Sure, big gardens are best. They can become personal escapes where immersion is easy.
But how many of us have one? If the size of your backyard isn’t huge, you’ll have to search for space to put in a touch of the lush life.
It’s a problem that’s vexed Maria Renteria for years. Her house in southern California is small with only a minimal backyard and side area next to a shared fence.
“That space [next to the fence] is where I’d like to focus; it gets more sunlight than the backyard,” Renteria says. “I’m not sure what to do there, though. I’d like it to look good without being crowded, of course.”
Author James Grayson Trulove has some notions. He’s searched around the country to find gardens that have flourished even in room-stingy environments, getting the lowdown from professional and amateur designers and gardeners. The result is “Pocket Gardens: Big Ideas for Small Spaces” ($30, William Morrow).
The book also is good for larger gardens because of its creative spins on making the most of the area you have. Some of the plans, however, are more elaborate than others and may require professional landscapers.
“Pocket Gardens” suggests taking a narrow area (such as Renteria’s, which is only about 6 feet wide) and filling it with a wild grouping of plants, some potted, some not.
First, lay a pathway or irregular flat stones for a nice design and continuity.
Then add pottery (perhaps an inexpensive terra-cotta urn) and a narrow bench, if room allows.
Use your imagination organizing the greenery. For plants, Trulove and book contributors (designers Pamela Burton and Ali Acerol) say to consider ‘Joseph’s Coat’ climbing roses, bougainvillea, wisteria, ferns, palms and whatever else looks good to you.
Think rich hues, which can make little gardens stand out. “This is a passion garden with intense color,” the author writes.
Renteria liked the idea, especially the experimentation.
“I think if I had linking elements [like the short pathway or a few pots] then it would become clearer to me,” she says. “I guess that it could work [even] if it was haphazard.”
Patti Phillips and her husband, Steven, have a tiled patio near the rear of their West Coast home that is “pretty much going to waste.” She wants to do something with it but doesn’t know what.
If they have a playful side, the couple might want to take some direction from an exotic patio spotlighted in the book under the heading “Garden Showers.” Trulove’s suggestion has a shower head peeking through a tangle of bougainvillea.
If you don’t like the idea of the outdoor shower (worried about neighbors peering over the fence?) keep in mind that you’ll have to do a lot of watering to re-create this look of overgrown vegetation. Trulove achieved the fullness by piling on agaves, bougainvillea and other eye-catching plants.
Peppermint and spearmint added “aromatherapy at its best,” the author writes. And if you’re up to it, separate the tiles or put in new stone tiles and let moss grow thickly between.
Henry Brandenburg doesn’t have a backyard at all and barely a front yard. But he does have a mini-courtyard in his Newport Beach, Calif. home with a small, aging fountain as the centerpiece.
“I wouldn’t mind getting rid of that [fountain] because it’s getting unsightly and I’m sort of bored with it,” he says. “Putting in some foliage wouldn’t be bad. I have a few potted plants around it now, but it could use something else.”
“Pocket Gardens” offers improvisations on a Zen garden as a possibility. Brandenburg could eliminate the fountain or replace it with a tranquil pool. Put in a jigsaw design of sections (squares or other simple patterns) covered with moss and alternating next to areas filled with flat sone-washed stones.
“The checkerboard pattern of stones, moss and limestone pavers was inspired by a pattern the landscape architect Ron Herman first viewed at a Zen temple in Kyoto,” Trulove notes.
Put in several stalks of bamboo around the perimeter and a few larger stones randomly nearby.
“It sounds a bit elaborate,” Brandenburg says with a sigh, “but it might be good if I took it slow” and completed the garden over a few months, definitely bringing a Zen attitude to the project.
“You have to be open to new ideas, and I’m definitely that way,” Brandenburg says. “Besides, I really want to redo that area, so going Zen is beginning to sound better to me the more I think about it.”
Author’s note: If you enjoyed this article, you may also like Gardening and the Beauty of the Iris and How to Fix Garden Problems from Weeds to Disease.