How to Get the Most Out of a Tiny Garden Space

man in cowboy hat tends to his raised garden bed, full of lettuce growing

Treehugger / Dan Amos

In today's crowded urban environments, many people who love plants don't have an expansive yard. If you're a plant lover but have only a tiny space to work with, don't envy those with large gardens. Get even!

Take your tiny space and use it to create focal points of interest in which plants with striking foliage and beautiful flowers can always be viewed and enjoyed up close rather than from a distance. You can do that literally from the ground up — from ground covers to small shrubs and trees that will fit the scale of your garden to climbing vines that will cling to trellises and walls. And, because you have a small space, the cost of the plants won't break the household budget.

Julie Hollingsworth Hogg, senior horticulturist at the Atlanta Botanical Garden who describes herself as a very basic gardener, has some ideas for how you can transform a postage stamp yard, a patio, a rooftop or even a window box into a horticultural heaven on Earth.

Before planting, though, Hogg recommends that you think of the soil and make sure you amend it to encourage strong plant growth. "I put a strong belief in the power of good dirt and a good site to make things grow," she said. "I compost at home and recommend it for anyone who gardens." When your soil is ready, whether it's mixed with compost or a good quality planting mix you bought from a local nursery, you're ready to start planting.

Just be sure to follow the one golden rule of small space gardening: Because the plants will be close to your house, be sure to choose the kind that are close to your heart. Here are some of Hogg's suggestions for plants to consider.

To check if a plant is considered invasive in your area, go to the National Invasive Species Information Center or speak with your regional extension office or local gardening center.

Small trees and shrubs

various small trees in plastic potting buckets ready to be planted

Treehugger / Dan Amos

There are numerous choices for small trees or shrubs that will work well in the scale of tiny yards or can even be planted in containers. As always, the amount of sun you receive will determine which plants will work best for your situation. Japanese maples work well for yards or patios that receive part-sun to part-shade because they create a great focal point with their interesting shape and often-brilliant spring and fall colors. Acer palmatum "Crimson Queen" or Acer palmatum "Beni Maiko" are just a couple of varieties that would work very well. If your area receives full sun, consider the dwarf peach tree Prunus persica "Bonanza." Its beautiful spring blooms will light up a small space.

If you prefer an evergreen look, consider a shrub, such as Loropetalum chinense var. rubrum "Shang-lo" (Chinese fringe flower). Its foliage is burgundy — not green — and it will stay small even at maturity. For lots of blooms, the butterfly bush Buddleja "Lilac Chip" will not only give you a prolonged show of flowers, but it only grows to 18 inches. Another flowering shrub that stays small is Rhododendron "Conlef" Autumn Cheer. For hydrangea lovers, it's be hard to beat the large mophead flowers of Hydrangea macrophylla "Mini Penny." This compact hydrangea is a wonderful selection for a container, a low flowering hedge or as a highlight in a flowering border. As with many hydrangeas, the blossoms tend to be blue when planted in acidic soils and pink in more alkaline soils.

The tropical look

bright orange tropical flowers grow in small garden

Treehugger / Dan Amos

If your tastes run to the tropical look, there are excellent choices for both color and texture. Some cannas, for instance, stay short. Two that would do well in a small space are Canna "Lemon Punch" and Canna "Pink Sunburst." Some of the elephant ears stay small. Colocasia esculenta "Blue Hawaii," for example, only gets to about 30 inches. The same is true of some of the baptisias. Baptisia "Grape Taffy" is another plant that only gets to about 30 inches, which is a perfect size for a small garden. Baptisias are one of those plants that keep on adding interest after they've finished flowering. In the case of baptisias, some people find the seedpod as interesting as the flower.

Ground covers

red nasturtiums grow in wheelbarrow and spill over onto ground of small garden
Nasturtium (Tropaeolum majus) does double duty, as it is both edible and makes for an attractive, flowering ground cover.

