Pocket Gardens, or How to Garden in Even the Tiniest Outdoor Space

It could be a Juliet balcony, an urban front yard, the narrow space between houses, a boulevard you’d like to take under your wing, or any other tiny spot. You want it to be beautiful and functional. You already know how to make a nice container, but you also know there’s lots more you could do if only you knew what that was.

A Few Suggestions:

1. If you’re going to sit and relax in your Tiny Outdoor Space, make it feel like a sitting, relaxing room. You can provide a sense of intimacy by planting walls and ceiling. A large shrub–such as smokebush (Cotinus coryggia) or lilac (Syringa sp)– or small tree–maybe a Japanese maple (Acer palmatum ‘Atropupurem’ for example) or Witch Hazel (Hamamelis mollis)

Hamamelis x intermedia 'Jelena'–can serve as overhead screening, giving a “sense of ceiling” without it actually enclosing the space. A pergola, with or without climbers, can do the same. Lattice covered with clematis or passion flower or honeysuckle (just make sure you’re OK with the power of the scent) can be your walls. Maybe not all four walls…

Finally, there are lots of weather-tolerant rugs out there. (Some concrete patios really need to be covered.) Voila, an outdoor room!

2. Repetition.

The smaller the space, the more you need to control the number and variety of your plants. Sticking to one colour palette or even one plant can deliver up a dramatic statement.

3. Planting beds, or patio?

I’m a real plant person. I just can’t have enough– propagating, dividing, even buying if I can’t resist. So I’ve tended to think a “garden” with mostly hard surfaces just doesn’t qualify as a “garden”. OK, I’m changing my mind. Beautiful stone hardscaping, even concrete or gravel or hardwood, interspersed with small spaces for planting, can be just the thing to highlight a bed of sedum or creeping thyme, Red-baron-Imperata-cylindrica-SADNICA_slika_XL_3062736Japanese Blood Grass (Imperata cylindrica) glowing in late afternoon sun, or a weeping Spruce (Picea abies ‘Pendula’) or Hinoki Cypress.

4. The Narrow Side Yard


Not mine, but this is the idea.

I currently have a 4 ft wide space between the house to the west and a fence to the east. It’s in almost full shade, covered in river rock, a haven for weeds, deciduous ferns and generic foxglove, and is completely wasted space. Alternating small planting beds (3-4′ long and less than 2′ deep) will break up the “bowling alley” look, and placing pavers or flagstones in among the river rock improves the practicality of the space.What has always been a chore could become a more convenient and attractive route along the east of the house.

5. And Finally…

…The Balcony. Make it comfy. If the chairs are uncomfortable chances are you’ll just look at them instead of sitting in them. Make it walkable–don’t put so many things at floor level that you have to look where you’re placing your feet all the time. Much as I love container gardens, too many is just too many. Frame the view.

You wouldn't want to obscure this view for the sake of privacy

You wouldn’t want to obscure this view for the sake of privacy!

You’ll have to choose how to balance between privacy and view, but choosing tall-ish items (bamboo or small tree) on either side of the best part of the view will highlight it more than leaving it fully open, while still giving a little privacy. Have a surface for your coffee cup. It doesn’t have to be a table, and remember that circles take up more space than squares or rectangles.

There are SO MANY possibilities for that small space that you don’t know what to do with. If none of the above ignites the creative in you, why not post a picture here and see what our readers (or I) can offer.

As always, post comments, questions, Pin, or Like on Facebook. And play with that Tiny Outdoor Space. One great thing about a Tiny Outdoor Space–it costs a lot less to experiment!

5 Great Containers, Part 2–Trees

A few days ago I blogged about the client who wanted to surprise his wife with a beautiful balcony. And I showed you the first of 5 great containers.

Here is the first:


Click on the image to get a close up of the under plantings.

The Tree

The main plant is of course the Japanese Maple–Acer palmatum ‘Viridis’. This is one of the more sun-tolerant Japanese Maples, which being understory trees prefer a little shade. But our West Coast heat isn’t very intense, nor is our sun, so as long as these lovely trees are given adequate water, they should be fine. This specimen was probably staked to about 4′ then allowed to begin its “droop”. Next year as the canopy flufffs out, the lower limbs can be pruned off (“limbed up”) so that the growing underplantings can be more visible. (I did prune off a few branches already so there was room for the other plants.)

