Big Ideas for Using Color in Small Spaces

So much color, so many ideas, so little time! That’s the Northwest Flower and Garden Show in a nutshell. Thank goodness for my camera because that’s how I can look back on special visual highlights to glean ideas for my own garden and share some of my favorites with you. In this post I’m focusing on some of the details from the City Living displays that caught me eye. These displays are created within an 12′ x 6′ footprint and intended to represent a typical city size balcony or condo patio, showing that a small space doesn’t mean compromising on style.

If you enjoyed my last post on Fearless Design – secrets for using bold color in the garden but wondered how those ideas could be translated to even smaller spaces, this post is for you

Crayola Colors


Vibrant scarlet and golden-yellow tulips set the theme for the garden called “Seattle Style

Camden Gardens won the award for Best Design in the City Living Displays this year and I can understand why.  A border of glossy, golden yellow containers framed the space and brought instant sunshine to this petite grey Seattle patio. These were planted with a simple repeating combination of chartreuse conifers, vibrant red and gold tulips, yellow begonias and bi-color primroses.


Award winning display “Seattle Style”  by Camden Gardens

Clusters of tall, white, circular containers were the perfect counterpoint to the linear display while one single bronze vessel with unique geometric lines took the container display from well done to exceptional. The red and yellow color scheme was continued in all the containers – except a single bronze one, which included blue flowering accents.

A unique bronze container added blue grape hyacinths (Muscari) as an accent color

A unique bronze container added blue grape hyacinths (Muscari) as an accent color

I also loved the use of a sculptural piece of driftwood inserted into one of the tall containers, its organic shape acting as a  frame for several colorful glass balls while also introducing the juxtaposition of a natural element within the man-made.

All the finishing touches were pulled together with an artistic eye for both repetition and contrast. It’s a perfect oasis for an Seattle couple – and their pampered pup, as this patio includes a comfy dog bed and water bowl for the furry family member too.

Color for Cocktail Gardens

Dee Montpetit is no stranger to the Northwest Flower and Garden Show, and her display this year, “A Botanical Soiree” had all her usual hallmarks of  great use of color, interesting container combinations, and attention to detail.


“A Botanical Soiree” designed by Dee Montpetit


The silver chairs, table, and buffet had an airiness to their design, the transparency enhancing the sense of space on the small patio.


A wall-hung, mosaic framed mirror reflects the taller plantings opposite, suggesting a much larger garden space.

Turquoise is the key color, featured in containers, a tall bubbling fountain, the mosaic mirror frame, and soft furnishings. Being used on different elements throughout the patio, the eye  moves from one splash of blue to the next – a key design trick to create a sense of cohesion but also making a small space seem larger.

Silver reflects light, and grey Seattle days  – and evenings – need all the help they can get, so it was a wise use of color for the furniture while matte black containers anchor the design.


Great use of space: oval pots and light-wrapped tree branches

Against one wall, in place of a traditional screen or fence Dee wrapped tiny LED lights around cut birch branches. I’m seriously going to copy that idea somewhere!! Can you imaging the tiny twinkles of light at night?

Notice her use of oval containers too – they take up a smaller footprint than round or square pots so are ideal where space is at a premium yet can still be planted with trees, shrubs, perennials, succulents and bulbs – all top-dressed with sparkly blue glass pebbles.

Charming color and plant combinations

Charming color and plant combinations

A restrained color palette of silver, blue, and pink  doesn’t translate to boring when Dee is let loose! I loved her intriguing textures and unique combinations that included fragrant lavender and hyacinths, with spring daffodils and primroses all nestled within a gorgeous foliage tapestry of astelia, spurge, cushion bush (Calocephalus brownii), succulents and more.

Spring isn't spring without hellebores

Spring isn’t spring without hellebores and fragrant sweetbox.

Dee chose colors for the container plantings that would work well after dark as well as being beautiful during the day . White, pale pink, and soft lavender all glow softly at dusk, which together with the twinkling lights and silver elements ensure this patio is ready for any soiree.

Final Shout Out

I have to commend Grace Hensley for this fun detail in her City Living  garden. You KNOW you want to copy this idea. If you have kids, grandkids – or are a child at heart, don’t you want to tell the story of the little mouse who lives behind the teeny tiny black door…..

