Simplicity & Structure Rule in This Small Garden

The gravel path focuses on a large Vietnamese glazed urn.

5 Big Ideas for a Small World

  • Keep it simple
    Consistency of materials is key to uniting a small space. From the myriad of options at our local stone yards, we chose a British Columbia basalt for the main garden. We couldn’t resist the river rocks, but we confined them to the vegetable garden.
  • Think big
    Ample pathways and gathering spaces are inviting, and large features are engaging in any size garden. Our 7-foot-wide stock-tank water feature (direct from the farm supply store) is a universal hit.
  • Don’t hold back
    Big changes can take less time, effort and money and have greater impact in a small space.
  • Create a backdrop
    With attention to color, fences and walls provide ideal backdrops for plantings. Our silvery fence, made from corrugated roofing panels, brightens our garden and highlights dark foliage plants. A bold, dark blue exterior color (Benjamin Moore Stonecutter) sets off bright colors against the house.
  • Use the house
    The house is the largest feature of any small property—consider it part of the garden. Guests linger by the front door, which makes it an ideal location for a terrace or patio. Doors and windows create ideal axes on which to place features.

When Buell Steelman and I bought a semi-neglected ranch-style house at the top of a tiny, narrow, sloping, treeless lot in Eugene, Oregon, its only outdoor “features” were two ramshackle sheds, several haphazardly placed fences and 1,200 square feet of concrete. Affordability clearly trumped charm, but the unusual dimensions of the outdoor space and the large living-room window that overlooked the future garden and hills to the west sparked our imaginations. We like to think we created a space that is uniquely ours—a showcase of our work and a reflection of our passions.

Buell and I met while working at Gardens, a groundbreaking landscape architecture design/build company in Austin, Texas. Neither of us had a background in landscaping, and we stumbled on positions at Gardens by chance. The company’s use of strong lines, bold plantings, and contemporary and traditional materials immediately appealed to our tastes and talents. We loved our work, but we craved a smaller city in a milder climate. We later moved to Eugene to create our own garden design/build business, Mosaic. We borrowed our objectives from James David, Gardens’ founder: Design powerful spaces, build them to the highest standard of quality, constantly push the boundaries of your work and start with your own garden.

In our new space, we sought to incorporate the classical-contemporary style of our work in Austin with the plants, materials and atmosphere of the Pacific Northwest. We needed to experiment and showcase our work, but we most desired a space that reflected our love of food, entertaining and of course gardening. From our first look at the property, we understood that its limited size would challenge us to focus and define our goals.

The structure and utility of the garden were our first concerns. We adore plants, and our temperate climate offers limitless horticultural possibilities, but we delayed all planting decisions until we had addressed our priorities and installed a powerful hardscape. Mindful of our love of food, we allotted one-third of our space to a small fruit orchard and an orderly vegetable garden bordered with river rock. In the main garden, we built ample pathways, terraces and a deck to provide guests space to travel, gather and enjoy the view. Plants soften the strong lines of our space, but the structure is the garden’s inviting essence.

The relationship between house and garden is paramount in small spaces. Buell and I echoed the simple lines of our house with straight paths, and we organized features and terraces outside of primary windows and doors. We centered our most dramatic focal point on our favorite west-facing window. The 7-foot-diameter galvanized stock tank is an impressive feature, filled in summer with lotus, thalia and water lilies. Its surrounding gravel terrace heightens the impact of the feature from the window, drawing attention into the garden and joining it with the view of the Coast Range and western sky beyond.

Relating indoors and out required creative rethinking of the house, as well as the garden. To integrate the elevated, windowless back of our house with the garden, we installed a sliding glass door leading to a new deck, or transitional “room,” outside. The deck made of ipe (tropical hardwood) now serves as our primary spot for entertaining. The furnishings reflect the minimalist interior of our house, while a living bamboo screen growing in galvanized stock tanks provides privacy and select views of the garden below.

Simplicity and cohesiveness are the cornerstones of our pocket-size garden. The geometric arcs and lines of our hardscape are the garden’s foundation. Each pathway, terrace and feature relates clearly to nearby elements, as well as the house. Our plantings are exceptionally diverse, but we restricted each garden room’s color palette to create distinct environments. The front bed’s vibrant, hot colors contrast with the cooler palette of the more elegant lower spaces. We also carefully refined the choices of our hard elements: Flowing pea gravel and lines of pale basalt unite the garden, and a galvanized corrugated-metal fence provides a consistent, bright backdrop for the plants.

At the drawing board, the size and narrowness of our space ruled out some great ideas. However, the constraints of the property’s dimensions turned out to be an unexpected advantage. In both design and construction, we dedicated an attention to detail that would have been unthinkable on a larger scale. Buell and I deliberated at length over every plant choice, made drastic grade changes and installed every wall, border and feature by hand. By concentrating our efforts, we created a garden that is rich, intricate and a wonderful place to be.

