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Gardens for Narrow and Small Spaces

A garden that’s ground-space challenged, can simply be gardened-up. Tall, lean gardens have the sex appeal of a runway model if you take advantage of a few design tips.

Landscape designer, Susan Morrison, co-author of Garden Up!, says that narrow spaces can actually become the most interesting gardens. “People don’t realize how much they can do with a narrow space,” said Morrison, “So most of our imaginations don’t go beyond a hedge or a vine.”

Most stretched-out rectangular areas around our homes are created because of a fence or a wall. The tendency is to cover the wall or find a way to fill the space, she said. But by tweaking the design strategy and using the proper plants, a throw-away space can become one of the most interesting parts of the garden.

To create a beautiful and spacious-feeling thin garden, you have to adjust your thinking. Border gardens are often deep rather than tall, but narrow gardens are improved when the structure of the interest is more like a wall and less like a carpet. The secret lies in the creation of vertical layers.

“The traditional approach is planting front to back. But in a narrow space, you don’t have that much room,” said Morrison, “So instead, create layers vertically. Layer up, not out. Think in layers of top, middle and bottom instead of front, middle and back.”

Plant selection is the key to vertical layering. For the top layer, you want a vine that will stay flat against the structure or wall. Vase shaped shrubs also work. Some shrubs can be pruned to grow narrow at the bottom while putting on a show at the top. Traditionally, climbing roses are have been a go-to plant for vertical gardens. As long as the sun is adequate, roses will perform well with layers.

For the middle layer, it’s important to choose an airy plant. Look for a fine textured plant without dense foliage. Plants that sport leaf-less areas, long stems or breaks between leaves work well. Morrison suggests finely textured medium height ornamental grasses, or perennials, like tall foxgloves or annual, tall snapdragons. An airy middle layer is key to making the narrow garden feel larger.

“Our eyes rely on a variety of cues to perceive depth,” said Morrison, “So when we are able to fit two or three plants into a space that looks like there’s only room for one, it tricks the eye into thinking there’s more space than there is.”

To kick off the vertical narrow garden display, you’ll want a bottom layer that’s thin with personality. Depending on your choices for the other layers, consider a short ornamental grass with good foliage color like Hakonechloa, aureola, of a ground-hugging shrub. Short mounding perennials also work well. Make sure any plant choices for the bottom layer grow to be only a foot or two tall and fit the sun and soil of the site.

Many skinny gardens are shaded by a wall or two. Choose plants suited to the sun available. Once you know how much sun you have, Morrison suggests starting the design- as you would with any other garden- by asking yourself some basic questions.

“Am I interested in growing edibles or ornamentals?” Morrison suggests asking yourself, “Do I want year round interest or seasonal interest? How much maintenance do I want to do?”

Your goals will help decide whether to install a vertical garden system like wooly pockets or whether you want to adopt the layering system with plants. Wall supports and systems may be important if you want to grow edibles or if you want to grow plants that rely on supports like trellises.

“If you add a vertical system like a trellis or a wooly pocket wall, it will increase the variety of plants you can grow and allow you to grow edibles,” said Morrison, “Vertical systems are also a cool design element.”

Our garden trellis can support a number of vining crops or ornamental plants with an unobtrusive nylon netting.

Perhaps the most functional and important design element is the pathway through the space. While it may seem counterintuitive, a wider, curved path is important to making your limited space comfortable.

“Just adding a slight curve to the pathway does wonders to break up the boxy, narrow garden,” said Morrison, “ Making the path too narrow has the opposite effect, it’s going to make the whole space feel cramped.” Many narrow gardens also need to be functional in that they need to accommodate wheelbarrows or lawnmowers and that should be considered in the design.

A long, skinny area becomes alluring when turned into an entrancing garden space to enjoy. Thin gardens don’t have to have lightweight appeal. Narrow spaces can be the heavyweight champ of your garden.

Read the next Article: Gardening All Year

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Gardening Tip of the Day

  • To quickly apply a layer of mulch across a large vegetable or flowerbed, first cover the plants with empty containers. Pots, boxes, cans, used yogurt containers, bushel baskets, or any other containers will suffice—even garbage cans for larger plants such as freshly planted shrubs and perennials. This way you won't have to worry about smothering the plants with mulch or stepping on them as you spread the mulch in the bed. This also keeps the mulch from piling against the base of each plant, which could result in rot and disease problems. When you're finished applying the mulch, simply remove the containers. Beautiful!