The Beauty and Balance of a Small Garden

As is usual at this time of year, I am touring other people’s gardens one day only to spend the next 48 hours in mine, rethinking everything from plant choices to maintenance plans.

It’s one of the best ways I know of re-charging the batteries during a season that doesn’t stop for stragglers, but it does open up new opportunities for self-torture, particularly when the gardens visited are small and painstakingly manicured – and from my perspective, infinitely manageable.

 

Small gardens allow the gardener to showcase healthy, beautiful specimens.

Small gardens allow the gardener to showcase healthy, beautiful specimens. (The garden of Carole Galati, MD)

 

I say, “from my perspective” because the owners of said gardens would no doubt have a few choice words to say upon that topic; but when a gardener makes the transition from a smaller property to a larger one (as we did four years ago), and the existing garden is more ‘nature’ than ‘garden,’ nothing seems manageable anymore.

Once the euphoria has worn off, there’s the issue of intimacy to be considered.

 

Creating intimate spaces within a bigger garden is challenging, but made easier with strong foliage plants that give at least three seasons to the gardener, sometimes four.

Creating intimate spaces within a bigger garden is challenging, but made easier with strong foliage plants that give at least three seasons to the gardener, often four. (The garden of Jay Sifford, NC)

 

All this to say that it really is an excellent time to have a smaller garden. And not only to have one, but to revel in it.

The idea of feeling enclosed by garden rooms or surprised by winding pathways and sheltered corners makes me feel a little giddy at this point.  Sure, I’ve been in big gardens where this state of intimacy is seamlessly incorporated into the landscape, but I’ve also been in big gardens where I had to step over interns seamlessly incorporating it – and no one is eager to work around here for ‘horticultural experience,’ least of all my teenagers.

Last week in fact my son fled to the sheltering and air conditioned arms of Ace Hardware in an attempt to escape a summer of hard labor at just-less-than-minimum wage.

 

A gorgeous display in a large garden at Sarah P. Duke (Durham, NC) - but when the allium and yarrow fade - that real estate will need to be completely replanted. Practical only for those with a staff, or those who do it with just a few plants.

A gorgeous display in a large garden at Sarah P. Duke (Durham, NC). But when the allium and yarrow fade – that real estate will need to be completely replanted. Practical only for those with a staff, or those who create something similar and incorporate other plants for season long color.

 

But I digress.

In smaller spaces, the challenge is to separate spaces to create depth. When it comes to large properties, one must link separate areas to create an overall sense of place.  Either challenge is of course made more complicated by new construction, as the task of ‘connection’ is somewhat remediated by time, but on the whole, smaller properties have the edge here – there is simply less plant material and time necessary to create a sense of place.

In addition, the marketplace is being flooded with products and plants that reflect the lifestyles of the two biggest demographics in history: downsizing Baby Boomers and small-sizing Millennials.

(Generation Xers, as usual, are forgotten in this marketing love-fest. But we’ve got our John Cusack movies to keep us company when we can’t sleep over college tuition and nursing home costs.)

From Bushel & Berry patio fruits to dwarf shrub cultivars such as ‘Fine Wine’ weigela and ‘Baby Lace’ hydrangea, the choices are varied and wonderful. Small-garden gardeners are no longer subject to a few determinate tomato plants and a squashless summer.  The marketplace is indeed, theirs.

 

...and here's one of those lovely interns. This industrious horticulturist at Mt. Cuba was recently weeding woodland beds filled with sedum, woodland phlox, ferns, mosses and a whole host of other plants. It was just bliss to stand and watch her for a moment.

…and here’s one of those lovely interns. This industrious Mt. Cuba horticulturist – one of many – is meticulously weeding large woodland beds filled with sedum, woodland phlox, ferns, mosses and a whole host of other plants. In my woodland, I am not so much ‘weeding to showcase’ as ‘ripping out to prevent reseeding’ – massive trailerloads of wine berry, honeysuckle, multiflora rose and barberry.

 

All this to say that it really is an excellent time to have a smaller garden. And not only to have one, but to revel in it. So even if your long term plans include ‘property,’ don’t give up on the space you have right now.  And if you’re having a hard time visualizing a garden in that area, may I suggest a clever little book out right now that can help you: Big Dreams, Small Garden: A Guide to Creating Something Extraordinary in Your Ordinary Space.

Yes it just happens to be mine and this is a brazen and bald-faced plug; but I actually believe it could motivate you to re-think the space around you and create a garden that combines beauty, utility and above all, balance.  After all, work/life balance is what we’re searching for – Baby Boomer, Millennial or Cusack-riddled Generation X-er.  If you’ve got a small garden, you’re halfway there.

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2018-02-20T20:40:48+00:00 By |

About the Author:

Marianne Willburn
Marianne is the mother of two, wife of one and the voice of The Small Town Gardener. She gardens and writes from her home in the scenic (and exceptionally convenient) heart of Virginia's wine country.

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