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Gardening - Great things in small parcels


Published: 04/14/2006


Cultivating a small yard allows the gardener to enjoy a richer, more intimate experience than is possible in a grander setting. True, there may be less opportunity for horticultural experimentation or for trying new plants, but as in art, many a masterpiece is created on a modest-size canvas.

In a small yard you become familiar with every nook and cranny, and soon learn how best to exploit them. You can be lavish too, since you are unlikely to run up huge bills for water and fertilizer. Instead, you may wish to invest in interesting artefacts, such as statues, ornate pots and wrought iron structures.

A sense of scale is important in the small yard. Some plants should be avoided because they will grow too big or run rampant. At the same time, you must have some variation in plant size, including space for the odd robust specimen, to prevent a boring or over-manicured look.

As to horticultural activity, you must be ruthless. Plants may invade one another, so their root systems must be cut back or thinned on a regular basis. Failure to do so will imperil the more passive specimens.

It often happens that the smallest garden you will ever have to tend is your first garden. If it is in a new housing development, you can start digging and planting with all the zeal you can muster. If it is an established garden, then go gently for at least the first year.

Watch what develops as the year progresses, making note of what you like and don’t like. Pay particular attention to exposure to sunlight so you’ll know where sun worshippers and shade lovers will work best. Avoid felling trees or removing shrubs until you have witnessed their effect on the landscape for a full 12-month period at least.

If you are starting with a blank canvas, then plot a rough design on paper before you begin. Try to ensure some year-round interest, which means using such material as red-stemmed dogwood, silver birch, azalea and feather reed grass, with its bending, light beige seed-heads that may persist throughout the winter.

Some evergreens will help too, especially if you choose from among the yews and dwarf spruces. Though not always reliable, holly can be a good choice in a sheltered spot with plenty of sunshine. The hellebores are worth trying too. Cedars can get out of hand quite quickly and are best left to serve as tightly clipped hedges.

Pay particular attention to the condition of the soil. In a new development it will likely be little more than backfill, while in an older garden, it may be depleted. Even with rich soil it will pay to dig in some compost or rotted manure before you do anything else.

You may also wish to get your soil tested for pH and mineral levels to determine any deficiencies. Most garden soil in the GTA is somewhat on the acidic side, with a pH below the neutral value of 7. A value of between 6 and 7 works fine for most plants, but if it is any lower, you should consider adding horticultural lime to restore the balance. It is also referred to as 'sweetening' the soil.

Among plants that prefer a sweeter soil are some grasses, rhubarb, asparagus, crab apple, clematis, daffodil, geranium, peony, hyacinth and mock orange. You can sweeten soil in selective spots by applying wood ash from the fireplace throughout the winter.

Spend wisely on a few plants that will become showpieces, such as a good quality Japanese maple or weeping mulberry. Remember that if you don’t like where you first plant your choice specimens, you can always move them during the first few years, in springtime or early fall.

Be wary of vigorous plants, such as lilac and pussy willow. Not only will they take up a lot of space and perhaps create too much shade, they are greedy feeders whose surface roots can plague you. You will need some tall plants, of course, but restrict most of them to the north side of the garden, or use them as screens for fences.

You may find that much of your planting area is up against the structure of the house itself, resulting in inadequate moisture reaching plant roots. This tends to happen on the south side of the house, where the soil bakes and the prevailing wind tends to push the falling rain away. You may have to water such an area regularly, by hose or through run-off from the roof, taking care not to saturate the ground so that the basement leaks.

Remember that you can grow things against house walls, on trellises or directly against the brickwork. Contrary to popular belief, few plants cause structural damage, while most (including wisteria, hydrangea and climbing roses) will add to the home’s summertime curb appeal.

A small garden, especially if it’s a sun trap, is a wonderful place for creating aromas, not just from flowers but from fragrant herbs, such as basil, lavender, rosemary, sage and thyme. Herbs are actually a very good choice for the small sunny garden: even rapid growers such as mint can be contained in pots. They all need good drainage and are best purchased as started plants from the nursery. Seeds take too long, except for dill and coriander, both of which will self-seed in a favourable spot.

A couple of other points: try to achieve some late-season colour, such as with the sedums, chrysanthemum and Michaelmas daisy; and no matter how small the garden, find an unobtrusive spot (not in dense shade) for a compost bin. The effort will reward you and your plants many times over.

Richard Rix writes and gardens in Toronto. He can be reached at

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