Tom Hewitt is a garden writer and consultant from West Palm Beach. He can be reached at

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Livin’ Large on a Small Plot
by Tom Hewitt       #Advice   #Design   #Landscaping

Small lots can pay big dividends when they’re carefully planned.

Few of us have the perfect gardens we see in magazines. This is especially true if we live on very small lots. The smaller the garden, the easier it is to clutter things up. But there are so many things you can do to keep things organized and make a small lot seem bigger.

Every project is different, but when I design or redo a small garden, I always keep in mind what I consider the “top 10” rules for freeing up and expanding space.

Think vertically:
Always be on the lookout for unused vertical space. Use walls, fences, trees, or any other vertical support for epiphytes, hanging baskets, artwork, etc. No room for herbs or flowers? Grow your favorites in a window box. Wide windowsills are often overlooked as display areas for small clay pots. This is a way that they can be viewed from inside the house as well as outside.

Keep things in scale:
If you have a fence or wall around a small garden, don’t waste valuable real estate with a hedge. It is a much better choice to attach a trellis and cover it with Confederate jasmine (Trachelospermum jasminoides) or creeping fig (Ficus pumila). Hedges can take up 2-4 feet of space, while many evergreen vines can be trimmed to a width of a foot or less. When it comes to planting material, use petite bloomers, slow-growers, and dwarf cultivars whenever possible. Be sure to choose plants with multi-season interest.

Left: Always think vertically in a small garden. Top Right: Lawns on small lots should be kept as uncluttered as possible. Bottom Right: Choose small, petite bloomers for a small garden.

Keep things simple and uncluttered:
In a small garden, anything out of place becomes a distraction. It is better to have one large urn as a focal point than a dozen or so smaller objects vying for attention. Make sure smaller pieces are half-hidden by foliage so they can be “discovered” by the viewer. When using pots, stick to one material for a cohesive and uncluttered look (terra cotta is my favorite).

Window boxes provide a great way to grow things where space is limited.

Borrow distant vistas:
The only reason to screen something from view is if it’s unsightly. Don’t be afraid to “borrow” a neighbor’s tree or pleasing view of their house. Always carry the eye as far as possible. Selectively prune to allow a “glimpse” of something attractive in a neighboring yard. This can sometimes take the place of layering, which is difficult to do on a small lot.

Alter perspective:
One trick of mine is to place large plants in front and small ones in the distance. This is known as “exaggerating perspective.” Putting coarser-leaved plants in front and fine-textured plants farther back will accomplish the same thing and placing cool colors in the distance and hot colors in the foreground also helps. Narrowing a pathway into the distance and putting a focal point at the end is quite effective. Trompe l’oeil wall panels and mirrors can help fool the eye.

Use curves:
Curves create a sense of mystery by making the visitor wonder what lies around the next bend. But remember that curves should always have a purpose, and too many can become a distraction. It’s always nice to offer a reward of some kind at the end, like a bit of statuary or a small bench.

Left: An oval lawn draws the eye outward. Top Right: Furniture in a small garden should be light and airy. Bottom Right: Windowsills are perfect for showcasing small clay pots.

Keep an open lawn:
An oval patch of grass is especially effective, since it pushes the eye out in every direction. Resist the temptation to clutter up a small lawn with trees and other objects. A good rule of thumb is to keep all trees within shrub bays. It also makes a garden easier to maintain.

Keep furniture light:
It’s best to use café tables and chairs for small gardens. At least use chairs with open backs and tables with glass tops. The more they blend in with the setting, the better. Small patio benches that double as storage units are great, provided they’re kept in scale with their surroundings.

Use different elevations:
Even a subtle difference of a foot or so can make a small garden seem larger. Consider lowering one section of your garden or raising another. Small decks and raised planters also help direct attention upward and distract from the smallness of a garden.

Potted plants are a great way to reconfigure a patio.

Organize areas:
Create various “rooms” that flow into one another, by using large pots or other portable planters. This way you can change the configuration anytime you wish. Just a small table and a couple of chairs will create an instant intimate setting.

Guidelines are great, but don’t be afraid to think outside the box. One area that people often overlook is narrow side yards. By choosing the right plants and having a walkway provide a straight shot to the end, they can make attractive gardens in their own right.


A version of this article appeared in Florida Gardening Volume 22 Number 3.
Photography courtesy of Tom Hewitt.


Posted: 06/09/17   RSS | Print


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