Garden Design for Small Spaces
by Ruth S. Foster
Are you tired of the same old scene? Want to try some of the fancy new ideas in glitzy magazines? You don't have to have a chateau in France and 6 gardeners to have a special garden. You just need a little space, and a little imagination to create a whole new area in your yard.
That's the attraction of the gardens at Disneyland, fantasy and fun in small spaces. Maybe even the fairies will come.
French gardens are creations of the intellect, geometric, organized and very satisfying. They range in style from country gardens full of flowers like Monet's famous garden in Giverney, to eloquent chateaux, and finally to the lavish style of the garden of Versailles, fabled palace of Louis XIV.
Classic geometric shapes from ancient Rome form the architectural backbone. The space is divided into beds, often defined by low clipped hedges. Each bed has its own interior design, which may be serpentine or rectangular and is filled with lawn or flowers, vegetables and herbs. The designs are usually complex and colorful, and the plants in the beds are changed often.
However, their design concept can be incorporated into a any garden, by creating a small formal jewel that is precise, perfect and very French. Formal designs are a labor of love, but beautiful and satisfying.
For the small tidy hedges, the most economical are actually privet (which grows to be a 30' tree), but is easily sliced back to about 6 inches high every spring. Others plants that can be kept pruned as small hedges are dwarf spirea or dwarf barberry. The most beautiful small hedge, though expensive would be the new low carefree roses. Or perennials or annuals can be used instead to outline the beds.
The beds can be designed, and filled as the spirit moves you. Monet used masses of flowers and bulbs. Beds may be filled with annuals or roses, or fragile lavender. Vegetables and herbs in neat, complex patterns are famous at the Villandry Chateau gardens. The plants can be different each year, although the geometric shape of the beds remains the same.
The paths between beds should be lawn or stone (laid over a weed-preventing fabric). Usually there is a main center path, with something interesting at the end. Perhaps a beautiful view. Or a wall with a rose covered trellis, with a statue beneath surrounded by flowers .
A mirror in the wall, behind the statue is a trick that visually doubles the space. And finally there must be a bench, or some dark green chairs and miniscule table, for how could there be a French garden without a place to enjoy some cheese and a bottle of wine?
There is a mystique about the gardens of Japan, but don't let that put you off. The reality is that their garden rules and concepts just haven't been translated into English yet, and anything in an unintelligible script seems mysterious.
Fortunately, when I was in Kyoto, I found a huge book by a master Japanese gardener, translated into good English. It has all the tricks, the rules, the design possibilities. There are many, and they are not mysterious.
The philosophy behind their gardens is another matter. While one can understand the designs, the religious and emotional underpinnings are complex and heavy.
Ancient Chinese river gorges with huge boulders randomly thrown about by the force of spring flood waters is, I think, the guiding design behind the seemingly random placement of and fascination with rocks. Interesting rocks are common in both Chinese and Japanese garden design.
However in Japan, rocks, trees and plants each have an animistic soul and energy that comes from the early Shinto religion. Buddhist thought determines the form of complex Zen temple gardens, which are paths into the realm of the spirit.
Other elements are purely practical. Behind some palace design was also the need for security from attacking warriors . For instance, the white stones surrounding the houses of rulers was there to outline anyone trying to sneak in at night. Only people who grew up in Japan's culture can appreciate these many multiple levels of their gardens. However, that doesn't prevent us from borrowing their beautiful, beguiling designs.
The essence of the Japanese garden is natural forms, irregular design, harmony and peace. They are a whole landscape brought into a private space. (Think bonsai trees.) All of nature should be visible in one instant. Japanese gardens are small... even tiny. You can easily create such a space in your garden.
Start with the western corner, and plant a Japanese red maple (Acer palmatum atropurpureum) . The late afternoon sun will shimmer red through the leaves. Place a seat to warm yourself in the setting sun ... a flat rock or a stone-slab bench is quite traditional. To keep the garden peaceful, it should be mostly green, using ground covers, ferns, azaleas and small-leafed rhododendrons. Interweave the foliage textures. Japanese gardens are very restrained and minimal, so have only one plant variety flowering at any time, and not too many of them.
Underfoot use stepping stones in a 3-2-3-2 pattern. Ideally, surround them with round river stones, but crushed stone, mulch, or ground cover will do fine. Add some interesting large rocks, half buried in the ground. Finally, to give a sense of privacy and repose, add a low screen of lacy shrubs or an open delicate fence. The traditional fence is criss-crossed bamboo stocks lashed together.
In the front yard of houses in England and Holland, there is often an overflowing flower garden that cheers the soul. This is the smiling cottage garden, a happy place, which may be in front, or back or all around the whole property. It has no rules, but contains whatever the owner decides. English ones are blousy, Dutch ones are neater.
Cottage gardens have an abundance of flowers, mixed with shrubs and trees, often vegetables and herbs too. Although it seems casual, it is lovingly and carefully thought out. Each plant is placed to show off to best advantage. A constant delight, it changes with the seasons, never finished and never perfect.
Old fashioned perennials form the backbone, probably because they faithfully return each year. There are always a few rose bushes, some choice flowering vines like clematis and carefully pruned wisteria as well as challenging plants like delphinium. It may have azaleas and there must be lilies. Some plants are be grown for fragrance like roses, sweet autumn clematis, annual stock, nicotiana, alyssum and Viburnum carlesi bushes.
If you have a scraggly front lawn, and have an old privet hedge you are tired of pruning 3 times each year, consider ripping out the lawn, cutting the hedge down to 12 inches, and turning it into a cottage garden. If you have a skinny perennial bed that just never seems to make it, consider enlarging it with shrubs and flowering trees and rose bushes and annuals into a wonderful mass of abundant bloom. If your vegetable bed is boring, add some things you love. No where is it written that asparagus and lilacs can't coexist.
If you want lots of flowers, you need 5 hours of sun. Keep the tall shrubs and trees on the north side and low plants on the south. Stepping stone paths through the beds makes life easier. A brick path, or terrace may be incorporated, or a herb garden with segments divided by bricks . Birds and butterflies will come. There may be a garden house, or a work shed. And there will surely be a compost heap, because cottage gardens are for real gardeners.