Apartment dwellers have been known to create absolutely stunning container and vertical gardens — so if you have a small backyard and are not sure how to make the most of it, you can comfortably forget about the idea that you have to “go big or go home”.
Any garden space is prime real estate, and with the right tips and tricks, you can turn the smallest of backyards into a slice of nature that you wouldn’t trade for the world.
Because your space is limited, you will undoubtedly have to get creative — if you have a small garden, you can’t have it all. You can absolutely, however, have everything you need to be able to truly enjoy your space.
What Does it Take to Create a Beautiful Yard That Feels “Complete”?
The best landscape designers can work miracles — they can make vast spaces feel cozy, and tiny gardens appear spacious. With time and dedication, you can do the same. Yes, even if you’re a novice gardener. It will take more than throwing in some compact plants that will thrive in your climate and soil conditions and adding some garden chairs, or course. To create a garden that feels like a space designed with intention, you’ll have to make sure all the right elements are present.
To achieve this, we can take inspiration from the four elements of matter — Earth, water, air, and fire. The ancient Greeks believed that these four elements made up literally everything , and although this ancient theory was debunked long ago, it plays a useful role in garden design. To design a garden that feels like it’s not missing anything, consider incorporating all of these elements.
Earth speaks for itself. It’s the soil you’ll nurture to create a beautiful garden, and all the plants it will give rise to. In this category, you can consider that:
- Even the smallest gardens need some “empty space”, in the form of a small lawn covered in grass rather than pavers or other artificial elements. Opting for a gravel walkway can also invite more “earth” into your garden.
- Rocks are also part of “earth”, and a small rock garden with miniature plants can help your garden feel more complete. If you don’t want to opt for a full-on rock garden, at least place some boulders in your small garden.
- Clay pots also add a hefty dose of “earth” to your small garden — so don’t plant all your greenery directly in the garden, and add natural clay pots or pots painted in bright colors, too, filling them with herbs or shrubs.
Water can arrive in the form of a miniature waterfall, which can easily be incorporated into a rock garden, or a tiny little pond. Even a romantic bird bath can help to complete your small garden. Flowing water is almost universally considered relaxing, and you’ll get a lot of enjoyment from any water feature you choose to add to your garden. You can also, however, mimic the flow of water in the shape of your garden, for instance by creating a twisting garden path, or by adding flowering plants with blue blooms to your outdoor space.
Air is all around us, but you can make your small garden feel more whole by making sure to add wispy plants that sway gently in the wind to your space. Tall fine grasses are a wonderful option, and swaying vines can make your garden feel more alive, too. Another thing to consider is fragrance — also, of course, carried by the air. By planting fragrant and complementary plants in your small garden, you can instantly make it feel romantic or peaceful.
Fire can be added to your small garden in one obvious way — by adding a barbecue or small fire pit, perfect to enjoy long summer evenings or entertain a few guests, or by placing lighting, torches, and candles in your garden. You can also use color to simulate this element. Choose flowering plants or vines with deep or bright red foliage for your small garden, or pick plants with red flowers or fruits.
Finally, you will want to consider the “human element” — you. You will want, at the very least, a comfortable place for you and your partner, or a few friends, to sit down and enjoy a cup of coffee and a slice of cake. That means you’ll want a seating area and a table, allowing you to take in the stunning view you’ll create in your small garden.
How to Plan a Beautiful, Cozy Garden in a Small Space
Because you won’t have access to a lot of horizontal space in a small garden, you will want to put the outdoor real estate you have to smart use. That’s exactly why people so often go vertical in small gardens, as well as making effective use of layering and natural slopes to grow and care for as many complementary plants as possible.
In a small garden, you will want to choose one larger centerpiece — such as a tree, a seating area, a small pond, or even a garden shed. Plan everything else around this one focal point, so that your garden has the appearance of a space designed with intention, allowing it to feel that much more complete. You will typically want to grow your tallest plants (which may be smaller trees, shrubs, or vines) in this area, as well as around the perimeter of the garden.
Around the edges, consider fencing — wooden privacy screens can be excellent places to grow vines or vertical container gardens. Herbs, which are compact, add a lot to your vertical garden. They are not just edible, but also beautiful and fragrant. Climbing vines are, of course, another example of a type of plant that can grow vertically, and taller shrubs with a modest spread are yet another option.
Place planting beds in front of trellises, vertical gardens, and fencing to capitalize on the space you have available — easily doubling the number of plants you can grow, even in the smallest of spaces. Do keep in mind that smaller gardens quickly begin to look cluttered unless all the plants grown therein complement each other well. Sometimes, less really is more.
