Are you a baby boomer who’s downsized to a condo with a patio, or are you a busy parent or professional with a small yard or balcony? Or maybe you’ve got a spacious landscape, but you’re having a difficult time carving out an intimate area to enjoy. No matter what your situation, keeping a small-space garden simple doesn’t mean settling for less.

Small garden area

This small space is a great example of scale and proportion at work.

Photo Credit: Lynn Means

Planting by iron fence

A crapemyrtle complements the vertical ironwork in the fence and railing, while a whimsical light fixture does the same with the bushes below.

Photo Credit: Lynn Means

Contrasting colors

Contrast and color are still going strong in the dead of winter with this straightforward selection of plants.

Photo Credit: Lynn Means

Planting a small garden sounds easy at first, and many a gardener has sighed with relief thinking, “This is going to be a piece of cake.” Enthusiasm usually runs high in the beginning – until you find yourself with too many plants or not enough of the right ones. You persevere, making multiple trips to the nursery, all the while wondering how on earth your “small, easy garden” got so complicated!

What happens to many folks – myself included – is that we plan for size, thinking things like scale and proportion aren’t a big deal. And that’s partly true: You don’t need to overthink them, but you do need to consider these important elements of design. Working in a small scale is simple, but the details need to be well-thought out. That said, here are a few tips to help make putting your small garden together fun and easy:

The main thing is to keep your focus on simplicity, especially when there’s temptation to put too many favorites in one area. If you get stuck finding ideas, drive around town and look at the landscaping around churches, banks, the library and city hall. This may sound like an odd suggestion, but looking at simple combinations will train your eye to recognize what plants or shrubs look good together and why. Professional landscaping bids are based on the economics of using the least amount of plants for maximum effect. So go take a look!

When you’re ready, narrow your choices down to three species of plants for your garden’s central elements, keeping mature dimensions consistent with the size of your space. Give yourself the option of selecting one or two varieties within each species for a lively mix of plants that share similar characteristics – but only if you’ve got the room. This will help you build a sense of proportion, which is one of the hardest things to get right. If you do that first, you’re off to an amazing start!

Remember that size and color go hand in hand. You can make any space look larger by picking one main color for flowers and selecting various shades of intensity in that hue (for example, pale pink to fuchsia, or light lavender to purple). There’s an endless array of plant colors, so you won’t come up short when it comes to making choices.

The colors you choose will add your personal touch, and you can use them to make a connection between the inside of your home and the outdoors. A few warm-colored accents like reds, yellows and oranges will make things seem closer, while cool colors like pastels and blues visually move the eye away and will make the garden look larger than it is.

By keeping your color palette specific, you can expand your creative horizons and use plants with textured leaves to inspire interest and a sense of movement. Create depth by placing dark-colored, coarse-leafed plants near the front and lighter-colored, fine-leafed varieties closer to the back. (Or do the complete opposite, and see how it changes the overall effect.)

Just because your garden is small doesn’t mean you have to use small plants, especially if you’re working with walls, fences and enclosed areas. Adding a large specimen or some unique garden art as a focal point will ground your composition and add drama. The benefit is you only need one main feature, so choose something really outstanding!

Feel free to pick a theme for your small garden, too. By adding personal artwork or whimsical flourishes, you make your small space unique. Read up on your plants to see if there’s something unusual or inspiring in their history – whatever it takes to spark your imagination is worth the effort.

For those of you who prefer a certain gardening style (like woodland or perennial gardening) and have a small space, fear not. This advice works for you, too! Before long you’ll be thinking outside the box, and your garden – though small – will have endless possibilities. Just follow garden design’s golden rule: Keep it simple.