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Small Garden Plans

This post is a hard one, because it involves Choices. It involves Elimination. It involves Prioritizing.

I’m pretty bad at these.

But it also involves the art of cramming as much good stuff in one place as possible-I’m good at that.


Doug Baader tulips (and possibly one Lady Esther), Marilyn tulips, and Hawera narcissus are crammed in with hesperis, emerging lilies, and lady’s bedstraw, all backed up to native cedars (and a bit of Scotch broom peeking through top right) on the dooryard path.

Once you’ve worked out what plants you want to be closest to, and which one of those will grow in your designated dooryard (which can be a terrace or kitchen table or some similar place you check into every time you come home), it’s time to work out how many of them you can get in.

That’s where Prioritizing and Elimination come in.

One thing that will help with Elimination is that all the plants you grow in one area (or one container) will need to like the same amount of sun and water, and the same kind of soil. So there are some contestants eliminated right away.

After that, you have to be the judge on the American Idol of plants. Because nobody but you can decide which plants you love and want the very most. Because no matter how big your dooryard is, there’s only so much you can get right by your door. And because if your dooryard consists of a few pots, there’s only so much you can fit in them.

Here’s the good part: you can fit in a lot more plants than you think you can, if you think of your dooryard as a tiny landscape. That means, you think of creepers, middle-range plants, and climbers (or tall skinny plants). If all goes well, these will sink their roots in different levels of the soil, so they can all coexist and thrive. Big bulbs or tubers can be planted below smaller bulbs which in turn can be covered by a small creeping plant which can form a groundcover for bigger plants.

This can be helped along by thinking about what grows when (succession planting). The crocuses will be finished by the time you get any serious growth on your tulips and forget-me-nots, which will hide the dying crocuses. The cool-loving deep-red beet greens will be fading out by the time the heat-craving basil really gets going. And so on.


Campanula medium (single Canterbury bells) intersperses with a wild rose (which has already bloomed) and poison oak (ditto); thyme forms a groundcover for iris (and, later, datura). In the background, Campanula persicifolia alba (white peach-leaved campanula) is a creeping perennial except when it flowers, so you can interplant more glads (or other bulbs). In the far background, cannas (which will bloom later) share a pot with pyracantha, next to Hyperion daylilies(mid- to late-summer bloom), all backed up against native cedars. The empty pot stands for the hope of the future, or the negligence of the present, depending on how you look at it.

Where do you get the information to make those choices? Your local nursery and your gardening neighbors are the very best places, because they know exactly what goes on in your neighborhood. (If you are a new gardener, don’t be shy about asking; most gardeners are happy to share what they’ve learned. Asking up is good for experienced gardeners, too, of course-but most of us have lost that particular kind of shyness.) When you look at a table in a catalogue or a garden book, you can get a general idea of when you can expect plants to come into their own, relative to each other.

But nature isn’t so neatly organized as those tables. A white narcissus may make a beautiful contrast with a deep-purple tulip in one place-and it may bloom a month ahead of that tulip in another. Also, nature, while in its way reliable, is not dependable. A hot short spring will change the timing of when plants come out; as will a cold rainy/snowy one. So even plants grown in the same place year after year will not always bloom (or leaf out, or come to fruition) in exactly the same order.

I like using containers for the dooryard, because they help me cheat on the Choice thing. I can move the smaller ones near when they’re in season-this is one of the ways I deal with my bulbomania. Then, when, let us say, tuilip season is over, I move the containers and their dying foliage somewhere out of the way. By this time, some of the early seedlings and perennials are perking up and moving right along, so I can move them near the door. And so on.


Mid-spring garden outside the door: Invasion tulips, white lunaria, Antique Shades pansies in bloom. Incredibly fragrant deep orange Generaal de Wet tulips lurk in the background. Fragrant plants are ideal for the dooryard.

I do have some basic dooryard plantings that never move. These are native trees and shrubs (and some wildflowers) and large heavy containers stuffed as full of garden plants as they can go. Another time I will write about these large containers and natives and how I tinker with them, but for now I will sign off.

I would be interested in hearing from you: what other ideas about getting more plants in one place do you know of? What combination plantings have worked well for you?

{ 4 comments… add one }

  • Cindy August 6, 2008, 6:53 am

    For years now I have been a huge fan of container gardening. One of the things I love about container gardening is how you can move them around as the seasons change or the mood suits you. I have a few that never get moved such as my Japanese maple and a rose growing in a half barrel. My favorite thing to do when it comes to arranging all my containers is to use various objects such as plant stands or even a turned over pot to stagger the height of all the pots.

  • Pomona Belvedere August 7, 2008, 4:51 am

    I have read about staging containers this way and sometime I intend to do it–more sophisticated than my current methods of using the slant of a hill or the occasional concrete block to change container heights.

    Japanese maple in a container sounds wonderful.

  • Chris Maciel September 8, 2008, 5:25 pm

    I forced tulips in a pot last year and was very happy with the result. I used ‘Princess Irene’ which is beautifully colored; orangy red with purple streaks, not too tall. I want to experiment with other colors and combinations. Tulips in the landscape are hard for us as there are so many deer where we live. I am forced to garden in pots. Velvetty red Coleus with blue Salvia ‘Victoria was a nice combination.
    The red tulips by the doorway-Invasion?-look great.
    Thanks for sharing photos. I will include photos next time.
    Am now working on my bulb order now.

  • Pomona Belvedere September 9, 2008, 9:14 am

    I love ‘Prinses/Princess’ Irene (the spelling seems to depend on the catalogue), she’s a great tulip, and not only fragrant but more perennial than most for me.

    I sympathized about the deer, I’m afflicted with them, too. But I still ordered hundreds of bulbs for next spring…

    Your coleus/salvia combination sounds divine.

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