Lessons from a tiny garden

It measures just 600 square feet, but this garden is filled with ideas

Sharon Cohoon

A typical backyard in a new housing development is about the same size and shape as a two-car garage. And it generally receives about as much attention. Most of us look out our patio doors, see the slabs of concrete and the few yards of dirt, and shut the shades again, quickly. These uninspiring little rectangles don't exactly resonate with possibility for us.

Landscape designer Phil Snow saw things differently. When he looked at the backyard of his El Cajon, California, condo, he saw more than a roofless garage. He pictured an outdoor living room about to happen, a microenvironment with a dynamic water feature, multiple conversation areas, and tons of tropical ambience. Then he fit it all into a 600-square-foot space.

Every small garden should have a water feature, insists Snow. Tiny gardens need focal points even more than larger ones, since they have no sweeping vistas. If your water feature is going to be a pond, chalk out various shapes until you come up with one you like. Then try to find a prefabricated polyvinyl chloride (PVC) pond liner in approximately the same shape--as Snow did in his own yard--or use PVC sheeting to form it.

Take special care with the finishing touches. Camouflage pond edges with rock or split flagstone, and use plant foliage to blur boundaries. "You want the pond to look at home, not like it was just plopped down," says Snow.

Once the water feature is in place, most of the remaining area will be people space. "A few seating areas and a walkway between them is about all you'll have room for," Snow says. In his yard, Mexican terra-cotta tiles, covering the original concrete slab, define one conversation area. Stone benches topped with flagstone, reached via a semicircular path, form a second. The curve of the path encourages visitors to venture farther into the garden. So does the see-through lattice fence and gate at the rear of the property, with their implication of more beyond.

Since the spaces remaining for plants tended to be shallow, Snow put in lots of vines--bougainvillea, violet trumpet vine, Carolina jessamine, and, in the shade, Boston ivy--and espaliered a pink powder puff and a red hibiscus against the walls. Then he balanced all the tropical heat with the verdure of palms and split-leaf philodendron.

"This little backyard has turned out to be a wonderful living space," says Snow's wife, Carolyn.

What it cost

Koi pond (including PVC pond liner, pump, filter, coping, and electrical supplies, but excluding fish)


Terra-cotta tile to cover concrete slab (including mastic and grouting), $2.50 a square foot, 64 square feet


Flagstone walkway (flagstones over compacted decomposed granite)


Stone benches (flagstone tops, stone facing)


Irrigation system (automatic)


Lighting (seven low-voltage fixtures plus transformer




Total material costs (labor provided by owner)