For further information on Mosaic Gardens see

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Great Garden Design Principles

Mark Turner / Getty Images

Garden design is a very personal expression and even at it's best, it is not an exact science. However, there are some guiding principles that will help you create a pulled-together, cohesive look. As with playing an instrument, if you can learn these fundamentals, you can vamp whatever appeals to you.

The basic principles of garden design are simple enough, however, each is often referred to by more than one name. The 3 categories below contain the basic elements that, when combined together, constitute the generally accepted version of good garden design. Keep in mind that it is your garden and you are the one who should be pleased with the results. Rules are meant to be broken.

How to Create a Zen Garden

Carefully raked sand or gravel with precisely placed rocks are the main parts of a zen garden. Sand raked into a round, spiral or rippled pattern represents the sea. Place rocks on top of the sand to make a soothing pattern. You can add plants, but keep them to a minimum and use low, spreading plants instead of upright ones. The result should encourage introspection and meditation.

The symbolism of the stones in a zen garden is one of the most important design elements. Upright or vertical stones can be used to represent trees, while flat, horizontal stones represent water. Arching stones represent fire. Try different layouts to see what natural elements the design calls to mind.

A zen garden can also contain a simple bridge or path and lanterns made of rock or stone. These features add a sense of distance, and you can use them as a focal point to aid meditation. The term “shakkei” means borrowed landscape, and it refers to the practice of using surrounding landscape to make the garden appear to extend beyond its boundaries. A zen garden should not contain a pond or be near a body of water.

How to Create a Minimalist Garden

Define the geometry of the space

This is the backbone of a minimalist design. The design geometry is influenced by the intended use and lifestyle of the client and by existing site conditions and features. Minimalist gardens utilize what is already there. If the site is sloping, create stepped terraces as in this steeply sloped garden designed by Good manors Pool + Garden.

Designed by GoodManors

If the site features old, textured walls, use these as inspiration for the design. A useful tip when setting the geometry of the design is to center the design around an imaginary line of the axis that can be defined by any existing architectural or landscape elements such as a large window wall or a sculptural tree. This imaginary axis is then used to organize and connect the varied elements that form the major components of the design.

Create a sense of enclosure

The concept of the ‘outdoor room’ has resulted in the garden, becoming an extension of the house itself. Minimalist garden designs often comprise of well-defined zones be it a dining area or an area for lounging and indulging in conversation. Defining the boundaries of these zones imparts order and clarity to space. The boundary may be as simple as an evergreen hedge or a physical wall. It can even apply to micro-spaces within a garden such as a planter or gravel edging. Creating a balance between these zones through the use of plants, suitable materials or repeated landscaping features is vital in inducing a sense of harmony and oneness that is a defining feature of minimalist gardens. Amir Schlezinger’s rooftop garden artfully demonstrates this balance.

Via Mylandscapes

Perfect your paving

Paving is an integral component of any minimalist design and should be simple, clean yet immaculately detailed and finished. It is the one element that can unify the entire design and as such needs careful consideration. Old materials are often an inspiration for new applications in modern, minimalist gardens: gravel, pebbles, and stones traditionally used for river beds or to provide access (stepping stones) through a bed of lawn are used in creative compositions that challenge these traditional uses.

Timeless materials such as stone or wood used in a simple, straightforward paving pattern can create a peaceful ambiance in the garden. They can also be used in beautifying challenging spaces such as very shady or very hot spots. Polished concrete is another favorite. Each of these materials is extremely weather-resistant, hardy and has unique color and texture that can make them stand out in a landscaping composition. Many of these materials can also be recycled or procured from environmentally responsible sources, making them sustainable design options. The attention to detail, such as the thickness of paving joints, edge detailing and desired texture, is key to achieving the crisp, clean look that is characteristic of minimalist landscapes as is evident in this patio design by Amir Schlezinger.

Via Mylandscapes

Limit your plant palette

Minimalist design is all about restraint, avoid opting for too many plant species. Limit the number of plants specified in the design and use these repeatedly throughout the garden. This creates a visual link through the outdoor space and helps to create a cohesive, balanced design. It also has the added advantage of easy maintenance, aiding in the efficient use of time and money to keep the garden looking fresh and neat year-round. Mass planting is an effective technique and one used often by designers in modern gardens. There is something to be said about the effect of a swathe of gently swaying Pennisetum grasses, planted together, they are so much more effective than single plants scattered throughout the garden as can be seen in this front yard retreat designed by Shades of Green Landscape Architecture.

