While some people live on country estates with ample acreage, many people these days have less-than-spacious yards—especially in condominium or townhouse communities. “There are challenges in having a small yard,” points out Charlottesville Horticulturist Karyn Smith.
It can be tempting, she says, to visit a nursery or garden store, buy a bunch of good-sized trees or shrubs, and put them in the ground. However, she stresses, it’s much better to plan ahead. Decide how much of the yard you want for walkways, sitting, or dining areas and how much you want to devote to garden space.
Consider laying out a curved garden space rather a sharp-angled area to give a more spacious feeling. A short curving path of brick, stone, or gravel can add charm and definition, while a raised bed for vegetables and herbs is another nice choice. Planters can contain flowers or vegetables and those big strawberry jars are practical as well as attractive.
“When choosing shrubs and trees for a small yard,” Smith advises, “be careful to purchase plants that won’t eventually outgrow the space. This can end up costing time and money, either in the extra work it takes to keep a larger tree or shrub pruned to a smaller size, or in the eventual replacement of the overgrown plants.”
She explains that growers, aware of the downsizing of many yards, are continually working to develop dwarf versions of many typically larger trees and shrubs. “Talk to the staff at your favorite garden center and see what’s new,” she urges. “You might be surprised to find your favorite shrub now comes in a much smaller size, suited perfectly for your small space.”
Examples of small trees include Crabapples and Kousa Dogwoods that only grow to about 25 feet with the added attraction of beautiful blossoms in the spring and small decorative fruit in autumn. Hawthorns are also attractive trees and grow to only 20-25 feet or so.
Good shrubbery for a small space includes Butterfly Bush, also called Buddleia, which comes in colors from pale pink to deep purple, blooms all summer, and is a butterfly magnet. Spiraea is another ornamental that is especially popular for its clusters of flowers. Some species are spring bloomers, others come out in the summer.
Cotoneasters are flowering shrubs that are actually in the rose family. There are many species varying from low shrubs growing to about two feet in height with some species reaching more than 15 feet. The flowers attract butterflies and the small fruits—which can be red, orange, maroon, or pink—are popular with birds.
Low-growing plants make nice ground cover, particularly varieties of thyme. Its fragrant leaves can be used fresh or dried. The flowers are small, but the greenery is appealing. Verbena comes in a number of shades and is also an excellent groundcover. And pachysandra, which stays green all year, is a perennial favorite. The blossoms are inconspicuous, but once planted pachysandra is very hardy.
Another consideration, says Smith, is that it’s important to be aware of planting combinations. “You should take into consideration the light, water, and fertilizing needs of the plants you choose and place plants with similar needs near each other,” she recommends.
“One of the challenges of having a small yard may be a lack of privacy or there may be a view you want to hide,” Smith continues. “You may be tempted to choose an evergreen shrub, but this can pose an even greater challenge as many of the fast-growing shrubs that are often used for screening grow too wide for small spaces. In this case, it is best to choose narrower shrubs such as Golden Arborvitae or Spartan Juniper that grow tall enough for privacy but don’t take too much precious space.”
Having a water feature as a focal point is another way to personalize a small yard. Birdbaths come in a wide range of styles from an elegant setup with a water dripper (the sound of the dripping water attracts birds), to a simple basin on a pedestal. A fountain or waterfall with a recirculating pump lends a gentle white noise splashing to a yard.
Finally, an excellent space-saving idea is to use planters or pots mounted on a wall, fence, or pergola to hold decorative flowers. This vertical strategy could also be the basis of a small kitchen garden with herbs and greens to provide fresh salads for your table.
By Marilyn Pribus
Marilyn Pribus and her husband live in Albemarle County near Charlottesville. They made their own birdbath using a plastic trash can lid as the form and pressing earth-toned pebbles into quick-drying concrete.