Gardens don’t have to be grand to be beautiful. They don’t have to be large enough to require a riding lawn mower to be interesting. Naturally, we all admire the spacious gardens with their huge swathes of color and well thought out designs. Gardens filled with hundreds of yellow pansies, white impatiens or red geraniums are spectacular. They are attention grabbing and impressive from a distance and overwhelming at midrange. These larger gardens require an incredible amount of planning and sometimes a degree in math just to figure out how many plants are needed to fill the huge spaces. They have their place and they have their challenges.
Gardening at this scale inevitably leads to “buying by the flat”, a phrase that makes nurserymen and growers positively glow. It takes a lot of plants to pull off this grand garden scale. The English call this mass planting, “bedding out”, which translates to “lots of flowers in one big space”. The look is contrived, colorful and oh, so tidy. This kind of garden makes a huge impact and a real statement. But then again…if you look closely at even large-scale gardens, you’ll find a few little spaces that “accidentally” sweeten up the grand “bedding out” bits. It’s always the details that make a garden special.
Tiny garden areas in tight spaces add the charm. They soften and personalize what would otherwise be a bit industrial. Finding “sweet spots” and adding some personality to an otherwise wonderfully adequate garden scheme is worth the effort and the results are “icing”.
Every garden, no matter what the size, has plenty of nooks and crannies to fill. Sometimes it’s the cracks in the pavement or the crevices in the rocks. Sometimes it’s a little corner by the recycle bin or a small space in a favorite container. Attention to detail in the little forgotten areas make the ordinary extraordinary. Small spaces filled with the tiniest leaves and flowers can be the most memorable part of the garden.
“Little Gardening” is the next “big” thing. “Little Gardening” focuses on growth patterns and textures for really small spaces. This shouldn’t be confused with the art of bonsai. Bonsai is restricting growth of trees and shrubs to keep them small. Without trimming, root pruning and confining them in containers, most bonsai plants will reach normal size. “Little Gardening” plants will stay small.
Rock garden and alpine plants are made for “little gardening”. They are perfec for tiny spaces since they grow naturally in very tight spaces with very little soil. Locally, Rick Lupp from Mount Tahoma Nursery, Graham, has a good selection of rock garden plants. Rick ships his plants and speaks at rock garden seminars worldwide. www.backyardgardener.com/mttahoma/tahoma.
Cracks and crevices in brick pavers or flagstones are the ultimate in tiny gardening. Brick pavers and flagstones have spaces that attract moss and weeds, an amazing feat since you wouldn’t think anything could grow in such a small space. The truth is… the green looks good and softens the blank slate of a patio. Instead of spraying to eliminate the weeds, why not plant something that grows well, looks good and doesn’t need much care. There are plenty of small plants that can be tucked in the cracks and crevices of a patio hardscape. Check some of your local nurseries for “Stepables” a unique plant line from a company called Underafoot from Salem, Oregon. They specialize In groundcover and plants that take foot traffic. WWW.Stepables.com.
Some of the best smaller sized plants for cracks and crevices are the thymes. Some thymes will remain less than two inches tall, perfect for brick, rock and flagstone crevices. Thyme’s tiny blooms range from white to pink and purple but it’s their small foliage that gives the softening effect. Thymes require very little water, are shallow rooted and easy to find. The tiniest thyme is Elfin Thyme, Thymus praecox arcticus, ‘Elfin’. It’s perfect for the absolute smallest areas. Elfin Thyme is a very slow evergreen with dark pink flowers and grows 1 to 2 inches tall in full sun. Creeping Thyme or Mother of Thyme ,T. serphyllum, is another great paving plant. If you have lots of crevices that need green attention, this thyme is both economical and easy to grow since it can be grown from seed. Caraway thyme, T. herba barona, is a fast growing, groundcover thyme not suitable for crevices in flagstones but it’s fantastic if you want to tuck it in rock wall. Its rose pink flowers bloom early. Caraway thyme is one of the few fragrant ornamental thymes and smells exactly like caraway. You can even substitute the leaves for caraway seed in cooking. Plant it with later blooming lavender/pink flowering, coconut thyme, T. pulegiodes coccineus, for a succession of tiny flowering blooms. Both reach a height of only 4 inches. You can find the thymes in both the herb and groundcover sections of your local nursery. Rick Lupp, Mt Tahoma Nursery, also likes planting T. polytrichus, ‘Pink Chintz’ and T. ‘Doretta Klaber’ in flagstones.
Thyme isn’t the only thing that works. Several other plants can be tucked into the flagstone/brick layout, including Veronica oltensis (Thyme-leaf speedwell,; Dianthus microlepsis (a diminutive carnation), Edraianthus serphyllifolius (a tiny white flowered Erigeron), and Saxifraga cochlearis ‘Minor’. These will be a little more difficult to find but they’re worth the search.
It’s good to know that dwarf does not mean miniature when you start looking for “little gardening” plants. Dwarf just means relatively smaller than the common variety. For instance, a dwarf fruit tree can be 15 feet tall.
Scaling down, downsizing, minimalizing…whatever you want to call it, even gardeners are moving away from the “bigger is better” and “more isn’t enough” attitude. All of the gardening you can do in a large area can easily be replicated in small space. You just have to choose appropriate plants. If you like the “working” part of gardening you can still dig in the dirt with maximum enjoyment. It’s a matter of degrees. Scale down the tools, scale down the space. Small can be beautiful. Since we seem to be going from Hummers to Mini Coopers on the highway, it only makes sense to go from grand views to focused attention in our gardens