I have a soft spot for small gardens. It’s my belief that it’s easy to have a nice garden if you have lots of space. There’s room to experiment, to indulge in great patches of your favourite plants and to create an exciting design.
I’ve seen plenty of the biggies: London’s Kew Gardens, the historic Old Westbury Gardens in New York, Quebec’s splendid Reford Gardens and the fabulous private gardens of the Bridle Path and Rosedale.
But somehow, it’s the smaller personal gardens that stick in my mind. I love their human scale and the way they reflect their owners’ personalities. When you’re in one, you can feel the close connection between garden and gardener.
Curves give the illusion of space
Take Beacher Elizabeth Bowes’s garden near Kew Park. It’s fairly long and narrow, about 12 feet across and 30 feet deep, but there’s scarcely a straight line in the place. An old flagstone pathway meanders like a riverbed down the middle. That takes up about one-third of the space. The rest is given over to borders filled with a crowd of flowers and foliage in various shapes and sizes.
“I love foliage,” Elizabeth says. “When you’re a perennial gardener, you have to pay attention to foliage.”
There’s no real design to her garden, either – it’s planted with the things she likes, many of them leftovers or castoffs from friends and neighbours.
Flowers, of course, take the eye first. You can spot a couple of clematises here and there, an old-fashioned climbing red rose, several lavenders, a clump of black-eyed Susans and airy meadow rue that blooms in spring, but shows off wonderful leaves in other seasons.
A nicely gnarled dead apple tree adds height midway along the path, as well as a place to hang pots and other intriguing bits of garden art.
Past that, all the way at the back of the garden, is a small sitting area surrounded by a giant hosta, an ornamental pear tree, a beauty bush with lime-green foliage, a couple kinds of hydrangea and a hefty rose of Sharon.
Terra cotta unifies colours
It’s a good spot to cool off and chat in this full-sun backyard. Look back towards the entrance and you’ll find lots more to catch your attention. Elizabeth collects interesting pieces of driftwood from Kawagama Lake in Haliburton that find a home on her fence, the edge of the path or back among the plants. An ornate stone plaque and the carved base of a broken bird bath add a touch of ancient Roman ruins.
Best of all, though, is the variety of terra cotta pots that seem to sprout naturally throughout the garden.
“I buy pots randomly,” Elizabeth explains. “I’ve been to Italy a few times, so I like broken urns turned on their sides and planted.” To fill all her broken – and unbroken – pots, she buys annuals that appeal to her and then matches them to the various containers. The result: a madly blooming variety of flowers unified by the warm tints of earthenware.
Plants come first
Another personal touch I appreciated in this garden was at ground level. ‘Very Good Gardeners’ often say we should mulch and leave lots of room between plants. That’s OK for big gardens, but too constraining for small-space gardeners. In this little garden, plants come first.
“When I can see a patch of dirt, I think, ‘Oh, I can put a plant there,’” Elizabeth confesses.
If her ground covers – creeping Jenny and Ajuga – want to overrun the path, she’ll dig up a flagstone or two so they can put down roots. She even has a tiny island of black-eyed Susans clustered among the stones.
“I don’t know how they got there,” she laughs.
And that natural, unstressed approach to gardening is what makes so many small gardens special. As Elizabeth says of hers, “It’s more organic than a planned garden. It’s a work in progress and something’s always happening there. It’s like creating nature.”
Mary Fran McQuade is a local writer specializing in gardening and lifestyle