Treehugger / Dan Amos

One advantage of a tiny yard is that ground covers that might get lost in a large landscape get a chance to show off their flowers, form and myriad of textures in a small yard. For example, if your tiny yard is part sun to shade, consider the dark-green, dwarf mondo grass Ophiopogon japonicus "Gyoku Ryu."


hand places white bulb in freshly dug hole in soil in garden

Treehugger / Dan Amos

Bulbs also make a great choice because their color and often unusual flowers can add a "Wow!" factor to small spaces. Lesser-known narcissus (daffodils) will start a spring conversation, but there are plenty of bulbs that will bloom in other seasons, too. Beautiful and unusual summer bulbs include Allium cristophii (Star of Persia) or A. giganteum (giant onion), Hymenocallis "Sulphur Queen," Lycoris radiata (red spider lily) or L. squagimera (resurrection lily).

Vertical spaces

wooden and bamboo trellis with climbing green vines in garden

Treehugger / Dan Amos

While you're thinking about the beautiful plants at your feet, don't forget to take advantage of the vertical spaces on your walls. You can create a vertical space with a trellis. Flowering vines like the fragrant Lonicera periclymenum "Scentsation" with its gorgeous yellow flowers or any of the Clematis make beautiful climbing plants. Another climber is scarlet runner beans. They produce a beautiful red flower that is followed by a lovely drooping and interesting bean pod.

A word of caution, though, if you see a wall garden at a botanical garden and are inspired to try and replicate growing plants on an exterior wall on your home: This can be very tricky. Not only do you have to choose the right plants to survive in your respective environment, you have to water them properly. Homeowners often find it easy enough to kill plants in the ground with poor watering habits; maintaining proper moisture levels in a wall garden is even more difficult than in-the-ground culture. That takes two things most homeowners lack: expertise and time. Botanical gardens have professional horticulturists who create wall designs and who understand which plants will survive in different exposures against the wall. They also check and re-check moisture levels frequently. For these reasons, wall gardens are likely beyond the scope of all but the most experienced home gardeners who also have plenty of free time.

However, in addition to vining plants, one other way to dress up a wall is to espalier a plant against it. Espalier is the art of pruning a plant so that its branches run horizontally along a wall or vertically up a high space. Almost any small-growing tree — small-leaved magnolias and fruit trees are just two examples — can be espaliered and turned into a great focal point. Ask one of the growers at your local nursery to help you choose a plant that is showing the early branching characteristics that will grow into your space and thrive in your exposure.


close view of green tomatoes ripening on vine in small garden

Treehugger / Dan Amos

Don't forget to mix edibles into your small space. Parsley, thyme and other herbs add interesting colors and textures to borders and beds. Creeping thyme (Thymus serpyllum) is also a great choice to plant between stepping stones because the foot traffic will release a wonderful fragrance from the plant's oils. Dwarf fruit trees and flowering shrubs such as blueberries and strawberries planted as a ground cover in a sunny area are other examples of edibles that will give you a healthy return on your garden investment.

Window boxes

purple and blue flowers peek from wooden window box outside of house

Treehugger / Dan Amos

Window boxes are a great place to add splashes of seasonal color. If you have a sunny widow, add interest to your window box with trailing flowering plants that will send blooms cascading over the sides. In some cases, and with good care, the flowers can even hide the container entirely. Excellent choices for trailing and flowering summer annuals are petunias, million bells (Calibrachoa), Lobelia erinus (trailing lobelia), which is available in flowers of white, blue and purple, and parrot's beak (Lotus berthelotii). For boxes in shady areas, vincas and ivy are popular trailing choices for their ability to spill over the edges and tumble out into the air.

For window boxes — and containers, too — Hogg recommends a product that she says might benefit the average (think slightly forgetful) homeowner. That's Miracle-gro Moisture Control Potting Soil. "This is something I use at home for the pots I know I will probably neglect!" Hogg says. "It really helps me not kill my own plants."

Many of the plants Hogg recommends are available at local garden centers. If you can't find these or others locally, here are several mail order sources to consider, including Brent and Becky's and Plant Delights Nursery.

Another resource are classes in container gardening, the basics of espalier or how to meet other small-space gardening challenges. Garden clubs and public gardens frequently offer classes in these and other areas. Check with the clubs and gardens in your area for classes that will help you beautify your small space.