Underplanted With

The underplantings all had to be happy with moderately damp soil, so I chose:

The sweet little Chamaecyparis pisifera–Golden Threadleaf Cypress. It doesn’t have a variety name, but I’m guessing “Sungold’ or ‘Golden Mop’. The tag says it can grow to 10′, but maybe in 20 years or so! It can also be pruned to stay within it’s container limits, and still be an underplanting.

Next is Sisynchrium ‘sapphire’–Blue-eyed grass. Being a cousin to Iris, this will also want a good amount of water. It’s supposed to be a spring bloomer, but there are actually buds on these little guys.

Then one of my all-time-favourite plants, a Heuchera, in this case H. ‘Stormy Seas’. I was hoping to buy one of the purple ones that I knew would be sun-tolerant for this south-facing balcony (‘Obsidian’, ‘Purple Palace’, ‘Georgia Plum’) none of which were at the nursery that day. So I risked ‘Stormy Seas’. Now I find it on a list of “shade tolerant heucheras. But you can see it’s positioned at the back of the planter, slightly shaded by the plant in front, under the overhang of the balcony above it, and in the shadow of the wall to the west of it. So should be OK.

And finally another favourite, Sedum telephium ‘Xenox’–one of the tall sedums, in this can a real plum colour with just-about-to-bloom pink flowers.

There’s one tiny red Sempervivum (“Hens and Chicks”) in the front, rescued from the succulent pot. They multiply like rabbits (or chicks), so one will be many by next summer.

The Design

The design then is as follows:

one tree,

one smaller shrub,

one fluffy perennial,

one taller perennial,

one grass.

Sort of.

This is a formula you can take to the bank, I guarantee it.

And to give you the preview of the next instalment, and following the same formula:

DSCN2020Details to come, so stay tuned…

And of course, as always, would love to get your comments, questions, concerns, even rants–nicely please.

Stimulate Your Creative Juices!

When you’re looking at your garden/balcony/outdoor space wondering what you should do to make it more beautiful/useful/practical, you can start with asking yourself some basic questions.

So for those who want to make some–or a lot of–changes, here’s a questionnaire to stimulate your creative juices.


This analysis is designed to give an overall concept of your property, family lifestyle, and the design elements that need to be considered for the conceptual landscape plan. Don’t do this fast, think about it for a few days.

  1. List family members and hobbies – interests which might influence property use
  1. Are there any allergies or other medical problems/conditions which should be considered?
  1. Do you have any pets that might require a special area or run?
  1. Do you want or need a fence? Height restrictions?
  1. Do you live in a development with any covenants you should be aware of?
  1. Entryway:

a. Would you like it open, or more enclosed and private?

b. What type of walkway exists? Is it wide enough (welcoming)? Is shape pleasing?

c. Do you see the need for other major walkways or paths?

d. What paving material (stone, brick, gravel, pavers) do you prefer?

7. Driveway – vehicle access:

a. Is it adequate in size for the cars in the family?

b. Is there adequate parking for guests?

8. Utility:

a. Where will you place your garbage cans?

b. Do you need an outdoor storage shed? Woodpile? Compost?

c. Future outbuildings (on rural properties), greenhouse, barn ?

9. Children’s area:

a. Do you want a specific play surface?

b. Do you need room for play equipment?

10. Entertaining – Outdoor living:

a. Do you entertain large crowds? small? informal? formal?

b. Would you like (more) decking or a large patio?

c. Permanent outdoor seating–built-in benches?

d. How much of this area do you want in the shade, sun ?

e. Outdoor cooking area?

f. Swimming pool or hot tub?

g. Special game area or sport court?

h. Outdoor lighting?

11. Edible Gardening: Do you want specific areas for vegetables, flowers, herbs, fruit trees?

12. Maintenance: How many hours a week are you willing to work on your property? Will you be hiring out the maintenance chores? Irrigation system?

13. Do you have specific plant preferences and colours? Plants or colours to avoid?

14. Do you want any of the following decorative features / accessories?

bird attractors / water features / large boulders / gazebo / pergola / arbor /garden sculpture / container plants ( pots) / garden furniture/ other?

