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Designing for Plants in Small Spaces

Marilyn Gray

(Editor's Note: This article was originally prepared for a Melbourne audience and the plants suggested are those that grown well in southern Victoria. Most will grow well in other areas but, in some cases selection of similar plants suited to other climates may be necessary.)

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Today more people are living in smaller dwellings with decreasing gardening opportunities. Some people choose to have to do minimal gardening. Other people strive to have beautiful mini gardens on balconies or in courtyards, providing a relaxing outdoor room using plants to soften hard walls and water features to soothe the soul. Large gardens can also have small rooms within them.

We are fortunate today to have a wonderful palette of plants to select from, both Australian and exotic. While there is a belief amongst many gardeners that Australian plants do not provide the colour and variety they seek, the reality is quite different. With careful selection and attention to the needs of both the gardener and the plants delightful gardens can be designed for any situation where space is at a premium.

The first planning decision for gardens in small spaces is to decide what we want from our garden. We all have different needs. Are we looking for a formal entry, a room extension, or do we want a calming balcony to look out onto after a busy day? What effect does our lifestyle have on our garden and the way we use it? Do we want to relax in it or entertain? Do we also need to accommodate children and their needs, pets, a vegetable garden or ancillaries such as clothes lines.

The initial steps in designing a small garden are the same as for a large garden - know your conditions. Some of these conditions can be exacerbated in a smaller area. They include soil type or lack thereof, lighting (sun, neighbouring buildings, trees), temperature (heat reflected from brick walls, metal fences, cold from permanent shadows), prevailing winds (wind tunnels), moisture levels and availability of water (channeling of water, naturally dry or moist). Can you use the surrounding, or borrowed, landscape to enhance your own or would you prefer to hide or disguise it?

   Correa reflexa
Doryanthes excelsa
   Hymenosporum flavum
Libertia paniculata
   Photos: Christine Ashe, Brian Walters

Once these questions have been answered it is time to move on to features that you wish to incorporate: hard landscaping - eg. paths, paving, lighting, gates; use of water - eg. wall fountain, small pond; and soft landscaping - eg. encouraging birds, need for privacy, colours and shapes, type of mulch, focal points, softening hard structures, maintenance levels.

Plant selection will flow from these decisions.

There are many types of small gardens: formal, balconies, courtyards and patios, informal gardens, cottage gardens, rockeries. These can incorporate water, mini rainforests, ferneries.

Formal Garden

A formal garden is neat, symmetrical and manicured. Determining the hard landscaping is the first priority. This can include pathways, walls, fountains, retaining walls, terraces and gates. Soft landscaping includes garden edging - plants or mulch, clipped grass to the garden bed or a border. Plant selection tends to be repetitive. Plants may be small, clumping, hedged, standards. Often a specimen plant, or group of plants are used as a centrepiece.

Specimen plants that can be used include waratahs, a copse of small eucalypts such as E.caesia, E.torquata, E.macrandra and other available dwarf species. A Doryanthes, either the Gymea or spear Lily would provide a very dramatic effect. Some of the smaller rainforest plants also do well in Melbourne, providing a formal statement, such as Hymenosporum flavum (native frangipani), Stenocarpus salignus, Eupomatia laurina (perfume is an extra with each of these). Topiary and standards are also popular in formal gardens. The small leafed lilypillies can be pruned hard to create interesting shapes. Grafted grevilleas have been used as standards for many years now creating weeping specimens from ground covers. Syzygiums are also being sold as standards.

Eucalyptus caesia
Eucalyptus torquata
Photos: Brian Walters   

Some of the small Australian daisies are excellent bedding plants, try also lilies and irises such as dianellas, Orthrosanthus, Libertia paniculata (especially in shady sites) and lomandras such as 'Little Con' and 'Little Pal', forms of Lomandra confertifolia.

Small leafed plants with crowded leaves can be pruned hard to create hedges of varying sizes. An excellent place to see samples of Australian plants used as hedges is at Birrarung Marr in Melbourne.

