Secrets of a Small Garden

Secrets of a Small Garden

Plant Suggestions, Design Tips, Insider Info


This compact outdoor space is appealing as well as functional, and is full of ideas that can help you bring similar style and practicality to yours.




From layout to decor, permanent hardscape to just-for-the-season horticulture, it's a space to use every day from Spring to Fall—and to enjoy looking at all year.  For another look at this lovely garden, visit www.Good


See more pictures of this garden and over twenty others created by Louis Raymond—including his extraordinary personal gardens—at  The gallery for this "secret garden" is titled "Intimate Dining."  It's on the Small Gems page of RGardening.


And for all the dirt on hundreds of the incredible plants Louis grows himself, visit his plant-lovers' site,, where you'll find the best in uncommon and astonishing horticulture.  To revisit this Secrets-of-a-Small-Garden page, click on the Good Housekeeping link under Louis in the News.



1. Growing a Green Screen


The ivy fence is as handsome and effective a privacy screen in Summer...


gh-0612-wide-ivy-fence-640 it is in Winter.




Here's how to grow your own!

What's the project?

Clothing a chain-link fence in an attractive vine.  I used an extra-hardy cultivar of English ivy, Hedera helix 'Baltic'.  For more options, see "Other plants you might consider" below.

Where to use a green screen in your garden:

An ivy fence could be a handsome way to increase the privacy between you and your neighbor, especially if the fence itself is already in place.  Ivy fences need some pruning on both sides to grow their fullest; will your neighbor be comfortable with your doing that?  Will they do it themselves?  Discuss your project with your neighbor first.  They may be as interested in better screening as you.


Ivy can just as well clothe chain-link fence that's entirely in your own garden.  As I did for the property in the article, you might even install chain link just for the purpose of creating an ivy fence, creating a sculptural shape and configuration.

Conditions ivy likes:

Hedera helix will grow in full sun as well as part- or even half-shade.  It will also establish in deep shade, but growth is slower.


Ivy usually isn't picky about soil, but because you'll want to cover the fence as quickly as possible, help the plants grow eagerly by providing soil that has plenty of organic matter in it.  As you prepare the bed, work in plenty of compost.  If you establish your ivy with the same kind of encouragement and care that you'd establish fine perennials, the ivy will repay your kindness by growing all the more thickly and speedily.


Ivy is picky about drainage.  Mound up the soil in its planting bed so that it's just a bit higher than the surrounding grass or pavement.  Especially in Winter, you want surface water to drain out of the bed, not into it.

What time of year is best to start your green screen?

If your climate is mild, and "Winter" is merely the rainy season not the snow-and-ice season, you could do this project either in Spring or Fall.  If your Winter brings cold temperatures and snow, do the project in Spring.

Getting ready:

Create the planting bed for the ivy, which will be a foot-wide strip of soil the length of the fence.

Is there grass or weeds along the bottom of the fence?  Give the ivy a good start by removing them.  Here are three options:  Quickest: Dig them out.  (The bed is only a foot wide.)  Ready in a week: Zap with an herbicide, which will kill them in only days.  Ready in six weeks: Cover the area to be cleared with folded newspaper (aim for a layer of about six sheets).  Then cover the newspaper thickly with mulch, which holds it in place and looks tidy.  Be sure that the mulch extends out onto the grass (or adjacent paving) an inch or two, as well as right up to the chain link itself.  You want a good "seal" to keep out light.  In six weeks, the weeds and grass beneath the newspaper will have been smothered.


When you've handled any weeds or grass, then cultivate the bed to make the soil loose.  This makes the planting easier, and also helps the new plants' roots penetrate quickly.


You're now ready to plant.


The goal is to establish happy ivy plants, which will grow quickly and branch out readily.  When you plant, don't worry about weaving the stems up into the chain link right away.  Instead, help the ivy stems root into the soil as much as they can, setting the plants almost horizontally and covering much of their stems with a shallow layer of soil.  The stems will send out roots along their entire length—as well as plenty of new stems.  It's that new growth that you'll be encouraging up into the chain link. 


If your plants are small, plant every six inches.  Angle the plants all the same way; it's just fine to overlap the tips of one plant atop the next.  If your plants are larger, you can overlap all the more, or space them more widely. 


Mulch the plants when you're through planting, and then water them.  Water once a week thereafter if rain doesn't do enough watering for you.

Training the first season:

As new shoots emerge from the stems of your plants, weave them upward through the chain link.  Let a stem grow about six inches, and then poke it through to the other side of the fence.  When it grows another six inches, lead it back to the first side—and onward and upward.