Design by Grace Hensley

Design by Grace Hensley


Are you ready for spring now?

More Ideas

If you want more ideas for designing for small spaces check out Susan Morrison’s latest book The Less is More Garden, You can also read my review here.


The Less is More Garden – Book Review & Giveaway.

I recently asked a group of gardening friends, if they could change anything about their garden, what would it be. The first – of many comments read ” Make it bigger, much bigger! So many plants, so little space…”


A common lament,  yet having a modest sized garden does not mean compromising on function, style, or beauty. Designer, author and friend Susan Morrison makes this abundantly clear in her inspiring new book “The Less is More Garden – big ideas for designing your small yard” (Timber Press, 2018). She explains the less is more philosophy as one where there is

  • Less space, more enjoyment
  • Less effort, more beauty
  • Less maintenance, more relaxation
  • Less gardening-by-the-numbers, more YOU

If you are looking for doable, practical ways to make the most of your garden you need this book. With superb photography to illustrate her points, Susan begins by walking the reader through a series of important considerations to help them determine how much space – and budget to allocate for key design components, with suggestions on how to accommodate a family’s needs as children grow up, or strike a balance between creating an intimate space for two homeowners who occasionally need to host a much larger event outdoors. But that is just the start.

The Magic of Illusion

Tantalizing glimpses into the space beyond these green walls creates the illusion of greater depth while a calming, monochromatic color scheme allows the tapestry of layered textures to shine. Photo credit: Doreen Wynja

With suggestions for ways to include disappearing paths, maximizing the diagonal sight line, incorporating permeable walls (what I the call scrim effect), borrowed views, and artistic ways to use mirrors, this book offers a magicians hat worth of illusory tricks to make a small space  appear larger.

Lawn or Not?

Have you been considering what your options might be if you remove the lawn? Need to get a sense of what your garden would look like without one? Susan has you covered with ideas for strolling gardens , ecological lawn mixtures (no-mow grass alternatives) and an array of groundcovers – all beautifully photographed to help you decide.

Design Ideas To Copy


Susan’s personal garden retreat – a curvaceous wall breaks up the corridor effect and helps to create distinct spaces.

I especially like the section on Design Templates where Susan has used a mix of photographs and sketches to show how she transformed her own narrow backyard into an intimate jewel box garden with a capped, serpentine sitting wall, a bubbling fountain, multiple sitting areas and a bounty of colorful plants that bring fragrance and texture to the patio.


A clever linear patio design brings plantings up close while also organizing the footprint. Photo credit: Saxon Holt.

Another design in this section that really appealed to me was the one above where contemporary geometric lines have been softened with a bounty of foliage and flowers. Breaking up an expanse of patio with promontories of plants is an ingenious way to create unique garden rooms separated by low hedges without enclosing the spaces fully.

Signature Style


Artist Keeyla Meadows is known for her bold use of color both in her artwork and her garden.

If you are concerned that with so little space there won’t be room to personalize the garden to reflect YOU, the chapter “A sense of Place, Regardless of Space” should allay such fears, as Susan takes you on a tour of several very individual gardens including that of artist Keeyla Meadows shown above.

Less Maintenance

Susan and I are in total sync with this, which is interesting considering that we design in different states using different plants. Just goes to show you that the principles we use to design your low maintenance gardens are solid. Her book provides tips on selecting plants that are lower maintenance, tips for redefining what a four season garden means in a smaller space, and oodles of photos to get you thinking about your own garden plants in a new way. (And if you’re interested in knowing more about selecting lower maintenance plants be sure you sign up to receive my newsletter as I’ll be inviting subscribers to enjoy my new mini online course on that very subject – at a special introductory price!).

Enter to win your copy!


This is so good I’d recommend it to professional designers as well as homeowners – we all need fresh inspiration and this book has that in abundance. In fact I’d put “The Less is More Garden” right up there with Julie Moir Messervey’s classic “Outside the Not So Big House” (Taunton Press, 2006), a book I constantly reach for.

If you can’t wait any longer you can order your copy of The Less is More Garden here.