Examples of species that can be used in small hedges include syzygiums such as 'Tiny Trev', 'Beachball', 'Orange Twist', small babingtonias (syn. Beackea), Correa pulchella, some forms of C.reflexa and small grevilleas such as G.confertifolia.

For medium hedges try boronias such as 'Sunset Serenade', B.fraseri, B.mollis (especially in shade), philothecas, westringias, correas, melaleucas such as M. 'Little Nessy', M.lateritia, leptospermums such as 'Pink Cascade', callistemons such as C. 'Little John' and 'Captain Cook', small banksias especially B.spinulosa forms and many of the thomasias.

Taller hedges can be created from well pruned denser species of callistemons such as Callistemon viminalis 'Hannah Ray' and C. pallidus, Callitris rhomboidea, many melaleucas and grevilleas, Calothamnus spp. and Backhousia spp. to name a few worth trying.

Grass replacements can include danthonias (Wallaby Grass), Microlaena (Weeping Grass), Dichondra repens, Lobelia pedunculata (syn. Pratia), Leptinella filicula. The latter two require summer moisture.


   Dendrobium x delicatum
Dendrobium x
Lechenaultia formosa
   Photos: Brian Walters

Balconies can provide challenges for the keen gardener. Plants may be used for different purposes - provide an outdoor room, privacy from neighbouring apartments, noise reduction, beautifying or softening a stark space or outlook, and even to cool the air with some greenery.

Gardeners in these situations now have access to a bewildering array of containers. These should be simple and enhance or complement the surroundings. Wine barrels can accommodate a group of small plants. Pots can also be moved around to provide seasonal colour or a change of scene. Hanging baskets raise the height of the garden. Structural plants such as cordylines and birds nest ferns can give a dramatic effect, foliages and fruit can be used to advantage. Plants can be clipped, topiaried, or espaliered against a wall. Grasses and lomandras provide textures, ferns fill a dark corner or a shady balcony, small perennials present a blaze of colour every season.

There are so many plants to choose from: small banksias, orchids such as Dendrobium speciosum or a small pot of nodding greenhoods on a table, daisies, croweas, Cryptandra amara, dampieras, Sturt's Desert Pea, kangaroo paws.


Billardiera erubescens
Hibbertia diffusa
Jasminum suavissimum
Photos: Brian Walters


Courtyards are generally small and walled from fences, the house, neighbours. They can also be created as a small external room within a large garden. Internal courtyards can prove more difficult to find reliable plants. Soil is limited, light and water may be artificial. Pots that can be moved around may prove the solution. Challenges presented by courtyards include size restrictions, shade or lack of, privacy. There needs to be unity with the house so hard landscaping choices are very important. Materials will be sympathetic to the house, colours either complementing or providing a contrast. Neutral colours allow pots or sculptures to be highlighted. Courtyards can be integrated with the rooms that overlook them. Much of the initial planning needs to occur from inside looking out.

Important decisions before plants are added included the type and amount of paving, or gravel, placement of furniture, water features. A formal area will have more paving, perhaps a few plants in tubs of varying heights, repetition of a few species, or a few dramatic plants - grass trees, macrozamias, a waratah, a tall Hymenosporum with a few pretties or Acacia cognata 'Limelight' below it, a border of lomandra.

More natural courtyards may use gravel and have a weeping eucalypt, Callistemon viminalis 'Dawson River', allocasuarinas, Persoonia pinifolia or Acacia cognata as backdrop. In a warm area Pittosporum phillyreoides is effective. Many smaller shrubs and groundcovers are available to present a variety of pictures. The plants selected will depend on the conditions as mentioned earlier.

Water can be used in a small garden - in ponds, bubbling from the wall, bird baths. Small irises, lilies and tufties around a pond will encourage frogs, or use decorative frogs, an overhanging shrub will provide a safe escape for birds, and produce shadows on the water. Ferns and rainforest species with their large and often coloured new leaves can complement water well or give a lush feel and welcome shade to a more open space. If the ground is moist small ground covers such as violets, pratias, dichondra can squeeze around pavers, or cover the ground.

