Little Garden PathMeditations on Coopting Miniature Gardening Techniques to Any Finite Space


We have a large house on a small property, yet have been attempting to create "woodland path" gardens that are more of an "enveloping" experience than just standing in a narrow yard looking at rows of plants. I don't plan out these gardens overmuch as I dislike too obvious an artifice, but I am always "building" the gardens with the eye toward an environment that gives a larger impression.

Miniature gardening is often thought of as a Japanese art. In Japan very few people can afford a gardening space even as large as the average American homeowner, yet a high percentage of the population gardens anyway. The goal of Japanese small gardening is to create naturalistic settings that do not look artificial though in fact the artifice is sweeping; & to give an impression of distances & depths where there is in reality neither. So I've pondered many methods of Japanese miniature gardeners even while having no intention of creating a Japanese garden per se.

Arrangement of plants to give the impression of distance is just one borrowing from among the many "tricks of perspective" achieved by Japanese miniature gardening. It may seem to require a high degree of careful planning beforehand, but really it's more on the nature of having a vision of what the gardening space can be built toward, a vision framed in a pictorial philosophy that can be achieved quickly or slowly as the gardener chooses, & for which each plant addition is judged & pondered before settled upon, but which does not require rigid foreknowledge of the specific outcome. A garden is a growing, constantly changing environment, & there is generally no real "completion." Ideally it is every single day simultaneously finished & in progress.

If you have some type of plant in the forground that is famous for being tiny but you have selected the largest of that small plant, & in the far rear you select a tree that is famous for being gigantic but you select a dwarf form — that is just the most obvious example of the sort of planning-for-persepective that can give the optical illusion of depth. Upward & downward sloping can have the same effect of a "foothills" texture, as can arrangement of angle of path or interrupted path, to make a "trail" through a garden appear to diminish into the distance.

Everything should be kept in scale. If you weaken & buy one large thing planning to use it as an anchor for many small things, you might end up with a little garden that looks like a little garden with one big thing in it. So plan for scale. This is why so many dwarf varieties of just about anything you like exist!

This is not to say you're stuck with dwarves only; the "front" of the garden can create an illusion of largeness by being very tall, though it would have to be of narrow weepers or trees somewhat columnar that won't get too wide for the space or grow so big as to endanger a house. Or a tall tree that creates of naturally arboring overhead branches can provide the "see-through" vistas & the sense of "standing within." What you see through or stand beneath is not necessarily part of the "vista" itself but is a frame for the vista, & such frames provide ample opportunity to include even in a miniature garden something of considerable size. Hence in our own little gardens we break the "keep in scale" rule in that we have a few large things that enclose the areas & give the impression of gardened glens or of a canopied understory. So "rules" of miniature gardening are made to break, but you must know the rules you're breaking, & always keep the "vision" of a created environment in mind.

Instead of selecting "anchor plants" as in western gardening, your first thing to select is a focal point, & "build" your garden toward that focal point.

Use of ornament is another trick. These have to be minimal to avoid clutter & it can be difficult if unpracticed to select effectively & tastefully. But done right, ornament adds to a sense of distance. By "ornament" this could mean a covered "viewing station" that looks like an open-fronted house or vine-shrouded arbor. In reality only large enough to seat two on a rainy day, but worked into the "focal point" in such a manner as to seem like a temple. Or the "ornament" most common is the Japanese lantern, which contrary to expectation should not be too small. True miniatures just look like toys cast on a spot & will quickly vanish amidst plants, but a substantial lantern or rainbarrel are large ceramic "forest bowl" or other stone or wooden monument raising out of well-positioned plants can make everything look larger (within reason; something really too large for the setting will dominate & make everything else look smaller; so while it should not be something tiny it should still seem "shrunk" by the type of plants that embrace it).

Or "ornament" can be most easily & beautifully nothing but a careful grouping of rocks, typically one tall & narrow, one flat, & one round, providing evidence of a mountain toward the focal point, including a small well formed tree (such as a tortured weeping birch or twisted ancient-looking little conifer) that will look huge if well-placed on a raised area within the context of the rock "mountain."

Whichever type ornament is selected to heighten the given illusion, it can usually be only one. There is not ordinarily sufficient room for the mountain and the pool and the lighthouse or lantern and the teahouse/temple viewing station. A second item is possible especially if (like rocks) they are so natural as to not seem like ornament at all, or if the additional ornaments are on the order of arbors or a pergola that raises the garden layering upward.

None of this is to imply miniature furniture however; nothing screws up a garden worse than miniature furniture, unless to delight a child. It's gotta fit the adults' asses for maximum comfort. Since the beginning of your viewing point farthest from the "vanishing point" should feel substantial, a beautiful wooden normal sized seating can be strategically located for appearance & comfort & to add to the sense that you are seated either midway or at one end of a garden that grows smaller only in the distance.