If you’d like to be entered to win a copy just leave a comment below telling me why you need this book! The winner will be drawn using a random number generator at 9pm PST, Tuesday January 30th

The boring small print.

The winner will have 48 hours to respond to my email notifying them that they are the winner. After that I will draw another winner.

Comments left on social media posts will not count.

Comments must appear in the comment thread (not on images) to be included in the drawing.

Entries limited to USA and Canada 


BONUS! Meet Susan at the Northwest Flower & Garden Show next month! Details here.

Disclaimer: This post contains some affiliate links

The winning name has now been drawn and the person notified – thank you to everyone who took part!

Pathway Transitions: Designer Details

Every garden needs pathways for navigation. Whether it is a means to get from the driveway to the front door, a short stretch from the back door to the garbage cans or a meandering trek through an abundantly planted border, each pathway has a distinctive role. That role in turn determines the paths width and the material it is likely to be made from: frequently traveled routes being wider and offering a reliably firm footing while a narrow woodland path may be just a 2-foot wide strip of mulch.

What fascinates me as a designer is the place at which paths intersect, change direction or change in function: what we refer to as transitions, which in turn become exciting design opportunities.

A Transition to a More Intimate Space

A visit to the Japanese Garden in Portland last week offered several wonderful examples of how to execute such transitions.


A transition created by an archway, beyond which the path becomes narrower and more intricate – Portland Japanese Garden

In the photo above, a simple archway invites the visitor to linger briefly under its protective roof. Underfoot the previously linear footpath (in the foreground) becomes a mosaic of both the rectilinear slabs  and some newly introduced, random flagstone. Beyond this stone carpet the pathway continues on the same axis but is now narrower and the incorporation of flagstone continues, creating a more intricate pattern. This suggests to the visitor that care must be taken, they are entering a more intimate space and that taking slower steps would be wise. Yet this transition is smooth. There is no jarring change of materials, rather the incorporation of just one additional element and a change in dimensions. Assisting in creating a sense of unity, a narrow border of black stones held in place by interlocking tiles flanks one side of each section. drawing the eye through the entire space.

This marvelous yet simple attention to detail creates a change in atmosphere and therefore the visitor’s experience.

Frierson residence, Atlanta, GA

Frierson residence, Atlanta, GA

The private garden shown above demonstrates the same principles but using different materials. Here the visitor is invited to leave the primary herringbone brick pathway and walk up two, transitional grassy steps into a much narrower space. The bricks in this smaller path are laid in a running bond pattern so while the material suggests continuity the design details are unique.

How can you use this idea in your own garden?

Can you widen the path into more of a carpet under an archway to make it a stronger transition? Or create a patio space within the path as in the example below:

The original flagstone path has been intersected by a grey cobble patio, the pattern and change of material emphasizing the new function in this transitional space. Read the full story here.

The original flagstone path has been intersected by a grey cobble patio, the pattern and change of material emphasizing the new function in this transitional space. Read the full story here.

Can you adjust the width of the path before/beyond a transition point?

A Transition at the Top of Steps


A flagstone landing at the top of a flight of steps – Portland Japanese Garden

Landings at the top of a flight of steps offer an opportunity for creativity. This is a space where we adjust our stride and reach for the handrail as we head down, or stop to collect our breath when we reach the top! Either way, this is a location where we might pause for just a moment or two longer than usual. In the photo above, the designers switched from concrete paths edged with rectangular stone slabs to a flagstone motif on the landing.

How can you use this idea in your own garden?

What about installing a mosaic detail on a landing?

Conlon residence, Pasadena, CA

Conlon residence, Pasadena, CA

Dunn residence, Atlanta, GA

Dunn residence, Atlanta, GA

A perhaps a special tile?

Better Homes & Gardens test garden, Des Moines, IA

Better Homes & Gardens test garden, Des Moines, IA

Share your ideas in the comments below or on my Facebook page – I’d love to see what you do!

Small Garden Re-Imagined: Buffalo Style

Do you like garden tours?