Your first Winter:

Ivy plants get hardier as they get older and bigger.  Although you wouldn't want to try to establish an ivy fence if ivy isn't fairly hardy in your climate, you might want to provide a bit of protection for the ivy in the first Winter.  The easiest way is to wait until there have been a few heavy freezes, so the ivy has become dormant, and then cover the planting bed—including the stems you covered with that shallow layer of soil—with a heavy layer of mulch.  It's OK that many of the leaves of the young ivy plants get covered up, too.  In Spring, you won't have to remove the mulch, either:  The ivy will grow up through it.


If you'd like to be extra helpful, spray the new growth that you're weaving up into the chain link with an antidessicant; Wilt-Pruf is one brand that's readily available. 

Training year by year:

In Spring, snip off any leaves or stems that might have gotten damaged in the Winter.  Ivy sends out new leaves and stems readily.  Keep weaving new growth upward until the stems have reached the top of the fence.


As the ivy stems grow upward, they'll also send out new side stems along the way.  You'll probably want to weave those back into the chain link, too, but side-to-side instead of directly upward, so that the fence is clothed more quickly.  In a couple of years, you'll have such thick coverage that you can cut new stems off. 


If your ivy is particularly vigorous, the overall thickness of the growth may become wider than you'd like after several years.  An ivy fence can be just a foot wide, eighteen inches at the most.  If your hedge has become much thicker than that, the next Spring prune off most of the side growth entirely, reducing the width of your ivy fence to less than a foot.  New leaves and shoots will form quickly. 

Other plants to consider:

In climate Zone 6, Winter temperatures where you live can be expected to fall to below zero degrees Fahrenheit.  The foliage of true ivy might routinely become damaged, and the tips of the plant could be winterkilled.  Yes, you could spray with antidessicant every Winter, but why not plant your fence with something that handles your Winter weather on its own?


Instead, consider the happy-to-grow-as-a-vine kinds of evergreen euonymus, such as 'Sarcoxie', 'Emerald Gaiety', or 'Emerald 'n Gold'.  Or native wisteria (Wisteria frustescens 'Amethyst Falls').  All are hardy to Zone 5. Five-leaf akebia (Akebia quinata) and  Boston ivy (Parthenocissus tricuspidata) are hardy to Zone 4.


If Winter temps hardly ever fall into single digits, you're gardening in Zone 7.  Try mild-climate favorites such as Armand clematis (Clematis armandii); true jasmine (Jasminum officinale, especially in its gold-leaved form, 'Fiona Sunrise'); star jasmine (Trachelospermum jasminoides); Carolina jasmine (Gelsemium sempervirens); cross-vine (Bignonia capriolata); sausage vine (Stauntonia hexaphylla); Algerian ivy (Hedera canariensis); Persian ivy (Hedera colchica); kadsura (Kadsura japonica), and passion vine (Passiflora incarnata).  


If Winter temps rarely fall below twenty, you're gardening in Zone 9, where subtropical favorites include creeping fig (Ficus pumila) and wire vine (Muehlenbeckia axillaris).


Ivy is not recommended in some milder climates, such as that of the Pacific Northwest, where it can overtake native habitat.  Check with the local office of the USDA Cooperative Extension Service for suggestions on what vines would be more appropriate where you're gardening.


'Baltic' ivy is available on-line and at retailers.


Ivy cuttings root readily in Spring. 

Native habitat:

Hedera helix is native to Great Britain and Europe. 





2. Fool the Eye

Your garden seems too small?  Make it feel bigger by dividing it up into smaller spaces still.





Here's how!


What's the project?

Making spaces of any size seem larger and more interesting. 


The trick: Divide & Conquer

If you can see to the far corners of your garden from any one spot, your garden is too open.  Why explore what you can see just fine from the get-go?  Spaces that are divided tempt you to stroll around the corner, or to the other side of the bush or, in this case, the ivy fence.  You're rewarded with a different view, and of a part of the garden you might not have realized was there.  The space is more interesting and more fun—and it feels like a bigger experience.  If there's a comfy table and chairs right around that corner, even better!





3. Try a Shady Idea

Not many plants actually require shade, but if shade is what you have, celebrate it.  There are also plants that are undemanding about sun, and you can sample those as well.




The three plants in this picture can be the stars of almost any shade garden.  Clockwise from the top-right:


The leaves of this big-leaved Persian ivy are splashed with gold.  Hedera colchica 'Sulphur Heart' is hardy from Boston to Florida, Zones 6 to 9, and thrives in sun or shade.  Here are pictures and details of its creamy sibling, 'Dentata Variegata'.


