Helen Yoest, owner of Gardening With Confidenceā„¢, is a sustainable gardener, wildlife gardener and garden writer in Raleigh, NC. Catch up with Helen through her blog at www.GardeningWithConfidence.com.

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Taming Tough and Tiny Spaces
by Helen Yoest       #Disease   #Landscaping   #Shade

Pyracantha prunes well into espalier, creating art on a single plane.

In most gardens there are corners, ells, edges and trees, all of which create areas that are tough to work with. Oftentimes, the smaller the spot the tougher it is to tame. Instead of ignoring those tough, tiny spaces, consider plantings that will enhance your garden by taking advantage of these available spaces.

Side Yards
Side yards, or space created by a new addition or any narrow strip near a building or a wall, can seem like a daunting gardening challenge. It takes acrobatics to dig the soil well, drainage is not always great and sometimes the sun in blocked. Instead of viewing the space as one long length, break up the area into small, intimate spaces with curves, seating arrangements or garden art. It can change tough and tiny into cozy and quaint.

If you’re working in a walled courtyard, often this space traps warmth, raising the hardiness zone with a new micro-climate, causing it to be warmer than out in the open. This gives you an opportunity to plant for the added heat and higher hardiness zone the area creates. Also given the confined space, be sure and consider scent. Planting roses and herbs, gardenias and jessamine gives you a heady aroma.

An arbor covered in Carolina jessamine adds more gardening real estate to a tiny lot.

Vertical Gardening
Even the smallest patch of dirt can support the rise of plants to fill a vacant wall, frame a door or garage, cover an arbor or even train a vine up the ell of the house. Carolina jessamine, Clematis armandii or a fast-growing annual such as cypress vine (Ipomoea quamoclit) works well in these locations. Take advantage of limited planting space by gardening up.

One way to do this is with espalier. When only a dash of dirt is available by an empty wall space in need of a certain something, this ancient technique of training the plant to grow in one plane works well. Espaliered plants are used today for both function and folly. They work great on areas such as a blank side of the house, a brick or cinder-block wall or a retaining wall.

Many plants take well to the pruning techniques required for espalier. Once mature, they become works of art. Pyracantha, loropetulum, camellia, ‘Little Gem’ magnolia, fruit trees, Japanese maple, redbud, quince, fig, forsythia, viburnum and yew all make excellent specimens for espalier.

A hell strip planting in Charleston. This is an example of just how cute an otherwise neglected space can be. Filled with sweet alyssum (Lobularia maritima) and pansies, it gives spring color to all who walk by.

The Hell Strip
Whether you call the strip of dirt between the sidewalk and the street a tree belt, inferno strip, devil strip, verge or hell strip, this space is notoriously hard for growing plants. A lack of water, trash cans sitting out, dogs doing their business, salt in the winter and trodding people and animals make it challenging. Or perhaps it’s a reluctance due to it being public property maintained by a private property owner. For these reasons and more, gardeners are reluctant to grow a garden along the street. And this is too bad, because these tough little spots are gardens in waiting.

When planting this area, first till and amend the soil. It’s also wise to anticipate where foot traffic will be and where the garbage can will sit each week and provide a landing pad for this specific use. Flagstone works well for this kind of situation.

The best plants for this area are tough, drought-tolerant ones that will thrive in full sun or the dappled sun under city-planted treescapes. As you garden in this space, think beyond trees. Herbs, hellebores, verbenas, bulbs and sedums, as well as prostrate junipers and yews, make ideal low-growing plantings that can take an occasional walk-through by the neighbor’s dog.

Clockwise: A container garden can be used in those tough places where soil doesn’t exist. Keeping the theme of terra-cotta, a variety of plants give warmth and rhythm to a tiny, tough space. • Sylvia Redwine carved garden space out of a patio area. Filled with annuals and a cotoneaster (Cotoneaster apiculatus) standard, the space has become a work of art. • Creeping or climbing fig (Ficus pumila) is easy to grow from a tiny bit of soil as seen here climbing the rise of steps of a private home in Charleston. It’s easy to prune, allowing for a garden to exist where nothing else is likely to grow.

Under Canopies
Mature trees offer value to the landscape, but they leave some challenge in covering the ground beneath the canopy where grass won’t grow. The trees’ roots take up a lot of water, and digging between the roots is difficult at best; plus the canopy hides the sun. Luckily there are a few plants that do well under most canopies, such as hardy cyclamen (Cyclamen hederifolium), toad lily (Tricyrtis spp.), columbines, foamflowers (Tiarella), Japanese forest grasses (Hakonechloa macra), Japanese painted fern (Athyrium nipponicum var. ‘Pictum’), lungworts (Pulmonaria) and Siberian irises.

It’s important to plant small plants under trees for minimal disturbance between the roots of trees. Also, make sure the plants won’t compete with the trees for water.

The courtyard garden of Lacy and Carol Reaves. A series of garden rooms were created in an area formed by an addition. The narrow space with trapped heat is perfect for roses. The sound of the fountain mentally cools the space with its splash, while keeping Japanese climbing ferns happy. • A rocky wall offers an opportunity for planting.

Mother Nature abhors a vacuum and will fill a void with something – anything – because it is what she does. Most often it’s a weed that fills up neglected areas. Take charge of these tough, tiny crevices such as spots between flagstone steps and plant what you want, satisfying Mother Nature at the same time. For shady areas try maidenhair spleenwort, mosses, fern-leaf corydalis (Corydalis cheilanthefolia) and strawberry begonia (Saxifraga stoloniferi). For sunny areas you can use climbing snapdragon (Maurandella antirrhiniflora), sedums and dianthus.

C.J. Dykes took advantage of a space created when the deck was built, designing a garden lush with a fountain, ferns and aucuba. Now this otherwise vacant space has become a private oasis.

Under the Deck
On hilly sites, upper decks leave space below that is often ignored, but they can be turned into a garden instead of a place to store lawn chairs. These are typically shady spots with the deck as a canopy, so plant it up with ferns, hostas, aucuba and cast-iron plants. Fill with ornaments and even a comfy chair. Adding variegated plants helps brighten this otherwise darkened space.


A version of this article appeared in Carolina Gardener Volume 24 Number 3.
Photography courtesy of Helen Yoest.


Posted: 04/10/18   RSS | Print


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