10 easy ideas to maximize a small garden

Fountains make great focal points, as the bubbling water appeals to many senses.

So what's a gal to do when her garden gets downsized? Get smart, in the case of Ida Bigner. When the former landscape designer retired to Charleston, S.C., she traded a 2-acre spread, complete with a formal rose garden and magnolias, for a 16-by-23 foot enclosed courtyard. Other green thumbs might have been devastated. But not her.

"It's real fun, actually," she says. "I love the idea of having to work out a new design. And it's totally different. In my old place, I needed maintenance help. Here, I am in tune with every plant, every flower, every leaf. You can't help but know every square inch. The other day I walked out and noticed something had eaten off the head of a pansy. I'd say that's getting into minutia, wouldn't you?"

If you have a green thumb and a tiny garden space, use window boxes, containers, porches and more as spots for your plants

After less than fourth months, Bigner's new garden is thriving, though it will truly peak about a year and a half from now. Still, the photos illustrate a point we can all take to heart: Small spaces can make great oases. Here are a few tips for maximizing tiny gardens that work for all zones.

Create a Focal Point
"Consider the view angles on your space," says Bigner. "It pays to create a focal point where they intersect." In her case, the street side entrance, the house entrance and a dining space all looked out onto the far corner of the garden. She added a fountain there, embedding the basin into the surrounding planting. The corner now provides a necessary anchor for the courtyard. Whether your focal point is a birdbath, sculpture, tree or what-have-you, remember it should command attention in your small garden, but not overwhelm it.

Conceal Undesirables
Bigner's focal point is punctuated with a giant air conditioner unit. Her solution!hide it. She built a pierced brick wall around the unit, and it has virtually disappeared. As for other tricks, an azalea covers a switch box, boxwood conceals an outlet and a pair of ferns will soon grow over a spigot.

Container gardening allows you create mini-gardens throughout your "yard," even if that means your front door area.

Use Containers
"Container gardening is great because instead of plants growing in the same plane (as they do in a bed) you get a nice height variation," says Bigner. To add flow, place the containers in corners, near focal points or by beds, rather than in a floating island.

Expand Your Plant List
"There's a tendency to want to fill a small space with one or two of the same kinds of plants, in an effort to simplify," says Bigner. "That's not the best idea." Instead, vary the plants subtly, staying within the same color family and adding alternate heights, textures and leaf shapes. This breaks up what would otherwise be a solid block of color, which tends to shrink an area.

Simpify Color
"Overall, the most important thing you can do in a small space is keep your colors simple," says Bigner. "Pick one color scheme!one that soothes!and stick with it." That means your green plants should been in the same color family and your choice of flowers should compliment each other. Likewise, use containers that are of the same hue.

Appeal to the Senses
"You can make a small space seem bigger if you appeal to the senses," says Bigner. "Really play with the light and sound and movement." In her garden, that means the trees and shrubs let in enough light to cast dappled shadows. The branches sway in the breezes, drawing your attention upward. And the fountain bubbles in the corner, sounding farther off than it actually is. Each element expands the space, making it seem more open than cramped.

Use your wall space to "lift" the eye and thus open up a small-space garden.

Climb the Walls
Don't waste your space!that means even the walls of a courtyard garden are fair game. Whether you use hanging baskets, creeping vines (like ivy or fig) or artwork, remember the walls provide a clean canvas on which to expand your garden.

Borrow Views
When it comes to small gardens, it pays to steal from your neighbors. Look around and take stock of the view. Do you see a large tree, hedge or rooftop that seems like part of your garden? If you can spy it, it is yours!at least in a design sense. Consider these "borrowed views" as extensions to your own garden and layer your elements accordingly.

Branch Out
Cloistered gardeners can benefit from branching out of designated garden spaces. To feel less stifled, bring the garden to the windowsill with window boxes, to the doorstop with containers and to the porch with hanging plants.

Play With Art
Don't short yourself on fun just because you're short on space. Place garden art where it will surprise and add interes!not always in the most obvious places. In Bigner's garden, a weatherworn birdhouse hides among a handful of terra cotta pots, a relief tile hangs on the wall, and a cherubic little boy kneels under fern fronds.