Via Shades of Green Landscape Architecture

Layering plants from tallest to shortest also ensures balance in both the vertical and horizontal proportions of a planting area. Taller sculptural plants are popularly used to provide focal points, counterbalance hard corners and complement paving and hard surfaces. Planting in minimalist gardens functions not just as a filler for leftover space, but as an anchoring element in its own right as is demonstrated in this garden by Tim Davies Landscaping.

Via Tim Davies Landscaping

Choose colors carefully

To achieve a sense of peace and harmony, minimalist designs generally veer towards muted color palettes that are more reflective of nature. Greys, browns, and whites are popular choices for hardscape and built structural elements. Using tonal variations of the same color is an effective strategy for maintaining balance. David Webber uses this strategy in this Texas residential garden design.

Via Webber+Studio

Neutral colors also provide the perfect backdrop for green plants, which can be used to provide a spot of color. When planting, designers tend to select plants for their textures and complimentary shades of green rather than for the color of their inflorescence. This ensures that a garden will transcend seasons and look well-maintained for years to follow.

How do you layout a small garden?

If your want to change your small garden layout, start by looking at the existing space. ‘Look at what plants are thriving and think about where the sun falls,’ advises Katrina Wells of Earth Designs.

‘If you like having the gang round for dinner, for example, you’ll probably want to position your dining table and chairs where it’s sunny. If it’s a lunchtime gathering, you’ll need some shade too. Also is there any dead space? Or a shed keeping your garden in the shade for half the day?’

Next, consider its upkeep. ‘Think really carefully about how much time you are willing to dedicate to maintaining the space,’ says London-based garden designer Charlotte Rowe. ‘If you’re time poor, more hard landscaping and sturdier plants will require much less attention than a lawn and beds with complex planting.’

Paving and gravel courtyards are still popular, while concrete is right on trend.

A Greenery-Covered Chuppah

Lauren Fair Photography

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Want a rustic outdoor wedding without worrying about the weather? This lush chuppah literally brought the outdoors inside. This is such a fun display for an industrial wedding, with beautiful greenery and simple candles. Could you imagine what it might look like with a colored candle to match your palette? Absolutely stunning.

How to Design a Garden by Plant Height

Whether you're planting in beds or containers, you create
harmonious, eye-pleasing scenes when you arrange plants by height. The simplest approach is to follow a short-to-tall format, with ground-hugging plants tucked along bed edges and taller plants anchoring the back of the border. This tried-and-true method works wonderfully in planting areas with a distinct front and back.
For containers or island beds viewed from all sides, tweak the technique by placing the tallest plants toward the center of the planting. Then stairstep plantings outward from the center, placing the shortest plants along pot or bed edges.

When selecting plants, keep them in scale with their surroundings. For instance, if a bed skirts a 4-foot-tall fence, add plants that will stretch a little above the fence posts. If you select plants that don't even reach the top of the fence, the structure will seem more prominent and may even appear to cage in the plants. Once you select the tallest plant, stairstep heights down from there. A general rule is to step down the heights by half. So underplant a 6-foot-tall 'Pretoria' canna with a 3-foot-tall orange-flower zinnia. Purple-tone ageratum or a Gomphrena that tops out at 18 inches strikes a pretty pose next to the zinnia. To supersize the planting, place an even taller castor bean or sunflower behind the canna. If you don't have a structure to influence your plant height selection, select the tallest plant so it is equal to half the width of the planting area. When choosing plants to surround a birdbath or sculpture, pick plants no more than two-thirds the height of the object they will surround. When you purchase plants at a garden center, try to find large plant specimens to stage side-by-side comparisons. You can still purchase smaller plants to save money, but you'll be able to see their scale in relationship to one another. If you goof on scale and pair a tall banana with a creeping verbena, the look may be more cartoonish than attractive. Luckily, it's easily remedied. You can always pull and replant or add midsize plants between the two. Less-forgiving scale mistakes occur when choosing an arbor or sculpture. If you err on the too-big side, you'll have to live with an object that looks like it escaped from a giant's garden, and it will overshadow your plantings. If you select an item that's too small, plantings will overwhelm it, and it will be hard to see.

Plant Trees for Impact

Trees (and larger shrubs) are the first components to consider in front-yard design. Because a framed view often is much more attractive than a completely revealed view, give serious thought to planting taller trees on either side of your house and at least one behind it. Trees give the yard and house a look of permanence, and soften the second story or roofline against the sky. If you can afford only one or two mature trees, plant them in the front yard.

Besides providing framing, trees and larger shrubs, along with the buildings, make up the masses in the landscape. Choose and place them for interest of outline, texture, and color in all seasons and for shade and energy control. Harmonize the shapes of the plants—round, pyramidal, weeping—with each other and the structures. Give visual relief by judiciously varying leaf size and shape as well as the textures of structural materials. Trees and shrubs also are good for marking boundaries and separating functional areas.

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