By now, most people in the northern hemisphere are digging in their yards to make their environments beautiful for summer. Garden design is challenging whether you have an acre or a few hundred square feet, but smaller spaces seem to be especially so. It’s easy to get intimidated and overwhelmed with choices when you’re a new gardener.
The very first thing to think about is what you want your garden to do. Is it an outdoor living area for entertaining or relaxing? Do you want an outdoor kitchen? Will the yard produce food or do you just want ornamentals? How much maintenance can you put in each week? Do you need privacy? Once you have a purpose, you can begin to fill in the blanks with details.
Tailor your garden to your outdoor living space
Here in New Mexico, walled courtyards are popular, leading right out from the home’s living area. Roomy ones hold full kitchens, fireplaces, built-in seating, fountains and hot tubs, while less spacious areas have a small table with café chairs. I have seen everything in between, too!
Frequently, the perimeter of a larger courtyard is planted with native and drought tolerant species. Low plantings keep the space open to reflect the expansiveness of the high desert and to keep our 13,000’ mountains in view. Container plantings of ornamentals are used as accents and focal points, and there may be a small tree on each end as a frame. Flooring is flagstone, or sometimes a small grassy area has been planted. A dining table with chairs or a full set of patio furniture allows for various entertaining scenarios. That’s very basic in an area where everyone has an acre of land. The courtyard might be 600 square feet, and it becomes an extra room in three seasons.
In town, the courtyards are very small and need privacy fencing. An entry gate is installed in a traditional eight-foot high latilla fence. Lush vines are grown over it to extend its height, create a garden and offer more privacy. Flooring is concrete, flagstone or small pavers, and gardening is done in containers if there is no more space to dig into the ground. Maybe there is a bench or a small chair and side table. The courtyard becomes more of an entryway than a main living space, but everyone here tries to take advantage of our wonderful climate in even the smallest way!
Vegetable gardens and flower gardens – the perfect borders
If you want to grow food, you don’t need much space. Vegetables and herbs can be mixed in with a flower border – lettuces and greens in front, and climbers going up a trellis in the back. Or remove the flower border completely, and just plant vegetables, herbs and fruit!
Many varieties have now been cultivated to grow in pots, since the food growing movement has spread to the cities. Don’t be afraid to try your hand at growing food, no matter how small your space. Everyone can have a container with food in it, even if it’s a recycled 5-gallon bucket. A few large pots won’t take up much of a footprint, and with upright supports they will hold tomatoes, beans, cucumbers and squash. Smaller containers are good for shallow rooted plants like lettuce, kale, chard, spinach and herbs.
Native plants means low-maintenance
If you need a low maintenance garden, native plants are the best choice. They only need the watering that nature provides, and they are already used to the soil in your yard. They need no soil amendments, and they are acclimated to the local climate, so they don’t need to be fussed over.
Also consider slow-growing plants, and install a drip irrigation system with a timer for automatic watering. Several inches of decorative mulch will keep down weeds and keep in moisture to further reduce your workload. Even a few well-placed flowering trees and shrubs can add enough greenery without a lot of work.
Piece by piece
Envision your garden and yard space after considering your personal needs. Put it together piece by piece, or if it’s small enough, spend a weekend digging and planting. Any small space can be beautified with a little planning and a few good plants. See my small space gardening Pinterest board for more ideas!