I try to go to a few local ones each year, but this summer I had the opportunity to attend what can only be described as a garden tour on steroidsGarden Walk Buffalo. More than 400 private and public gardens in Buffalo, NY are open for self guided tours – FREE  – to the public, each July. Each garden is different – some are whimsical, some appear to be a set borrowed from Hollywood, others feature native plants, but all are creative, and the open arms concept is encouraging a greater  sense of pride in this community.

While I didn’t manage to see all 400 gardens I did visit 15, along with 350 or so of my friends attending the Garden Writer’s Association symposium- and this was one of my favorites. If I was giving awards this would receive the award for Best Design as it makes such wonderful use of a small lot, adding function while reducing maintenance, and significantly increasing the home’s value.

Front Garden

The yellow signs welcome visitors from across the country - this is an event you NEED to go to!

The yellow signs welcome visitors from across the country – this is an event you NEED to go to! Garden Walk Buffalo

A peek at the neighbor’s garden to the right will help you understand the ‘before‘ – a postage stamp sized lawn, concrete path to the steps and a driveway. Possibly a shrub or two.

This is a stunning transformation that makes the space look much larger, has oodles of curb appeal, enhances the home and creates a usable space. It was designed by Joe Han, The English Gardener.

The raised, block planter enables the homeowner to have year-round color (boxwood) and structure. No more soil washing off into the street – the slope is managed beautifully by the retaining wall which doubles as casual seating thanks to the capstone.

IMG_5749 A central urn invites seasonal drama, while being surrounded by perennials that cope with Buffalo’s harsh winters. The clipped boxwood hedge gives a sense of order and an important connection to the strong rectilinear architecture of the home and the medallion detail on the portico.


Each corner of the planter is filled with sweetly fragrant alyssum backed by silver foliage. How often have you heard me remind you of the importance of foliage?!


Tucked into a shady corner a simple fountain brings the element of sound to this delightful patio, also enjoyed and appreciated from the front porch.

IMG_5744 A dark charcoal border around the lighter grey patio emphasizes and defines the unique shape, making the space seem even larger than it really is.

Planted window boxes and urns add the finishing touch, their color scheme connecting to the larger raised planter while adding drama to the dark porch railings and wide staircase.

As you can imagine, I was excited to see the back garden and wondered how the designer and homeowner had made use of that space….

Back Garden


As anticipated, it was stunning both in its simplicity and in its details. Remarkably it was designed by the homeowners themselves, Don McCall and Jeff Lach.

Window boxes on the second story take the garden up high, the color scheme repeating that of the front and back landscapes. Notice how the two units read as one – they are mirror images of one another.

A small lawn suggests a calming space, bordered by billowing, white peegee hydrangeas and grasses, while a hibiscus introduces the lavender accent note. A small deck next to the home is just one sitting area of three, however.


At the back of the lot is this charming dining space, the clean-lined furnishings echoing the contemporary aesthetic of the overall design. Overhead ambient lighting is possible thanks to a convenient branch. There was another seating nook opposite (where I was standing to take the photograph). The only trouble with garden tours is PEOPLE! Yes, there were folks sitting in the seating area – of course – so it didn’t seem right to take a photo.


While there are flowers in this garden, it is primarily a textural foliage feast – my kind of space. I loved this monochromatic dance between the weeping pine and hosta.


This different angle helps you see the sliver of lawn, narrow gravel pathway and wonderful addition of a Japanese maple. Truly this garden is a jewel.


Every detail was considered – love the repetition of these three simple pots on the dining table.

Garden tours are a great way to get ideas for your own garden. Which ones have you been on this year?

Email Newsletter icon, E-mail Newsletter icon, Email List icon, E-mail List icon

Using a Signature Color


While the shallow orange container may be the star in this vignette, it gains impact from being framed visually by the similarly colored Rheingold arborvitae in the foreground.

The display gardens from the 2017 Northwest Flower & Garden Show may be dismantled but the memories and design inspiration will feed my creative soul for years to come thanks to photographs .

As I reviewed my images this morning I was struck once again how several designers had used orange as a signature color.

A signature color is a thematic statement, something that is repeated in different ways throughout a space to create a sense of unity. Used too often it can be jarring, using it too little and the intent is lost.


