Many believe that designing a small garden is simple and without challenges. This is not always the case. The reality is that the smaller the space, the more every inch counts. In a small garden nothing is hidden, so the bones must be strong and everything well planned. Using quality material also plays an important role. I kept all of these things in mind as I designed this award-winning small garden.
Having just returned from the California Landscape Contractors Association (CLCA) convention, where I received a first place state trophy award in Small Residential Install (very exciting), I have reviewed the design challenges I encountered while designing a small garden for a 1960 classic ranch house. The design process included overcoming challenges unique to small garden design.
One of the biggest challenges was how to make the small garden interesting and consistent with classic ranch house architecture. Knowing that the small garden would be viewed all at once from the many windows and doors of a classic ranch house was always on my mind. I designed the garden to reflect the open floor plan of the 1960 ranch house, and to relate to the open views of the surrounding hills from the garden. Creating small, compartmentalized garden rooms was out of the question. I chose to give the garden an open feeling, and let the views of the surrounding hills act as a backdrop to the small garden, which gives it a larger feeling. Adding interest to the small garden was accomplished by designing a split-level garden, using a variety of complimentary hardscape surfaces that connect the small garden to the ranch house, and installing a strong but limited plant palette that cohesively pull the garden together.
The split-level garden is only one step down, but this one step down visually makes all the difference. The dining area and kitchen are flush with the bluestone patio and connected by two sets of French doors. The curved lines of the bluestone patio soften the bones of the small garden. The “Trex” (wood composite) cantilevered deck is flush with the master bedroom and is connected by one set of French doors. The garden flows seamlessly from indoor to outdoors. Both the bluestone patio and Trex deck step down to the gravel garden. Using quality materials like Trex and bluestone in a small garden is vital since it will be visible close up. The plus side of a small garden is that considerably less material is needed compared to a large garden.
Another challenge was color in the garden. I limited the color of hardscape material, and designed with a limited plant palette in order to give the small garden cohesion and a feeling a greater openness.
The client painted their classic ranch house a cool gray with cream colored trim. Choosing Connecticut bluestone, in an ashlar pattern, was a natural fit for the patio. The Trex deck color is “Gravel Path” gray and compliments the house color. The ¾” “Tuscan Gold” stones for the gravel patio is a mixture of soft gray, cream and beige stones. The cream limestone squares accent the gravel patio and are one of the few items from the original garden that I reused. The bluestone, Trex, gravel and limestone work together to create a visually pleasing foundation for the plant palette.
The color palette for the plant material was also limited to cool colors, with the exception of the burgundy leaf accent plants. Various shades of green and white variegated leaves, as well as white flowers, give this small garden a sophisticated feel. The light color palette also makes the small garden appear larger. The limited color palette is compensated with a variety of textures such as the hard-lined dwarf English boxwood hedge and the soft Carex ‘Blue Zinger’ grass.
One more challenge in designing a small garden is adding significant features to act as focal points. The bluestone veneered seat is not only useful extra seating when entertaining guests, but also acts as a strong focal point within the garden and from the house. Color was also used as accent and focal points. My clients chose to reuse their red ceramic pots. I responded by adding burgundy red plant material such as red Japanese Maples and multi-colored New Zealand Flax ‘Jester.’ Careful placement of plants and pots pulls the entire design together.
The open space in this small garden is full of visual interest, supported by quality material and a limited, carefully selected plant palette. The end result is a garden that not only reflects the high aesthetics of the client but also meets their desire to have a garden that lends itself to indoor/outdoor entertaining. I’m proud of this project, and honored that Lazar Landscape was recognized by CLCA.
Keep these ideas in mind when you’re thinking about your small garden design – use quality materials like bluestone and Trex, limit your color palette in plants and materials to create a more open feel, pay attention to the architecture of your home and use views beyond your garden when possible. Feel free to contact Lazar Landscape if you have questions about your garden – big or small.