A Down-Sized Dream Garden – Part 2

Last week we took a look at a narrow, sloped back yard belonging to some clients I met several years ago. The “before” photos are pretty intimidating.

We started by leveling the slope as much as possible using concrete block retaining walls, on top of which was built a six-foot cedar fence. Then, to create the sense that the garden-to-be was larger than its dimensions, I decided to divide the space into garden “rooms.”

landscape design, garden rooms

The garden "rooms" take shape

Nearest the alley would be a “fragrance garden.” In the middle was a “stroll garden” with fieldstone steps to lead the visitor through the area down to the “patio garden” at the bottom of the space. There we would install a small millstone pond (to substitute for the koi pond on the client’s wish list, because of space constraints) to provide the sound of moving water. Because the patio area was directly adjacent to the under-deck space, it was essential to transform the screening and so we created a faux “potting shed” look (another item on the wish list).

landscape design, small patio, millstone fountain

A view from the deck of part of the patio area, with river birch and oakleaf hydrangeas softening the area.

landscape design, garden rooms

The Fragrance Garden now blocks the view of the alley. Originally it had a Magnolia 'Alta' as the central tree but when it failed to thrive the clients chose to replace it with a Natchez crape myrtle. Other plants in this part of the garden include Clethra and lavender.

Remember the view up towards the alley from the bottom of the lot?

landscape design, back yard, narrow lot

The former owners' concrete-edged parking pad shows part of the grading issues we faced.

After the garden was completed, it looked like this instead.

garden rooms, landscape design

The view from the patio garden area up to the top of the garden, two years after planting.|

The new view from the other angle of the garden is equally inviting.

garden rooms, landscape design, flagstone patio, small spaces

A view from mid-garden to the tiny patio and millstone fountain.

It’s a tough garden to shoot from other perspectives because it’s so narrow. In the spring, there are lots of daffodils; and there’s a fastigiate Ginkgo tree (“Princeton Sentry”) to remind my client of collecting ginkgo leaves with her father; and other carefully chosen plants, in the lawn-less front yard as well as the back. So if you’re down-sizing, don’t assume you have to give up a dream garden – just plan carefully and be flexible.

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13 Comments on “A Down-Sized Dream Garden – Part 2”

  1. gardeningasylum Says:

    Wow – excellent design work! Sometimes you really need a professional to show what can be done in a very challenging space. As I contemplate a possible move to a smaller property, it’s good to know that thoughtful design and plant selection can work wonders.

    • Melissa Says:

      Cyndy, this was an experiment for me – I had never actually tried the “divide small spaces to make the whole seem bigger” theory before. And fortunately the client was happy giving up the real potting shed and koi pond (she is an intelligent woman and could see the restraints we were working with). But do choose the plants carefully. She really wanted a river birch and it is becoming huge rapidly because she has irrigation, so we have to limb it up so it doesn’t overwhelm the small seating area. Good luck!

  2. Laurrie Says:

    I love these before and after shots in the last several posts. What a transformation. I can see how very carefully it all had to be laid out and graded and how the plant selection was key. Tiny space, big planning & execution. Client must be thrilled.

  3. Teresa Says:

    Nice job Melissa. Thanks for sharing. Are the walk and patio stamped concrete?

    • Melissa Says:

      No, they are random rectangular flagstone on a stone dust base. I’ve always been reluctant to use stamped concrete because a mason once warned me of the difficulty in repairing it if it chips.

  4. Pauline Says:

    Great garden makeover. Where I live in the inner city of Sydney Australia we all have such small gardens like this. When you get tired of living in the cold winters, come down under and work.

  5. John Says:

    Melissa, congratulations. This is certainly a success story. I’m surprised at how fast you were able to manage the transition. They must have opted for some pretty good sized plants. One advantage of a small narrow yard is that I suspect they don’t have to face the deer damage that many other Washington area growers put up with. I have one friend with a beautifully (and professionally) landscaped yard that is now surrounded by a prison camp fence that is 10 feet high.

    • Melissa Says:

      Yes, we put in plants that were pretty good-sized to begin with. And where they live isn’t in deer country – they’re on a well-traveled upper NW DC city street. The fencing was simply to give them more privacy from the neighbors.

      Is your friend’s fencing “deer fencing” from a company like Brenner’s or is it chainlink or ornamental iron? The latter two kinds are a lot more visible and hard to disguise.

      • John Says:

        I think it’s just multiple layers of 2×4 in wire fencing, so not as bad a chain link, but not as nice as Brenner’s. The latter is so invisible that you have to put tags on it so that the deer know that it’s there…

        I’m beginning to think about electric options for this year. My wife refuses to consider fencing in the whole seven acres…

  6. Jean Says:

    Melissa, What an amazing transformation! It’s inspirational to see what you accomplished there.

  7. Desiree Says:

    Beautifully done!


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