Climbers can help break a wall or provide some privacy. Some of the larger climbers such as kennedias and pandoreas may be too strong and dominant for a small area. They also tend to become open underneath. Gentle climbers include the many billardieras, Chorizema diversifolium with its orange pea flowers, hibbertias and glycines. Jasminum suavissimum is also very fragrant.

Cottage Gardens

Cottage gardens originated with people who could not afford to buy plants so they swapped cuttings. These small gardens could be described as 'organised disarray', they have a lack of pretension about them. Edna Walling said the best elements of cottage gardens were meandering paths edged with overhanging plants, low stone walls, creepers and perennials. She spoke of drifts, spilling masses, sheets and misty clouds.

The five essential elements in European and American cottage gardens are:

  1. walls, fence or hedge surrounding the garden
  2. a gate or entry point from the road
  3. a path straight to the front door and at least one other
  4. planting beds defined by paths ie not set in lawns
  5. rich mix of plantings.
Rhodanthe chlorocephala ssp. rosea
Rhodanthe chlorocephala
ssp. rosea
Rhodanthe manglesii
Schoenia filifolia ssp. subulifolia
Schoenia filifolia
ssp. subulifolia
Photos: Australian Daisy Study Group


These elements can be used in Australian gardens using flowing rather than straight paths and including Australian plants instead of the traditional exotic mix used by most gardeners. In fact there is no reason why a cottage garden can't be solely Australian natives.

The main decorative features of cottage gardens are colour, form and composition. Flowers are selected for their long flowering time, or for short bursts of intense colour. Croweas, epacris, scaevolas, dampieras, chorizemas, hibbertias, myoporums, daisies and persoonias are all good in the first instance and hoveas, melaleucas, pimeleas, many peas and some olearias fulfil the latter. Bedding plants and perennials are commonly used. Some species were mentioned above. Australian annuals for massed plantings include Western Australian daisies - Rhodanthe chlorocephala ssp. rosea, R.manglesii, Schoenia filifolia ssp. subulifolia and Brachyscome iberidifolia Swan River Daisy. Direct seeding in autumn can produce informal drifts of colour in spring. Other perennials include Trachymene caerula (Rottnest Island Daisy), Ptilotus spp., Isotoma anethifolia (white) or I.axillaris.

Species with soft colors include daisies, lilies, tufting grasses, scaevolas, baeckeas, dampieras, violets, Plectranthus spp., Derwentia arenaria, D. perfoliata, dianellas especially D. revoluta and D. longifolia, Correa alba var. pannosa, C. pulchella forms, Halgania spp., boronias, small philothecas, Pomaderris obcordata, Grevillea quercifolia - the list is almost endless.

Pictures in different colours can be planted for different seasons: pinks, reds and white in winter, blue/purple and gold in summer.

Foliage and form of plants are also important components of these smaller gardens. A grey garden can be created readily, Japanese style gardens can include low forms of Babingtonia similis (syn. Baeckea virgata), Homoranthus papillatus, small podocarpus, Spyridium parvifolium 'Nimbus', small hedging plants. The Acacia cognata dwarf series have beautiful weeping forms, Kangaroo Paws of different sizes add an upright form as do some of the epacris and cordylines. Grasses, lomandras, Christmas Bells, dianellas and irises provide clumps and tufts and look good in drifts.

Plants are often not permanent. They are small and often fast growing and need plenty of pruning and replacement.

A bonus in these small gardens is the wildlife atracted to them - frogs, butterflies and birds provide sound and beauty, lizards will bask amongst the plants and on rocks.

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These are just a few ideas. Visit gardens to see how other people have chosen to fill their small spaces. Most gardeners are happy to show off their gardens and share ideas, and even cuttings or seeds. Small garden designs reflect the owner's personality without the waffle and expanse of a large garden. Gardening in small spaces can be exciting and rewarding. Enjoy!

From 'Growing Australian', the newsletter of the Australian Plants Society (Victoria), March 2007.

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