While visiting a girlfriend in Chicago recently, I had the pleasure of enjoying small space gardening at it’s finest. With an urban area roughly 20% smaller than Calgary and a population almost three times as big, gardeners in the Windy City have managed to create stunning displays in virtually any location that sees a touch of daylight: petite yards, patios, window ledges, breezeways, and rooftops, to name a few. The studied simplicity of the hardscaping and the resplendent selection and placement of plant varieties were inspiring.
So how can we Calgarians achieve the same elegance in our outdoor areas? While we may not feel the acute space crunch that our neighbors sharing Lake Michigan do, there are several areas around our homes that can benefit from small space gardening principles. Along with excellent hardscape planning, the most beautiful small space gardens are replete with size-suitable specimen plants that are fascinating in their color, shape, and fragrance. I prefer to draw the eye back and up by arranging taller, lighter-colored plants (i.e. plants with lighter-colored blooms) to the back of the bed and more compact, darker-blooming plants to the front. Try to select plants which can offer more than a single highlight to your garden: i.e. along with interesting foliage, the plant may feature butterfly-attracting blooms, edible parts, flowers suitable for cutting, or winter interest by way of colored bark or berry production. Following are some of my favorites for gardens challenged by space constraints.
“Landscape” Tree – Even the smallest of gardens with ground-level access deserves a tree; properly selected, this tree will add substance and majesty without negating free-flow in the garden. The Snowbird Hawthorn is one of my top picks for a specimen tree in a small space: growing 5-6m (15-18′) tall and 3m (10′) wide, this tree boasts beautiful white blooms in spring, deeply textured bark that provides visual interest all year, a vase-shaped growth habit, incredible drought tolerance, and great overall disease and pest resistance.
Medium-Height Woody Ornamental – While the height of your tree will provide a ceiling for your outdoor room, an attractive mid-sized shrub or two (or three!) will serve as plant “furniture” for the space (not to be confused with actual outdoor furniture such as a bench or chaise lounger that you may want to set in your favorite spot). Along with a dwarf evergreen of some sort (Blue Globe Spruce is a great choice: growing only 1.5m x 2m / 4.5′ x 6′, it provides permanent color in the garden and is tough for our climate), I would recommend a shrub for color and fragrance, such as a rose. Pick from the Explorer series for minimal care: Captain Samuel Holland is a wonderfully fragranced climber (approx. 3m / 6′ tall and 1.5m / 5′ wide) that produces ample, fuchsia-colored flowers with over 20 petals per bloom from June through fall. This shrub will require support, either from a trellis, fence, or another plant (i.e. your landscape tree.) Another winner is Morden Fireglow of the Parkland series: growing 1m x 1m (3′ x 3′), this compact rose features elegant buds and double, deep red blooms atop dark green, glossy foliage. An ideal plant for our climate, it is hardy to –35 degrees Celsius, is extremely disease resistant, and will flower from early June until fall freeze-up.
Ground Cover – No great small-space garden would be complete without a selection of interesting ground cover plants. There are literally hundreds of choices here; for the novice gardener, Clips Bellflower (Campanula carpatica “Clips”) is a terrific selection: only .1m (4-6″) tall and spreading up to .3m (1′) wide, this species forms a compact clump of upturned bell-shaped flowers atop petite, heart-shaped foliage. With a bloom time of over 10 weeks in spring / summer, clips bellflower is available in shades of white and blue; in keeping with small space gardening principles, the dark blue variety is stunning in a constrained area. For those gardeners who are looking for more of a challenge in their endeavors, try Rock Daphne (Daphne cneorum). A broadleaf evergreen, it is generally regarded as a zone 4/5 shrub, but it will over winter in Calgary with diligent care; it grows .3m x .6m (1’x 2′) and prefers moist, well-drained soil. The highlight of this difficult plant is it’s unequalled fragrance; rock daphne will provide your garden and its environs with a fantastic, sweet aroma for 6 weeks in early spring. Blooms are profuse and bright pink.
In all, small space gardening is an up-and-coming pastime in the Calgary area; changing demographics and cityscape require an innovative twist to our traditional prairie gardening. There are several exciting species and varieties of plants to suit your particular needs for this application; a trip to your local garden centre will be sure to get your green thumbs twitching. As I encourage fellow gardeners that come into our store: let your imagination be your guide!