Downsizing the Garden

Learn how to turn a small space into a beautiful garden.


The key to diversity in spatially challenged gardens is using small plants that produce an abundance of small flowers in scale with the composition. (SHNS photo by Maureen Gilmer / Do It Yourself - DIY)

By Maureen Gilmer, DIY — Do It Yourself Network

It's not the size of the garden in your yard, but the size of the garden in your heart. Ask any true gardener and he or she will agree wholeheartedly: Size doesn't matter as much as you think. What makes a garden great is diversity.

In small urban gardens, condo courtyards and apartment patios, space is always a problem. Space with enough sun to grow plants is even scarcer. Spatially-challenged sites can't afford to be filled up with one or two standard-size plants. Two plants don't make a garden, and they offer few design opportunities.

If you scale down the plants, you may find room for a dozen different flowers. These can be mixed and arranged to create a specific color palette using dynamic contrast. You can stagger bloom seasons for a much longer display. There's even opportunities for specimens and edging. In fact, most of the plant applications in a large perennial border can be scaled down and recreated in miniaturized form.

The key to getting started in micro-gardening is to know what plants start small and remain that way their entire lifespan. While all begin as tidy little seedlings, the majority will mature into relative monsters.

You also want to stick with perennials. In tight spaces, planting and replanting seasonal color wreaks havoc, which takes a lot of time to heal. Save your high-impact annuals for pots and containers in locations where there is no soil.



Little European 'Pink Spice' geranium offers pink spring flowers over beautiful purple foliage for year-round color. (SHNS photo by Maureen Gilmer / Do It Yourself -DIY)

The micro-perennials that hug the ground are important for surface coverage. But this is not enough to earn a place in the garden. They must have aesthetic appeal in as many seasons as possible. Purple foliage of the geranium 'Pink Spice' is gorgeous all year, extending its value beyond spring bloom time.

Creeping thyme produces an inch-tall aromatic, ground-hugging mat that releases fragrance when walked upon or disturbed. The best species to start with is Thymus serphyllum. Quite winter-hardy to Zone 3, the variety 'Coccineus' blooms red, 'Roseus' in pink and 'Albus' white. Try mixing it with the 6-inch-tall cousin wooly Thymus lanuginosus for unique variations in color and texture.



The original species of coral bells is a dainty plant with delicate spires of flowers that are best viewed up-close. (SHNS photo by Maureen Gilmer / Do It Yourself - DIY)

While everyone is excited about the new bronze coral bell hybrids, much smaller plants mean you can grow more of them. The diminutive Heuchera 'Firefly', hardy to Zone 4, is just 5 inches tall and as wide, but its wiry bloom spikes with Tinkerbell flowers rise a foot taller. Small coral bells make a fabulous edging plant and are particularly lovely when combined with Serbian bellflower, Campanula portenschlagiana. This bright lime-green perennial shares the same height and hardiness as coral bells. It blooms in spires of cheerful Dutch blue flowers at the same time as coral bells for a striking combination.

Few perennials rival common thrift, Armeria meritima, with its dense domes of grass-like foliage and delightful magenta pink flowers. These clusters of small flowers are tight, pingpong-size balls of color on top of wiry stems. They are floriferous, with dozens of stems on a single plant. This is a perfect sun-loving structural perennial for tiny gardens, either as a single specimen or a small group.

There are many other hardy micro-perennials for a spatially challenged setting. Look for creeping or moss phlox, Phlox subulata, which flowers in many shades of blue, pink, purple or white. Crocus bulbs, the first harbingers of spring, make your mini garden come to life even when snow is still on the ground. Try blue fescue, Festuca glauca, a diminutive ornamental grass with bold color, as a fine textured accent.

Diversity is the spice of life, and it is variety of color and form that makes an English perennial border so awesome. Study the perennials you love and then hunt for similar colors and forms in pint-size alternatives. Then plan carefully and plant with the same detailed precision as you'd stitch a needlepoint canvas.

(Maureen Gilmer is a horticulturist and host of "Weekend Gardening" on DIY-Do It Yourself Network. E-mail her at For more information, visit: or: Distributed by Scripps Howard News Service.)

Next Up

Edible Gardening in Small Spaces

Make the most of a small garden space by mixing flowers and vegetable plants in an ornamental edible garden.

Garden Design: Connect Your Indoor and Outdoor Spaces

Let your indoor space inspire your landscape design plans.

Define Your Outdoor Space With a Garden Fence

Discover the materials and design that will work best for your garden boundary, whether it is a fence, wall or hedge.

Less Is More: Small Space Gardening

Even miniscule backyards, rooftops and balconies can be transformed into relaxing, inviting outdoor living rooms.

Kitchen-Inspired Container Gardening for Small Spaces

You don’t have to have a green thumb to have a green patio. All you need are the right tools, info and a little creativity.  Sponsor content courtesy of Fiskars

Small-Space Vegetable Gardens

Make room on your fire escape or pot up some tomato plants—you can grow delicious fruits and veggies even if you don't have much space.

Intensive Gardening Makes Small Spaces Work Double Time

Plan your garden carefully to grow efficiently.

Garden Design: Small Spaces

Tiny garden rule number one: Keep it simple.

Ideas for Small-Space Gardeners

Whether you have a a patio or a windowsill, start a thriving garden with these space-saving ideas.

Garden Design: Defining Your Space

Define your garden with landscaping that pulls all the elements together to create one unified, inviting space. We made over the yard below to do exactly that.

1,000+ Photos

Browse beautiful photos of our favorite outdoor spaces: decks, patios, porches and more.

Follow Us Everywhere

Join the party! Don't miss HGTV in your favorite social media feeds.