Small-garden ideas from Thomas Rainer

Boy, when you reveal your garden here on the web, you’d better be prepared for feedback – the honest stuff, not for the thin-skinned.  That’s what I got after I posted photos of my new back yard, via comment and email, and I’m sharing some of the suggestions because they’re so damn good.

Thomas Rainer is a DC-area landscape architect whose blog and design ideas I’ve raved about, so I naturally picked his brain for ideas, and got ‘em.  First, he said he loved my porch and terrace, and some of my preliminary additions to the garden – the Abelia, Cryptomeria, Viburnums, which he predicts will “all age with grace.”

Then he got to the meat of his advice, which is nothing like the New American Garden-style sweeps and masses of plants that I’d been attempting for years in my former garden.

“You have a relatively small garden (small spaces are the BEST places to garden), so that means the design strategies should address that context. The goal in small space gardens is to create the feeling of depth and expansiveness. One way you can do that is by creating the appearance of layers of plants. I know I preach a lot about massing plants (and you should still mass in a small garden), but the main thing to focus on is creating CONTRAST between small groupings of plants. In a small space, every plant counts, so each plant mass (or single shrubs) should strongly contrast in texture, foliage color, and form (structure) with the plant next to it. A blue conifer next to a spiky purple Eucomis next to a golden cascading Hakone grass. Exaggerate differences between plants to exaggerate the effect of layering. A richly layered garden gives the eye many places to rest and creates the illusion of volume, depth, and richness–even in tiny spaces.”

He counsels discipline:  “Don’t bring a plant into that garden unless it has a striking form (spiky, billowing, vertical spire), strong foliage color (blues/golds/purples, etc), or a long season of blooms (2 month minimum). In a small space, each plant must earn its keep. Expect more, get the perfect cultivar, and continue to adjust. Imagine the plant in your garden in black and white. Does it still read? Does it still contrast from its neighbor?

“I’m having a problem with this very thing in my border right now. I chose a bunch of aggressive perennials last spring just to fill in bare mulch (never intending them to be permanent) and now it’s just one big green blob. Most of the plants are finely textured filler perennials. Everything bleeds together.”

Thomas’s more specific suggestions for my space includes these:

–  Pick a theme for your palette. Choose colors, textures, or a mood for the garden. Only pick plants that reinforce the theme.

Arrange plants in clumps, not rows. Linear arrangements in small spaces flatten the feeling of depth. Roundness is better.

Invest in a few legacy pots. I’m still saving for mine. Save $500 for a gorgeous brown or blue urn. Create a focal point with it. Notice how these pots are key design elements in Mosaic Garden’s work.

Then he refers me to two great sources of inspiration, both of whom agreed to let me include their photos in this post.

Mosaic Gardens:  This is a design firm in Eugene, Oregon, a husband and wife team Thomas calls his “horticultural idols of the moment.”  In their portfolio, “every plant strongly contrasts with the plant next to it. They use foliage color for drama, but the real source of their beauty is that the form of each plant is different. Spiky verticals punctuate a corner, mounding conifers anchor a path, statuesque spurges spill over a wall.  And notice the scale of the massings. Each plant is PACKED IN (they have to thin later), but even in their smallest moment, there is at least 3-5 plants in a mass.”

And Nancy Ondra, whom Thomas calls the “queen of plant combinations.”  “Nancy has a large garden, but every moment in her borders are designed like she has a little jeweled courtyard. She uses foliage color to get contrast and even uses quite a bit of what I call “landscape” annuals (as opposed to bedding annuals).   Use tropical annnuals like cannas, bulbs like gladiolas, fillers like Verbena bonariensis or Emilia javanica.”  Nan’s written a whole book about Foliage, and her inspiration-filled website is called Hayefield.

Thanks to Thomas for his awesome ideas and letting me share them here!  But there’s more – his list of plants that “could work well aesthetically in your garden.”

Picea pungens ‘Globosa’, Dwarf Blue Spruce–evergreen, great form, blue color year round

Ligularia dentata ‘Britt Marie Crawford’–Great purplish foliage, likes sun and wet feet.

Corylus avellana ‘Red Majestic’–A great background shrub for texture and color

Physocarpus opulifolius ‘Diablo’–Black Ninebark. Another background/screening shrub. Stunning color.

Hakonechloa macra ‘Aureola’–You have to have some variegated Hakone Grass under your Japanese maple. Get a tray of 32 or 54, place them 12-18″ o.c. and plant them straight up to the trunk of that tree.

Spiraea thunbergii ‘Ogon’, Ogon Spiraea–Gold foliage and feathery texture is a wonderful addition to any small garden.

Euphorbia ‘Ascot Rainbow’ or ‘Rudolph’–Take advantage of some of the great new cultivars of spurges. I added Ascot Rainbow to mine and I love it. Mine is in a shady spot under a tree, but I think Rudolph

Persicaria polymorpha, Giant Fleece Flower–A big perennial, but blooms most of the summer. PLace 3 of them in a spot with decent sun (perhaps by your hydrangeas)

Heuchera villosa ‘Frosted Violet’–My favorite purple Coral Bell. CLump in groups of 5.

Brunnera ‘Jack Frost’–for low shady areas. Mass in groups of 6-12.

Iris pallida ‘Variegata’–Need some spiky plants for interest.

Eucomis ‘Sparkling Burgundy’ –Plant this as a bulb and get purple, Phormium-like spikes.

Penstemon digitalis ‘Dark Towers’–A great native, love the foliage color.

Then for color, add annuals (Verbena bonariensis, and bulbs (hardy lilies, poeticus daffodils, species tulips, even a few Canna Pink Sunburst–they blend with a surprising number of plants).

Think about some columnar spires–they really add structure to the garden. Hicksii Yew (shear it into an evergreen pencil). I even like the ubiquitous Emerald Green arborvitae dropped into richly layered herbaceous plantings. They really pop. Or a Juniperus ‘Skyrocket’ One of these would work well to screen your neighbor’s shed. Place another one along the back of the property for screening.

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