Author: Andrea Knight, Master Gardeners of Ottawa-Carleton

My husband and I have owned our home in Ottawa for over twenty years, giving me lots of time to learn and practice gardening in small spaces.

My backyard garden is an L-shaped area around our deck (west facing), and my front garden is a rectangle that I have been slowly increasing over time by removing grass (east facing). Together, these spaces represent approximately 172 square meters of growing area. Having a relatively small space and so many wonderful plant choices these days, gardening is a very big challenge!

I also find it practically impossible to consider removing plants that are thriving in order to make space for new plants, so my available space continues to grow smaller. However, Mother Nature gives me opportunities when plants are winter-killed or die due to other reasons.

My garden has certainly made me more creative over time as I try to maximize my small space. I am happy to share a few ideas that I have learned that have worked particularly well for me.

Layers: Build Change and Character

In the beginning, when we were settling into our home and learning about the property, I was focused on finding plants that had longer bloom times or were repeat bloomers. I was convinced that this was the best way to use my limited space. After reading a number of gardening articles and listening to Ed Lawrence on CBC, I came to realize that I could approach a particular space with layers of plants. This would increase sustained bloom times and also build change and character into my garden space.

Creating Plant Lists

I started with research on the types of plants that grow and bloom in various seasons. I made a list of plants, starting with those that bloom in early spring. It continued all the way to late fall. Next, I split the list between sun and shade plants. Once I had some interesting collections identified, I was ready to experiment with different combinations and see which plants worked well with each other.

Plants For Sunny Areas

For small areas with sun, I really enjoy the combination of crocus, hyacinth (Hyacinthus orientalis), tulip (Tulipa spp.), hardy geranium (Geranium bohemicum), shrub rose, rudbeckia (Rudbeckia hirta), and fall aster (Symphyotrichum laeve). With this combination of plants, you can have blooms from the end of March to October. The varieties in my garden also use a colour theme of purple, white, and yellow. I also have some shrub roses, such as Morden’s Centennial (Rosa ‘Morden’s Centennial’), which bloom from June to frost.

Another great combination that I have established in my backyard uses violets (Viola spp.), tulips, irises (Iris spp.), mountain cornflowers (Centaurea montana), bell flowers (Campanula spp.), peonies (Paeonia officinalis), evening primroses (Oenothera biennis), the shrub rose ‘Morden Centennial’, hardy geraniums again, a number of varieties of daylilies (Hemerocallis hybrids), and purple coneflowers (Echinacea spp.). The different species create a great palette of colour that starts in the early spring and lasts through to the end of September.

Plants For Shady Areas

For small spaces in the shade, I have had luck with a combination of lenten rose (Helleborus orientalis), primula (Primula vulgaris), lungwort (Pulmonaria officinalis), bleeding heart (Lamprocapnos spectabilis), columbine (Aquilegia caerulea), hardy geranium again, Japanese painted fern (Athyrium niponicum), hydrangea (Hydrangea macrophylla ‘Endless Summer’), astilbe (Astilbe spp.), and stonecrop (Sedum spp.).

Note: I do not mention hostas. I like the challenge of finding other plants that will bring shape and colour to shaded spaces. I continue to explore what works in the shade, including toad lilies (Tricyrtis spp.), meadow rue (Thalictrum spp.), and violets (Viola spp.).

Let’s Get Vertical

My next idea had a fair amount of success by using vertical spaces to increase the number of plants and the visual impact of my garden. In the backyard, I found a number of spaces along my fence where clematis (Clematis spp.) thrived. I currently have three different types, all with different bloom times and colours: Jackmanii (Clematis x jackmanii), Clematis Boulevard® Edda™ and Clematis Boulevard® Yuan™.

I am also using a trellis against the house to support a climbing Explorer rose (Rosa ‘John Davis’), which is now over 4 meters high. Our neighbours like it too, so we have added a trellis between the two houses. The rose is now making its way over, creating a beautiful canopy as you enter our backyards.

At the front of the house, I planted a giant lily (Lilium spp.) several years ago. It sends up 15-20 stalks that are covered in large, fragrant blossoms in mid-to-late July. They can grow up to 2 meters tall, so other plants can flourish nicely at lower levels.

Hanging Baskets

Another way to leverage vertical spaces is to add hanging baskets or suspended garden boxes. I have six hanging baskets in my front and back yards this summer. The front ones are attached to the house. Those in the backyard are attached to posts that support our deck. I have considered adding more along the fence in the back, but for now it is just an idea that I have not yet implemented. I also have a number of containers that sit on the steps and the deck in the backyard.

I am now focused on identifying and using native and pollinator plants whenever a space becomes available. After twenty years, I am spending more time pruning things back or giving away volunteer plants to others. For me, small garden spaces continue to generate big ideas.

Tip: August is the Time to Stop Feeding Roses.

It is time to stop feeding roses to reduce new growth and allow the stems to harden off before winter. Continue deadheading to keep the rose flowering, cutting at the second or third leaf node from the top of the stem. Stop deadheading if you wish to allow hips to form. Remove any fallen leaves or twigs that may harbour fungi or disease. On grafted roses, look for growth coming from below the graft (often has seven leaves or thornier stems) and remove at origin

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