  1. Circulation: In considering typical outdoor activities of your family, are there areas where you foresee a path, or traffic-tolerant surface needed?
  • SITE– do you have a site map / plot plan? (available from builder or county)
  1. Approx. size of property __________________________( provide specific dimensions of property lines if available)
  1. Site character (wooded, open meadow, steep, urban lot, rural…..)
  1. Problem areas- steep slopes, poor drainage? erosion? shallow soil?
  2. Considering your lifestyle, what feeling or mood do you want to establish? ( natural, formal, oriental, English country……) Does this tie in with architectural style of house?

5. What are the most frequently used rooms of your house? What do you see from those windows?

6. Are there any natural features on the property that you would like to emphasize? or change? boulders, woods, stream, slope/ hillside (site contours), view…

  1. Where is drain field, or septic tank location? Can you locate the lines?
  1. Are there easements or deeded restrictions that you know of?
  2. Are there areas of micro-climates (total shade, protected or enclosed areas…)?
  3. Are there street lights, noises, or views outside the property that cause problems or need screening attention?? Drainage or traffic patterns that influence site?
  4. Do any existing plants, trees or structures need to be removed or relocated?
  • Priorities:

List your five highest priorities.






List your five least-liked aspects of your outdoor space:






Wow! After reading all that, take a breather and don’t look at it again for awhile. But let the ideas generated percolate a bit, and you’ll find yourself designing in your head. You might even start designing on paper.

6 Tips for Container Gardens

My garden is my test ground. Most of what I know I learned by screwing up at least once.

So here’s some tips I’ve learned through trial and error.

1. PLAN!

Typically I’ve combined plants that I have rather than plants that I’ve designed to go together.Image

I was given the little Buxus (boxwood), so I stuck it in the green planter, then some time later I acquired the hellebore, (Lenten rose) and added it to the pot. Do they go together? No. Could I make them go together by adding more stuff. Probably not. The only way (IMO) they will look good together is to let the boxwood grow bigger (pruning it a bit in the spring and fall so that it will bush out and up) and wait for the hellebore to multiply. And since I’m not in any hurry, and after all, my garden is my test ground anyway, I’ll do just that. In fact, it was my PLAN! (not…)

2. Where do you expect your container to live? Full sun or full shade or a combination? We usually think we’ll need lots of sun to get the colourful container garden we want, but in fact there are LOTS of colourful shade loving plants. My favourite would be coleus, with it’s stunningly coloured foliage and completely insignificant flowers. Image

If you don’t have full sun, how many hours of sun do you get? Or if no direct sun, how deep is your shade? Only morning sun, or shade from trees that are high overhead, might be called light shade, or dappled or bright shade. But shade that is on the north side of a tall building with another building close by would be dense shade.

3. Is it going into a small space or a big space? Small spaces don’t necessarily need small containers, in fact sometimes just the opposite. A small balcony can be visually enlarged by filling one end with a large extravagant container garden.

4. How big an object do you want? Do you want one big pot or a bunch of coordinating small pots? The larger the container, the better it tolerates hot dry days, and the more nutrition it holds. But more smaller pots may give you more “terracing” effect—ie, lots of levels. ImageThis is a small pot that just barely fits on a front step: a bunch of different sedums, some creeping thyme for summer flowers, and mini-daffodils that are just beginning to bud out.

5. Special considerations for hanging baskets:

  • Bigger is better. Have you noticed the size of Victoria’s hanging baskets, or New West’s? They’re enormous. And therefore are able to hold onto more water. The most important thing about hanging baskets is water, because they’re completely open to evaporation. Many garden centres recommend moisture crystals, but my favourite  expert on everything horticultural, Linda Chalker-Scott from Washington State U says they’re pointless (or worse).


  • This on the other hand is a small hanging basket: of course, it’s my own. Remember, test ground…Image
  • Buy potting mixture for hanging baskets. In fact, always buy potting mixture for containers rather than something that’s called topsoil, or compost, or anything that is “soil based”. Real soil is way too heavy for containers of any kind, and containers don’t have the advantages of the ground (full of microbes and worms to do all the real work of growing plants).

6. One of my favourite links for growing things in our location: Great Plant Picks for maritime northwest garden.

Do you need help figuring out your container garden(s)? Just ask. You won’t be my test garden. Or leave a comment.