I often read about small gardens in your magazine. What classifies a garden as “small”?
Lauren Baumann, Alexandria, VA
A small site doesn't have to mean a small garden. Maximize your space by thinking big.
Photo/Illustration: Stephanie Fagan
Linda Yang, author of The City Gardener's Handbook: The Definitive Guide to Small Space Gardening, replies: I consider “small” a state of mind since I’ve heard the word applied to both a physical space and an emotional one.
The physically small garden may be on a balcony or deck or in a tiny yard where every inch counts. As serious gardeners fill these Lilliputian areas to overflowing, the workload can be considerable since fertilizing, watering, and grooming chores can overwhelm.
The emotionally small garden may be one where the owner of a large site consciously chooses to focus his or her energies on selected spaces of intimate size. And so the creative work may be found only in areas such as a foundation, front-door path, or border around a pool. These appear small when viewed in relation to the surrounding landscape, but just as with physically small spaces, maintaining selected areas of creative plantings may also prove overwhelming.
I believe the real question is not what classifies a garden as small but how determined gardeners, working within physically or emotionally small sites, successfully fit in all the plants they “need.”
One of my favorite small-space tricks is to find plants programmed by nature to remain small—and the easiest way to do this is to read the grower’s label. Say you yearn for a perennial with large, rounded leaves, and giant rhubarb (Gunnera manicata, USDA Hardiness Zones 7–10) catches your eye. Its label warns that it stretches to a height of 8 feet, a tad much for any small space. Meanwhile, Hosta ‘Big Daddy’ (Zones 3–9) also has large, rounded leaves—which are a delightfully puckered blue-gray—but its label says that it grows less than 2 feet tall. In addition, there are naturally diminutive woody plants that grow only a few feet high rather than soar upward. Delightful dwarf forms can be found among the forsythias, lilacs, and spruces. You might try one of the dwarf Korean lilacs, like Syringa meyeri ‘Palibin’ (Zones 4–7), or low-growing junipers, like Juniperus squamata ‘Blue Star’ or ‘Blue Carpet’ (Zones 4–9). Finally, there’s the plant haircut. A mid-June shearing of tall late-blooming perennials, like Russian sage (Perovskia atriplicifolia, Zones 6–9), globe thistles (Echinops spp. and cvs., Zones 3–9), or coneflowers (Rudbeckia spp. and cvs., Zones 3–11), keeps them short, bushy, and happy to bloom in minimal space. I believe in girth control for woody plants, too.
So I say let’s leave the word “small” in the dictionary where it belongs and focus instead on creatively managing all the plants we feel we really “need.”