Add Some Edible Plants for Yards
Have you been dreaming of an edible garden for a long time? While you may not be able to grow an impressive vegetable garden in a small space, you can certainly plant fragrant and flavorful herbs in tiny gardens. Many herbs thrive in containers, and even do well as houseplants. Use this to your advantage by brightening your garden up with some beautiful compact plants — that also happen to be tasty.
Oregano (Origanum spp.) is a perennial shrub from the Lamiaceae family. Native to northern Africa, Asia, and Europe, oregano is most popular for its ability to flavor up many dishes. The oregano plant can grow up to two feet tall, has an 18-inch spread, and is an excellent choice for a vertical container garden!
Oregano prefers to be in full side or partial shade and thrives in well-drained dry to medium moisture soil. Oregano is a perfect fit for any small garden and if you take care of it properly — easy, because this plant is very low-maintenance — you will be rewarded with some very tasty herbs you can add to your next meal.
Allium schoenoprasum, more commonly known as chives or flowering onion, is another wonderful edible plant that’s perfect for small gardens. These fairly compact plants thrive in full sun to partial shade, and they don’t just make for a wonderful addition to your next cream cheese bagel — chives also produce attractive violet, star-shaped, flower clusters during the late spring to early summer.
Chives are a wonderful addition to any cottage garden or edible garden, and are frequently recommended for use in especially small spaces, where they are best grown in small clusters.
Basil (Ocimum basilicum) — also commonly referred to as sweet basil — is one of the most popular herbs all around the world, and for good reason! The basil plant is one of the easiest herbs to grow, and the herb can complement many different dishes. Basil is native to the tropical regions of Africa and Asia and therefore thrives in warmer conditions.
The basil plant is a compact size with most plants growing 18 to 24 inches tall and wide. This herb is an annual and a fast grower that can easily be kept in a pot.
Many varieties of Capsicum annuum, more commonly known as ornamental peppers, are edible. Because these peppers are native to the tropical regions of South America, they thrive as perennials in warmer climates — but if your region has harsh winters, you can still grow ornamental peppers as annuals.
Thanks to the fact that countless cultivars have been created, with new ones emerging all the time, any gardener will be able to find a type of ornamental pepper they love. Some are famous for their spicy flavor, while others grow colorful but non-edible peppers. A few cultivars even have dark purple leaves.
Mint (Mentha spp.) is a European native herb with a perennial life cycle. The herb itself is edible and widely used in all sorts of culinary applications — including in foods and beverages like teas! The mint plant can usually grow to a size of one to two feet tall and one to two feet wide — but you won’t let it grow that much in your small garden, because you’ll be harvesting the leaves for consumption!
Mint plants do need at least six hours of direct sunlight a day and they do best in moist conditions, thriving in loam soil. Make sure to keep your mint leaves away from cats and dogs, though, as mint is toxic to them!
Mint leaves can be used in so many ways and even have medicinal uses. Though the plant is quite high maintenance, if you are willing to care for it, mint will be a gift that keeps on giving.
Add some Ornamental Plants
You can grow almost any plant in a small garden — you just can’t have all of them. Let’s take a look at some beautiful plants that thrive in smaller spaces or that climb vertically, and that are guaranteed to offer beauty, attract pollinators or birds, or that wow you with their fragrance.
English lavender — or “Lavandula angustifolia” — is a herbaceous shrub that’s famous for its stunning and fragrant leaves and flowers. Lavandula angustifolia belongs to the Lamiaceae (mint) botanical family and has a perennial life cycle.
The flowers of the English lavender, which is also often called common lavender and true lavender, bloom in the summer. While you might think lavender flowers are necessarily “lavender-colored”, that’s not true — many hybrid plants and cultivars display uniquely-colored blooms — purple remains the most common, but this plant’s flowers can also be white or pink!
Lavender’s visual appeal is not the only reason to plant it in your small garden, though. Because lavender attracts pollinators, these plants will instantly make your garden come to life. However, if you have any pets, it’s important to know that English lavender is toxic to cats and dogs.
The English lavender grows to be about one to two feet tall and has a modest spread of two to three feet wide, though it can be pruned to be even smaller. The compact size of English lavender and its beautiful fragrance makes it an amazing addition to any small garden!
Oenothera biennis, commonly called evening primrose, is a wonderful choice for any cottage or herb garden, and this plant works well in smaller spaces. Their stunning yellow-gold flowers, which bloom in fall, spring, and summer, add a splash of color to any small garden — and you might also welcome the fact that evening primrose blooms are bee and butterfly magnets.
The evening primrose is native to the United States, and thrives in full sun to partial shade. It’s not picky about its soil, so long as there is ample drainage. Because evening primrose is extremely easy to grow and care for, this is a great plant for novice gardeners.