It is also important to think "layers" & "upward." Walls with the assitance of trellises or mouinted containers become gardens too. Or the ground with raised tiers, or an "extra wall" of trellising material, & with well-positioned arbors. The ground area will not seem to fill up so quickly if you're also thinking of the space above.

Layering also means environments within environments. The Miniature Rockery is like a mountain slope, a distinct environment unto itself, but it slopes down to underneath a vine maple which is large enough to form a natural arbor entryway to the larger but still small garden as a whole. Another corner consists of a rainbarrel which is slowly being covered up by a Moonlight Vine, next to a red twig dogwood, with an understory of groundcovers. This blends into the akebia arbor so that it is simultaneousy its own contained environment, & part of the entryway to the shade corridor shown at the top of this page.

Generic instructions for planting always seem to say "plant a bazillion inches apart" but in fact many things if chosen correctly can be virtually on top of one another. Hardy cyclamens can grow right up the base of taller plants & do great in the shade. Clematis can climb up & through bushes that serve as their trellises, causing the bushes no harm (though not all vines are harmless in that use). Instructions for container gardening that encourage overlap can give you cues for your 25 by 25 foot "container" or courtyard-sized area. Knowing good techniqes for keeping soil enriched & properly fertilized permits plants considerable crowding.

Then again, on the other hand, crowding & layering is not the only way to approach it. Some Japanese gardens do it just that way & most American or British small gardening crowds & overlaps, but the purely Zen method is minimalist & creates illusions of vastness by planting very little. I would choose intricacy instead of the simplicity of Zen because I greedily want lots of plants, but I admire those who can be so extremely restrained that ever so few as two things well positioned does everything required to produce the sensation of a panaormic environment.

Your primary "viewing station" would probably be your actual porch or back door, whatever is closest to the garden, which will serve as the equivalent of a Japanese "tatami room" which can be opened to face the garden without entering it. But if the primary viewing station is elsewhere — at a gate entry or whatever — figure out that location first or you won't be able to select the correct focal point & horizon.

The zen method requires restraint, including color restraint, & color restraint is useful to bear in mind even for a "busy" miniature garden. If you feel you have plenty of green & white & now want to add purple & red & yellow & polkadot, you will end up chopping up the space with colors that make a small space look smaller. By comparison, a startling color in the foreground, fading to white in the back portion, is one of the tricks that gives the illusion of misty distances. Unless selecting a difficult flowerscape with lots of annuals because that's your personal ideal, it is easiest if one thinks primarily in terms of green, with only a few color elements shifting through the seasons as some things cease blooming & others begin. But with a limited pallet (with only an occasional "crack" of extreme color for startling contrast) — if, for example, nearly everything blooms white — it makes every small section of the garden spill into the next section color-wise, so that every segment appears broader rather than haulting & broken up by trying to crowd in too much color information for the mind. In short: avoid the garish, which shrinks a garden.

As colors should be restrained, so should be species. You can't have just everything, but having many of a "type" can provide a simultaneous sense of variety & cohesion. Though that should not be overdone either, as there should be enough change of plant type in the layering that it never looks like one mass, but should to some extent give the impression of being several interlacing gardens in one, with components defined by slope or terracing or paths or stone walls.

"Motion" gives a garden a sense of largeness. This can be motion of water if your "ornament" factor is a waterfall. It can be an artificial stream. Or it can merely be reliance on wind. Slender weepers or containered bamboos rustle in the lightest breeze. Plants with wind-catching leaves atop wiry stems dance in tiny breezes, as with inside-out-flowers or epimediums. Birds add motion in a garden, & if you've a good garden, birds will want to be in it. Even beneficial insects — pollinators such as bees & butterflies, or orb spiders building their tidy webs, or released ladybugs & praying mantises — all provide life & motion.

Do put in some reading-time in a couple of the scores of books about Japanese small gardening & ponder the philosophy of naturalness & flow. If you have access to an experimental college with a Japanese gardening course, that will help. Don't assume you have to make it look Japanese though; adapt the techniques to whatever kind of garden you dream of: bog & pond garden, woodland path garden, rocky hillside garden, British floral, desert austerity... You can't do everything so choose your ideal & stick to that choice, making no snap purchases of things in no way apt to fulfil the ideal. Read also books about patio container gardening, knowing that those ideas you can expand upon in your suddenly large-seeming space (compared to the container). There are book on rooftop or courtyard gardening that will give you concentrations of ideas you can adapt.


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