Pro tips for making the most of a small outdoor space


When it comes to creating a beautiful garden, size doesn’t matter. You can achieve big dreams in a small space with the right plant choices, clever design, and just a little creativity. We asked three experts how you can turn a bantam-sized backyard, mini-garden or strip of side yard into an expansive feel zone thriving with big vibes. Here are their suggestions.

Choose small plants. Many seed companies and plant breeders develop varieties specifically designed for growing in smaller spaces and pots. When shopping for plants, Callie Works-Leary, founder of the Dallas Garden School, recommends looking for ones with the words dwarf, patio, or container in the name. For example, if you’re looking to grow fruits and vegetables, good options include Patio Baby Eggplant, Tophat Dwarf Blueberries, and Peas in a Pot.

Present a united front. Variety isn’t always the way to go. “Having a collection of random pots of different colors, sizes and shapes is the quickest way to confuse the eye and make a garden appear smaller,” says Amy Pennington, author of “Small space gardening: growing vegetables, fruits and herbs in small outdoor spaces.” She suggests choosing containers of the same color and style to keep the focus on the plants, allowing them to offer pleasant contrasts with their colors, textures and shapes.

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Less is more. “The biggest mistake I see people make is trying to cultivate one of everything,” Works-Leary says. “Just like in a house, if you have too many possessions, that clutter will make it more constricted.” To create a sense of harmony, select a smaller number of plants, say up to half a dozen, and grow enough of each to fill the beds. Plant plots will give resting place to the eye, so viewers can experience each type of plant on a deeper level.

Go vertical. “If you have limited linear space, expand,” Pennington says. “Add plants that pull the eye up.” There are many edible plants that grow or can be trained, such as tomatoes, peas, cucumbers and melons. You can purchase a more upscale metal climbing frame, or simply lean two pieces of bamboo together and tie them at the top to secure them. Alternatively, there are decorative vines that can cling to walls, such as star jasmine, evergreen clematis and royal trumpet. You can also add other vertical elements, such as hanging baskets, plant stands, planters and containers, which attach to a wall, railing or deck.

Also go horizontal. To make a space appear larger horizontally, use repeating identical elements that make a dramatic impression. When designing a garden bed placed against the back of your property, for example, choose the same statement plant to go on either side. Or if you have a small yard along your house, place the same type of eye-catching tree at each end. “They catch the eye,” says Works-Leary. “They frame the area, while making it appear larger.”

Build layers. Works-Leary suggests creating a layering effect by choosing plants with different textures, complementary colors and varying heights. This adds variety, saving you from having a space where a bunch of similar plants are drowning. Try planting a cane yucca with a tall, slender trunk and sword-shaped green leaves on the back. In front, place Gregg’s Mistflower, which has a fuzzy appearance and light purple flowers, and won’t grow as tall as cane. “It will create beautiful contrasts,” she says, “while breaking things up.”

Be reflective. Hanging a mirror on a wall or fence, or on the side of the house or shed, can trick the eye into thinking there’s more space. Just be sure to place the mirror where it won’t receive too much direct sunlight and reflect light onto your plants, which could cause problems, especially in warmer environments. Niki Jabbour from said she visited a small garden overlooking the ocean that had a mirror partially reflecting the open sea. “It was like this gateway to another world,” says Jabbour, the author of several books on gardening, including “Growing Under Cover: Techniques for a More Productive, Weather-Resistant, Pest-Free Vegetable Garden.” “You just felt like the garden was a lot bigger.”

Try some water. There may not be enough room to install a swimming pool or an in-ground pond, but even the smallest yard can have a water feature. Consider adding a small above-ground pond surrounded by rocks to hide the sides or a free-standing birdbath. The water reflects the sky and the greenery above it, adding another dimension to the space and making it feel larger. Plus, says Jabbour, it can attract birds and amphibians, as well as butterflies, bees and other beneficial insects and pollinators.

Think in terms of “parts”. Divide your garden into sections. Maybe put a sitting area with a couch and a small table in one corner and a collection of potted plants in another. Jabbour suggests maximizing your space with useful components, like a pollinator garden, a raised bed for growing produce, or an herb garden. “When you create small rooms or areas in a space, it gives the illusion of being large,” adds Pennington. “It’s like putting a shelf in the corner of a small studio to make it look like there’s another room.”

Forge a path. If you have a yard that’s at least 10 feet by 10 feet, lay a stone path between a few of the areas you’ve created, perhaps between the lawn chair where you bask in the sun and a hot tub. birds or between the patio and your herb garden. The path doesn’t have to be complicated; simply place stone or concrete pavers in shallow depressions dug into the ground. Avoid right away, as they will reduce the space visually. “Instead, build curved tracks,” says Jabbour. “They make short distances feel like walking a bit longer, which gives the illusion of height.”

Create a living fence. To delineate these areas, Pennington suggests using living fences that double as edible landscape. She plants small fruit trees (like apple or pear) supported by an espalier system – small trellises that force the trees to grow flat in two dimensions – interspersed with blueberries and strawberries. This creates a three-layered barrier, with trees reaching five or six feet tall, bushes reaching a maximum of two to three feet tall, and strawberries spreading at ground level.

Martell is a writer based in Silver Spring, Md. His website is Find it on Twitter and instagram: @nevinmartell.