The giant gold-leaved hosta is 'Sum and Substance', and for a hosta, it's unusually sun-tolerant.  Hardy from Zones 3 to 8, it puts on such a show with its foliage alone that the spikes of lavender flowers are best cut off.


To its left is a compact version of our native oakleaf hydrangea.  Hydrangea quercifolia 'Pee Wee' is hardy from Zones 5 to 9, and thrives in shady as well as sunny gardens coast-to-coast.   The panicles of flowers are lovely and long-lasting, but even if this bush never flowered, its large and pointy leaves would still make it a garden essential.  In Fall, they turn bright red, too.



Here's how!


What's the project?

Colorful plants that enjoy shade. 


The trick:  

Choose plants first on the basis of their foliage.  Is it colorful?  Does it have an interesting shape or texture?  Does it remain in good condition all season?  Then add just a few plants whose biggest talent is their flowers.  They'll provide seasonal peaks, while the exciting foliage of the rest of the plants ensures that those peaks aren't followed by boring valleys. 






4. Go Easy

While flowers are fabulous, they're often fleeting, too.  Many plants have more than one way to jazz up your garden and, sometimes, flowers are the least of them.  The hosta and the variegated ivy in the picture above are just two of the plants in this garden that are exciting whether or not they ever bloom.


Ghost bramble is another.  The chrome-yellow foliage of Rubus cockburnianus 'Aureus' lasts throughout the warm months.  Here's a look at the ghostly-white canes that this ornamental raspberry displays in Winter, plus all the information you need to grow it. 




Here's how!


What's the project?

Choosing plants that offer more than flowers. 


The trick: Leaves are more powerful than petals!

Hardy plants with showy flowers usually display them for only a week, a few weeks at best.  Sure, there are other plants that bloom later or earlier, but in a compact garden you'll quickly run out of room for them.


Instead, celebrate plants whose foliage is colorful.  They'll provide months of color; if they're evergreen (such as the Persian ivy, above), they'll provide it year-round.  If you include plants with jazzy foliage, the plants that have flowers will only need to do what they do best—sing the high notes—instead of trying to carry the whole tune.






5. Layer in Color


A few container plants can light up an entire garden.  At the entrance to this secret garden, a colorful 'Persian Queen' geranium has chartreuse leaves and hot-pink flowers.  At the nursery, it had been trained up a stake to form a small tree.  It was a splurge, but it couldn't be easier to keep year after year.  Before frost arrives, set it in a cool and bright window—and don't water it again until mid-March!  Then tidy up old leaves, pinch back the stems, and by the time the weather's warm enough to set the geranium "tree" outside again, it will be full of leaves and flowers.  Here are even more pictures and details.


The potted succulent at its feet has the funny name of elephant food.  Portulacaria afra 'Variegata' is a cousin of the jade plant, and enjoys a Summer out on the terrace.  It needs almost no care year-round: watering once every couple of weeks in Summer and, after you bring it indoors before frost and place it in a sunny window, no water at all until March.  Then a  drink every other week, and it's all set for another Summer in the garden.  Here are even more pictures and details, plus the explanation for the name "elephant food."




This grouping of smaller container plants below is also a snap.  Clockwise from the back-right:


The variegated jade plant needs no more care than its dwarf-leaved cousin, elephant food.  Here are even more pictures and details on keeping a happy Crassula ovata 'Variegata'. 


The white geranium is an annual, just coming into a second flush of bloom.


Bottom-center is an unusual potted annual, an ornamental purslane, Portulaca oleraceae.  Its flowers open on sunny days.  Instead of overwintering it, harvest the entire plant—flowers, stems, and leaves—as part of a tangy, crunchy salad.  The plant supplies vitamins A and C, as well as omega-3 fatty acids.


At the left is another potted succulent, this time a crown-of-thorns, Euphorbia millii.  It needs no more care year-round than the jade plant or elephant food.  On sunny days, it opens new flowers that, in this cultivar, are creamy yellow instead of the usual (and attractive) brick red.


The dwarf hibiscus was a colorful as well as economical find at the local big-box retailer.  it blooms as long as the weather's warm, and was inexpensive enough to add to the compost heap after frost.





Here's how!


What's the project?

Container plants with season-long performance. 


The trick: Annuals are only part of the possibilities!

Some plants normally grown as houseplants are terrific performers outdoors in the warm months.  Water them every other week, unless the rain does it for you.  Going away for a few days—even a few weeks?  Potted succulents don't need attention in your absence.  They need even less care on the windowsill over the Winter:  Bright light, and no water.  My favorites are jade plant, elephant food, and crown of thorns. 





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