My front garden uses blue as its thematic statement, softened and highlighted by plenty of white or silver foliage and flowers. (Glass art by Jesse Kelly)

In my own 5 acre garden I have two signature colors in different areas: blue and orange. Blue predominates in the front garden as it ties to the color of the front door. I use it in the foliage of blue-toned conifers, blue flowers, gorgeous containers and glass art, all  framed with shades of green, white and silver.

One of two large, glossy orange containers that I use to set the theme in my large island border, echoed by orange blooming crocosmia

In my back garden is the ‘island border’, measuring 150′ x 50′ and anchored at one end by a cabin (just glimpsed in the earlier photograph). A strolling path through this large border invites exploration. Here my signature color is orange, established by bold glossy containers and re-enforced by the emerging foliage of spirea, Flasher daylilies and other details.

Not surprisingly, therefore, I was drawn to several show gardens that also used orange as the signature color.

1. Mochiwa mochiya—Rice Cake, Rice Cake Maker

Garden Creator: Jefferson Sustainable Landscaping


The color orange is artfully placed throughout this display garden to move the eye from front to back and side to side

This remarkable, gold-award winning garden celebrates a fusion of cultures. The scene above highlights the eastern influence with a low dining table, granite spheres and an understated plant selection that focuses on foliage and texture over flowers or a rainbow of colors. The judicious placement of orange containers, cushions and foliage moves the eye through the space.


From the custom color on the grill to slender  containers – orange makes a memorable statement against the charcoal grey

Luxurious appliances and high-end finishes are sure to satisfy the western aesthetic and taste buds! Who wouldn’t want to be the chef in this outdoor kitchen? Vivid orange hues are the perfect counterpoint to matte grey pavers and stonework while also visually connecting the dining experience.

2. Pizzeria | Decumani

Garden Creator: Adam Gorski Landscapes, Inc.


An inexpensive way to use a signature color is with colorful, seasonal annuals such as these primroses

Neapolitan pizza is known for its simplicity, with just a  few, quality ingredients used in its  preparation. Likewise this outdoor ‘pizza garden’ relies on simplicity of materials and restraint in color to create an inviting space reminiscent of an Italian courtyard.

Worried that your signature color of today might not be your signature color of tomorrow? This garden shows you how to be creative with color on a tight budget,

Notice that all the key furniture, containers and cabinets are in neutral tones. The bold color  comes from inexpensive flowers, specifically orange primroses and ranunculus.


Incorporating the annuals into the borders as well as containers strengthens the idea

The same flowers have been tucked under more permanent foliage plants in the border for a sense of unity. These could be replaced by orange begonias in summer and pumpkins in fall.


Placing an over-sized container, abundantly planted using the signature color at a  corner of the patio is an easy idea to copy.

This is a perfect way to try a new color without long term commitment

3. Mid-Mod-Mad…it’s Cocktail Hour!

Garden Creator: Father Nature Landscapes Inc.


Orange cushions in a variety of fabrics and textures inject a jolt of color onto this bluestone patio

Designer Sue Goetz was the mastermind behind this award-winning display garden. A stunning “less is more” garden with an updated mid-century design, it embraces simplistic plant choices and strong  geometry of hardscaping made popular in the 1950’s and 60’s (and making a big comeback today).

While the orange cushions are the obvious ‘color pop’, this signature color is repeated in many other, more subtle details.


Notice how the cedar trim at the end of this water wall, and the copper spouts all play into the ‘orange’ family

Wood tones also read ‘orange’ in the right setting as can be seen by the cedar on this water wall and the outdoor bar. Rusty metal or weathered copper have a similar understated orange tone.

Orange hair grass (Carex testacea) is used for the meadow planting, the orange-tipped, olive-green blades a perfect choice.


It’s all about the details – orange stools, soft furnishings, decor accents – and the trumpets of the Jetfire narcissus all say ORANGE

While the all yellow Tete a Tete narcissus are the obvious choice for a spring garden display, Sue selected Jet Fire because of its orange trumpet to tie in with the theme. Some additional inexpensive accents such as napkins, place mats and cut flowers complete the scene.

What is your signature color?

Email Newsletter icon, E-mail Newsletter icon, Email List icon, E-mail List icon