When you’re designing a small garden, you’ll be tempted to incorporate as many flowering plants as possible — but for your garden to look “put together”, you’re advised to balance all those colors out with some more muted greenery, too. Ferns (Polypodiopsida), which uniquely propagate via spores, can do this for you.
With over 12,000 species to choose from, including some extremely compact ones that can thrive as houseplants, there’s no question that you can find the right fern for your small garden! Plant some ferns in a clay pot to add visual appeal to your garden, and enjoy the fact that ferns, which prefer shady conditions, are cope well with a wide variety of climate and soil conditions.
Matricaria chamomilla, commonly known as German Chamomile, produces charming daisy-like flowers that bloom throughout the summer. These annual herbs are a prime choice for people hoping to grow aromatic flowers in small spaces, and usually grow to be about a foot tall. Plant them along walkways or as part of your rock garden to allow their wild beauty to shine in all its glory.
Lily Of The Valley
Lily of the valley isn’t actually a lily. This plant belongs to the asparagus family and resembles some lilies. Convallaria majalis is a herbaceous perennial plant that is native to Europe. Lily of the valley is also commonly called may bells, lady’s tears, Mary’s tears, and mayflower. Mayflower can usually grow to six to 12 inches tall and nine to 12 inches wide.
Before planting a lily of the valley, keep in mind that the plant is highly toxic to people and pets. Don’t worry when handling lily of the valley, just make sure to wash your hands after touching this plant. This plant thrives in rich soil and does best in partial or full sunlight.
Buxus sinica, more often called Korean boxwood, is a beautiful compact broadleaf evergreen shrub. While it can absolutely grow too tall for most small gardens — reaching heights of up to 10 feet — the Korean boxwood thrives as a container plant, and can also be pruned to grow as a living hedge or along a foundational wall. These shrubs love loamy or sandy soil and do best in full sun to partial shade. Although their small blooms are rather unimpressive, Koran boxwood shrubs grace you with their deep green glossy leaves all year round.
Blue Rug Juniper
The blue rug juniper (Juniperus horizontalis) is an evergreen shrub that makes for a great ground cover with striking silvery-blue foliage. Blue rug juniper plants, also called creeping junipers and carpet junipers, grow to be three to six inches tall and four to 10 feet wide. The creeping juniper is native to North America and needs to be placed in direct sunlight to thrive. Blue rug junipers do best in moist and well-drained soil.
Vines are a smart choice in a small garden — and you won’t find one that’s more showy than the snapdragon vine (Maurandya scandens). Native to Mexico, these vines add charm to any small garden when placed in hanging baskets. Their stunning trumpet-shaped blooms, deep purple in color, appear in spring and last into summer. Because the snapdragon vine is a slow grower, it will work well in any smaller space.
Perfect Trees for Small Gardens
The fact that you’re working with a small space by no means forces you to fill your garden solely with compact and low-growing plants. To create a focal point — not to mention a shady area where you can enjoy your dinners in the summer — adding some trees is absolutely a good idea.
Along the border of your small garden, you will want to stick to more compact dwarf trees. Some good choices include:
- Olive trees.Olea europaea, also known as the common olive, can grow into a rather tall tree in its native habitat. These trees have been trending as container plants because they’re incredibly slow growers that will never get out of control and instantly add a dash of sophistication to your small garden.
- Japanese maples (Acer palmatum) can successfully be grown in containers and large pots, where they are bound to “wow” you with their crimson-orange fall leaves. These trees are naturally compact as well as slow-growing.
- Hawthorn (Crataegus monogyna) is native to the United Kingdom, and is best-loved for its bright red berries — which are bird magnets.
- Small magnolia cultivars like Magnolia wilsonii are suitable for small gardens, allowing you to enjoy their majestic blooms even if you don’t have a lot of space.
- If you’re after an evergreen, try the Norway spruce (Picea abies species), a dwarf conifer that thrives in northern climates.
Don’t try to turn your small garden into something it’s not — embrace the space you have, and work to create it into a cozy and peaceful oasis uniquely suited to your own personality. Whether you create a modern feel with vertical planters and bold colors, or go for a more rustic atmosphere filled with wildflowers and shabby chic chairs , keep in mind that small gardens quickly begin to look cluttered if you plant a broad variety of different plants.
For this reason, you will want to select plants of varying heights and spreads that work well together, and have complementary colors. Garden furniture should be compact and foldable to allow you to maximize your available space — and small decorative elements like mirrors, garden ornaments, and bird houses can add much-needed finishing touches.
Never feel like you have to cram plants into every available square inch, because leaving some lawn space will create the appearance of a bigger garden.