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Maximizing minimal space
Tips and tricks of the trade


March 2017

From suburban backyards to condo balconies, landscaping for a small area poses its own challenges.

The first challenge, our experts say, is understanding the scope of work. Most people are surprised to find that designing a small space takes more time. “That’s because we are trying to squeeze in multiple design elements — like a dining area, grill location, a play area — into a limited space. Sometimes we have to help a client prioritize their wish list because everything simply won’t fit,” says Jim Drzewiecki of Ginkgo Leaf Studio.

In small spaces, Drzewiecki says a common mistake people make is not planning for space that will be lost to circulation. Spaces include not only the back door of the home, but other entry points, such as a fence gate, driveway or garage service door. “This then impacts where furniture can be placed,” he explains. “You also have to plan enough space for furniture and a grill. For example, don’t just look at the footprint of a table and chairs, but plan for the space needed to pull the chairs out and give people room to walk around the furniture.”

“In a small area, drainage can also be an issue,” says John Ciesielski of Stano Landscaping. “When adding paving or other impermeable surfaces, you have to make sure that water can be directed away from the foundation of the house and the neighbors’ properties.”

David Guthery, landscape designer at LandCrafters, says something as simple as finding access for construction materials can be a challenge when working with a small area. “This has to be taken into account during design, because if you can’t get the machinery in to build it, then you shouldn’t waste time designing it,” he adds.

One of the biggest issues stems from people wanting to do too much. “This just gives the space a cluttered look and makes it more confining. The mistake most people make is they want to jam in everything, and it results in a big mess,” says Guthery.

To avoid the mess, Ciesielski says everything has to be in scale. “Plant selection is critical,” he adds. “You want more compact plants that will not outgrow the space. Often it’s best to keep it simple and not try to incorporate too many elements.”

Proper use of color is one of the best ways to give the area a greater sense of space. “Cool colors recede visually, so placing a blue-green foliaged plant in a corner can make that corner feel farther away,” explains Drzewiecki. “Fine-textured foliage on plants has the same effect.”

Drzewiecki also says shape is a key factor when designing for small areas. “Instead of building a patio parallel to a home, we often use an angled grid. This creates the optical illusion that a space is longer than it really is,” he explains. “Plus, a circular patio instead of (a) square with plantings around it can give the feeling that the overall space is bigger.”

“Geometry or strong structure is the best friend of small spaces,” says Guthery. “Rectangles, squares, ovals and circles are all good. Strong forms are required. Wavy lines don’t work. In addition, strong focal points help direct views and make areas easier to process for the viewer.”

Super small spaces like condo balconies or terraces provide a special set of challenges and tricks. Guthery likes to use pots and planters in colors that complement the interior décor. Whenever possible, he suggests that the flooring also visually flow from the interior as a way of softening the space, helping break up that feeling of sitting on the edge.

“If there is enough room, use large insulated planters so plants have a better chance to survive harsh winters and do not require frequent watering, especially if the owner travels — which with condos is

often the case,” says Ciesielski. “Water features, such as small fountains, also work well to drown out city noise and create a soothing environment.”

Is Nativescaping Really The Best Route? Two Experts Weigh In

Vance Barnes of David J. Frank Landscape Contracting says most clients request plants and shrubs well adapted to our climate. “A lot of people will ask for native plants, but that can be a very restrictive plant palette and you forgo a significant amount of ornamental value when restricted to true natives,” he warns. “Being able to acquire locally sourced material would be great for everyone involved, but it’s not always feasible or available.”

Barnes says there is high demand for trees like oaks and red maple cultivars, and that the American elm is making a comeback. “There are lots of perennial flowers that are descendants of natives, and some are quite nice. Black-eyed Susans, coneflowers, little bluestem grass and switch grasses are all very popular, native and grown locally,” he says. Barnes recommends attending home and garden shows to find out who the local suppliers are.

According to Anne Marie Adams of Ebert’s Greenhouse Village, most retail garden centers grow the annuals and perennials they sell. “Even most of our trees and shrubs are purchased from nurseries in southeastern and northern Wisconsin, depending on what’s available at the time of order,” she says. “But, honestly, most of our customers want what will grow in this area and aren’t really concerned with where it comes from.”
– Guy Fiorita

This story ran in the March 2017 issue of: