Landscape Design for Small Spaces
Julie Weisenhorn, Department of Horticultural Science, University of Minnesota
“… A small plot of ground well ordered, turns
to greater advantage than a large one neglected ”
- Leonard Meager, The New Art of Gardening, 1697
The term “small space” is gardener-specific. Whether a space is considered small or large
depends on the gardener’s time constraints, physical constraints, and enthusiasm for working in a
Considerations of Sustainable Design
Functional – how the site will be used, activities that will take place in the site,
Maintainable – who will maintain the landscape, time allotted to maintenance, ease of
Environmentally sound – the impact the landscape has on the environment around it;
Cost effective – use of inputs including time, money and labor
Site Analysis is …
Critical to designing any size site
Little room for error
Small space is likely several microclimate
Conduct soil test
Note light and moisture
Conduct a client interview
Pros and cons of the landscape
Activities in the landscape
Maintenance of the landscape
Timeline for installation
SULIS Landscape Design Questionnaire -www.sustland.umn.edu
SULIS Site Evaluation Form - www.sustland.umn.edu
Also called a “Site inventory” – a specific and honest evaluation – pros and cons of the
Show features of the site such as wetlands, trees, views, roads
Include measurements of the site
Make use of info from questionnaire
Areas and elements
Existing plant materials
Hard features & structures
Roadways, driveways & parking areas
Walks, paths & trails
“An environment with different conditions, such as temperature, wind speed, and
drainage from the larger more predominant surrounding conditions.” Includes such key
effects such as sun / shade, wind, temperature, moisture, snow and ice.
Do bubble diagrams and locate the large spaces first in the landscape. In Minnesota, these large
spaces are typically turf, driveways, decks, patios.
When designing turf areas, consider:
Do you need turf in a small landscape?
Avoid tight radii as they make mowing difficult
Note the amount of sunlight and moisture available for growing turf. Small and narrow
areas of a landscape are often a challenge for turf because of lack of adequate sunlight
and repeated traffic patterns.
Identify the purpose(s) of the various spaces within a landscape. Some examples are entry
garden, patio / deck, recreational area, pet needs, vegetable garden, screen or hedge, foundation
planting, water garden, wetland, woodland.
Be sure to vary the sizes of the spaces you designate in a landscape. You don’t want them to all
be the same size or the same shape.
Curved concept lines are associated with informal design and tend to broaden and open the look
of a landscape. Straight concept lines are associated with formal design and tend to force the eye
in certain directions as well as confine the landscape to a set size and form.
Avoid dividing the property with concept lines. Unless you are designing a symmetrical or
balanced design where the halves of the landscape are mirror images of each other, design one
side of the landscape to be heavier, creating an asymmetrical feel to the landscape. Typically,
houses have a heavier side (house vs. garage)
De-emphasize narrow areas by drawing concept lines that flow across, not perpendicular to the
house. Spaces that are designed perpendicular to the front or back of the house will emphasize
the long narrow look of the small property and broaden it.
Create topography with steps, walls, and plants of different heights. Levels within a small
landscape will create the illusion of size by moving the eye upward. It will also create different
“outdoor rooms” within a small area, also giving the illusion of more space.
Design Principle - Unity
Repeating texture & color within a landscape through repetition of plants and hardescapes is the
single easiest way to create unity within a site. This is especially important in helping tie front
and back areas of a site together.
Design Principle - Simplicity vs. Variety
Typically, variety is used in areas viewed close-up, such as entry gardens, deck and patio
gardens, and adds interest to these areas. However, used incorrectly or overused, variety can
create a busy design that confuses the viewer about where he/she should be focusing their
attention. The opposite of variety, simplicity is typically employed in the landscape areas set
away from the main areas of activity – backdrops, distant garden areas, woodlands, prairies.
In a small landscape, it is best to practice to simplicity over variety for the most part. Simple
plant combinations and materials without a lot of detail will help create a larger feel to the site.
That said, variety should be used in small amounts in areas where attention is desired.
Keep design simple and variety minimal
Incorporate 1-3 focal points in a small space
Materials should be consistent in texture, color
A simple, analogous color pallet is also helpful in small space design.
Design Principle - Scale
Keep elements in within a landscape in proportion. Plants should be in proportion to rocks,
foundations, deck height, etc. Use the rule of thirds to help plants and hardscapes to work well
Right plant, right place, right purpose
Select based on elements of design
Size, plant type, form, texture, seasonal interest
Follow the Rule of 3rds
Select varieties with persistent fruit, usable fruit, or sterility
Plant type – tree, vine, herbaceous, shrub, deciduous, evergreen, etc.
Size – Always select plants based on their mature height and width, design small details
to be viewed up close;
Form – Plants with airy forms can serve well as screens & scrims. Go vertical -
trellising & espalier, cordons, pleaching. Be aware that these forms of plant training can
be high maintenance!
Texture, Mix & Match – Mix textures to create depth and interest within a landscape.
Use fine textured plants as airy backdrops and as masses that create unity within a
Seasonal Interest – fruit, flower, nut, bark, branching, etc.
Design elements – Design plants and hardscapes to perform twice as well in your small
landscape. Consider seating options (rocks, walls, stumps), plants as screens and living walls and
ceilings, water features that serve as bird baths and pet drinking fountains, hot tubs as water
features, trees for hanging baskets and pots, etc. No room for an herb or vegetable garden? Make
the most of your space by interplant ornamentals with edibles.
Views - Use tall plants as back drops to show off other plants. Borrow landscapes from areas
outside your small landscape – parks, lakes, neighbors, churches, etc.
Cool – calm, relaxing, larger
Neutral – Transitions, softens, expands
Warm – Excites, attention, focal, “jumps out” of the landscape
Rice, Graham, The Ultimate Book of Small Gardens
Messervy, Julie Moir and Susanka, Susan, Outside the Not So Big House
Beaulieu, David, “Color Theory in Landscape Design”,
Luss, Gunda, “Color Techniques for Landscape Design”
Boulden, Steve, “Big Help for Small Gardens”, http://www.the-landscape-design-