Look for those with flowers, attractive fruit, fall color, form and bark. Many perennials provide multiple seasons of interest and taller varieties can also be used for screening.

Include plants that attract birds, butterflies and other beneficial insects to your garden.

Birds and beneficial insects help manage garden pests and many are important pollinators helping increase your garden harvest. And these winged visitors add color, motion and sound to your garden.Monarch on butterfly plant

Look for creative solutions to your small space challenges by using all the layers of the garden, balcony and deck from the ground up.

Edible or ornamental groundcovers create the flooring in your outdoor space. Add dwarf evergreens and deciduous shrubs fill the next layer. Use these dividers creating separate rooms or accents in the garden. Then add some taller grasses, shrubs and small scale trees to create privacy and needed screening. And don’t forget the vines.  A trellis covered with annual and perennial vines adds vertical interest and screening without taking up much planting space. Even those gardening on balconies can utilize vines for this purpose. Purchase a planter with a built-in trellis or add your own creative touch.

Include containers for increased planting space and colorful accents to your small backyard garden.

These can also be used to grow edible plants. Grow a few of your favorite herbs and vegetables in pots or create a tiny garden in a large container filled with veggies, herbs and flowers. This was my favorite way to maximize growing in the limited sunny spaces in my city lot. You will harvest fewer tomatoes and peppers when you mix things up, but you may be willing to sacrifice a few tomatoes to have some herbs and additional color.

Further increase growing space in your small backyard or balcony with elevated gardens.

These are just large containers on legs.  Many elevated gardens have wheels allowing you to move them out of the way for entertaining. My elevated garden has a cover for extending the season and one to protect my plants from insects and curious birds when warmer temperatures arrive. You’ll find a variety of design options with these features and more.

If you are fortunate to have a bit more space, consider creating a small edible garden.

raised garden bed defines the space and allows easy access for planting, tending and harvesting. Place it in a sunny and convenient spot in the yard.  Plant trailing flowers and herbs around the edges to boost the aesthetics. You and I might think a vegetable garden is beautiful but others sharing your small space may need a few colorful flowers to embrace its presence.

Fortunately there are lots of new compact fruit and vegetable varieties available to help you maximize your harvest. The All America Selections Winners Patio Choice Yellow cherry tomato, Hungarian Mexican Sunset pepper, Patio Baby eggplant, Patio Pride sugar snap peas and Mascotte snap beans are just a few to consider.

But don’t pass on vining crops like cucumbers, squash and melons. Train these up attractive supports to save space, reduce disease problems and make harvesting much easier. Be sure to use a cloth, net or macramé sling attached to the support to prevent large fruit like melons from breaking the vines.

Or select bush varieties like Astia zucchini suited to small space and container gardens.  Semi and vining varieties can also be grown in pots. The vines can be trained up a trellis or allowed to wander over your patio or deck. I had an old patio full of cracks and guests weren’t the wiser as I trained the vines to cover the problem areas.

Further increase the beauty and edibility of your small space garden by substituting edibles for ornamental plants.

Plant a self-fertile (you’ll only need one) apple or peach tree in place of a crabapple. Use two or more columnar apples like the Urban Apple to create a privacy screen around your patio, deck or sunny balcony.

Strawberries make an attractive groundcover with flowers for the pollinators and fruit for you to enjoy.  Compact varieties of raspberry, blackberry and blueberries are now available to grow in containers or small garden spaces.

Herbs add fragrance and texture to any mixed flower garden or container. I was once accused of being a good cook because my front yard was filled with herbs. I had to confess I just liked the fragrance, texture and subtle colors they added to my front yard. 

small rain garden

Create the illusion of larger spaces with vertical accents.

These can be tall plants, garden art, pillars or trellises covered with plants.  Position tall plants next to short plants and use fine-textured plants as a backdrop to make narrow beds appear larger. Use color to do the same and to set the desired mood for that space. Cool colors of blue, green and violet are calming, cooling and make small areas appear larger. Warm colors of red, orange and yellow are energizing, warming and make a space feel smaller.

Add some night lighting and plants with white flowers and silver foliage to extend your enjoyment into the evening hours.  Some like the white-flowered Nicotiana (flowering tobacco) and night scented-stocks are fragrant at night. Add a fan and citronella candles to help ward off the mosquitoes.

Connect the indoors to the outdoors.

This is easier for those of you gardening in warm climates. Just swing open the doors and walk right outside.  Those of us in colder climates have to check the weather and dress appropriately before stepping foot in our gardens. The probably reflects your personality so consider doing the same in your outdoor space. Repeat colors, textures, as well as the look and feel of your indoor décor in your outdoor space. Connecting the two makes it feel like you have more room.

bird bath in small garden

Add a water feature to mask unwanted traffic and neighborhood noises.

My solar powered wall mounted fountain added a nice ambience to my backyard and provided a source of water for birds and beneficial insects to enjoy.

The possibilities are endless when we consider all the potential in our small spaces. Start with a plan and get busy planting. Gardening on any size plot is an ongoing process. You will find yourself adjusting the design, adding new features, eliminating those that aren’t working and enjoying the beauty of every season.