A Colorful, Small-Space Design

This small-space design is heavy on the plants and features a steady supply of color

Gary Junken, Produced by Antonio Reis and Danielle Sherry

Landscape architect and author Billy Goodnick takes us on a tour of his favorite garden. It’s a study in how to combine a great variety of plants in very small spaces, getting everything to fit and still having beauty and interest throughout the year.

Working with limitations

One of the challenges of creating a front yard garden in a small space is how to manage pedestrian traffic and car space. There is always a place where the two run into each other, and Goodnick tries to avoid making guests walk up the driveway to get to the front door.

In this garden, he created a pedestrian entrance that, unfortunately, has to cross the driveway. Goodnick and his team used stamped concrete to look like stone for the pedestrian part of the path, which crosses a concrete driveway that has a much simpler texture to it.

The garden has a series of small spaces, some of them very shady. From the beginning, it was clear it wasn’t going to have a rose garden. But conditions will not deter adoration, and the lady of the house, Constance, loved roses so dearly she joined the Rose Society. She needed roses somewhere in her garden. Goodnick’s solution was to create an isolated area that he describes as “anything goes.” There are a few citrus trees, a few roses, and experimental spots to try plants on a whim. It works wonderfully without compromising the themes in the rest of the garden. A garden is a process, not a product. Even in a small garden like this, it proves you can leave an area to play around and experiment with.

The Green Garden

When Goodnick brings students on class tours, he lets only two students at a time enter the next area in this garden. It’s a quiet, personal garden that doesn’t rely on flowers for interest. Dubbed “The Green Garden,” this space exploits all the other characteristics that every plant has in order to create an interesting composition. Goodnick has nothing against gardens that flower, but flowers are fleeting. Instead, he designs as if all the plants will never flower. This way he ensures interest whether there are colorful blooms or not.

Pairing plants

For example, there is a bamboo plant tucked in one corner. The first thing Goodnick thinks about when looking at a plant is “What is its architecture, what is its form?” The bamboo is tall, vertical; it has a certain silhouette. Then he looks at it in terms of density. Bamboo is a dense plant; you can’t really see through it. It also has a medium texture. The leaves aren’t huge, but also not very fine. Lastly, he looks at color. This plant has yellow-green leaves. So how do we use this information in terms of pairing it with another plant?

Goodnick decided to pair the bamboo with a New Zealand flax. The foliage is a similar yellow-green, creating one element of harmony. But that is where the similarities end. This grassy plant is a little wacky, a bit less dense, and much shorter than the bamboo. By matching a couple of characteristics and exploiting those, then contrasting some characteristics, Goodnick created a combination with just two plants that have a lot of visual texture and interest to them.

The same principle applies at all different scales. Another example in the Green Garden is Aeonium canariense, which has a beautiful rosette pattern and matches the yellow-green theme. It is complemented by asparagus fern, which is completely different in terms of form. Again, a marriage of color with all of the interest and liveliness of two very different textures.

In the back part of the garden, Goodnick continued with the same principles, but with a shift in the color of the plants. Instead of the yellow-green theme, he matched plants with similar dark green foliage. The owners’ pride and joy, a large staghorn fern that has an almost drippy texture, is paired with a giant split-leaf philodendron. The plants have similar textures, but it’s still easy to discern where one plant ends and the other plant begins.

Tie it together

A garden doesn’t exist in a vacuum; it’s a reflection of its surroundings, and it needs to relate to the house and accessories. The owners found a bench that was seemingly made for their garden. It’s made of tiles that are not only in the same yellow-green that is showcased in plants throughout the garden, but it even repeats the bamboo motif of the giant timber bamboo tucked in the corner. It’s the perfect item to tie it all together.

View Comments


  1. User avater
    LauraWilliams 01/15/2019

    Very useful information!!

  2. User avater
    DeweyMessier 01/16/2019

    Useful information!

  3. User avater
    BenjaminShaw 01/17/2019

    Great work!

  4. User avater
    DanielTaylorr 02/02/2019


Log in or create an account to post a comment.

Related Articles

The Latest