Classic charm keeps this New England coastal small garden in constant form. Hidden surprises, private spots, and plantings reveal the space with each step down the garden path.
Over a 30-year period, Basil and Carol Brown have been tinkering with their charming Cape Elizabeth, Maine, garden to create an illusion of grandeur on a ¼-acre lot. Understanding how they planned to use the garden, and how they wanted to travel through it, led to the design.
With careful placement of design elements—an arbor, pergola, fences, and seating—the Browns were able to add depth to their garden. Each element served a purpose beyond the intended use. Fences became a backdrop for a plant collection; arbors became doors into a garden room; seating became a focal point. With each addition, small garden rooms were created. Multiplying the space by dividing the garden into discrete areas also extended the home and provided a larger feel. Here, the wood-chip path widens out to make room for the three Adirondack chairs and a low stone table. The use of color adds a touch of whimsy.
A wide path funneling from the woodland garden into the Browns’ lower fenced-in area begins to narrow at the entrance of the 5-foot double-wide gate, framing the gardens and what lies beyond.
Working with a strong understanding of scale, the Browns were able to layer plantings in such a way as to give their garden even more depth. Evergreen conifers and deciduous maples, in various shades of green, bring dimension and year-round interest. Larger trees along the perimeter of the property provide rhythm to keep the eye moving through the small space. The layering had another benefit: encouraging birds to make Arborside Cottage their home, too. Sitting on their back covered deck, the Browns enjoy the garden and all it attracts, any time of the year.
The walkway from the road to the house is partially covered with a long, green pergola, bringing dimension to the narrow space approaching the front of the home.
Layers of trees, shrubs, annuals and perennials in a variety of heights create the impression of a larger space.
Inserting personal touches in the garden, as the Browns did here with whimsical pink flamingos, puts a stamp on the landscape and reveals a bit of the owners’ personalities.
Similar beds alongside the entrance path offer a touch of formality and strengthen the scale of the house. The color green, echoed throughout the garden, creates consistency. A dwarf Alberta spruce partially obscures the pea-stone path and hides what surprise lies beyond. Flowers spill along the walkway, softening the edges and beckoning you in.
A gift of driftwood pieces is used to create a tabletop arrangement and adds a regional touch to this seaside garden.
Fences surround the property and tie the home and garden together. Planting a garden in the foreground of the fence turns a functional structure into something fun. The fence helps to frame the view of the small garden and, with the addition of specimen plants and accents, to punctuate the background.
Understanding rhythm, scale, and balance will put your garden in the right focus. In design, rhythm refers to the appearance of motion created through the arrangement of landscape elements. The rhythm will lead you to where you want to go. Scale serves to help rhythm along. A towering tree next to a single-story home would dwarf the structure and can create an uncomfortable feeling.
Balance in design is about equality. It is achieved when elements are carefully arranged to produce the same visual weight on both sides of a center point.
A container filled with coleus, Euphorbia ‘Diamond Frost’, and New Guinea impatiens and a carved granite birdbath add lovely design elements to a patio or deck.
Pretty plantings of single-petaled yellow dahlias are mixed with white garden phlox and snapdragons, pink zinnia, and Salvia ‘Victoria Blue’, turning the fence into a folly.
Cool colors of blue, purple, and green, like those in this pale blue garden phlox, absorb more light than they reflect, making them smart selections in small garden spaces.
Details in a small garden give one a cause to pause. Here, whimsical shovel handles are used as an architectural detail at the arbor entrance.
Pale accents have a similar result as cool-colored plants. The lighter the color, the better suited they are to a small garden. The addition of a watering can and a fun antique mushroom accent gives the visitor details to be discovered.
Adding flat accents, like this framed sunflower, creates the illusion of depth on a vertical surface.
The Asian lantern begs the eye to rest; after a pause, the eye wants to follow the rhythm through the green to meet the fence in the background.
A hanging lantern and wind chime add a see-through design effect, adding some balance between the gate and the fence.
Basil and Carol Brown, owners of Taming the Wild Gardening Services, share these tips:
Let your garden evolve over time. Don’t let your beds become static. To keep things fresh, we edit a different garden area each year.
In the absence of an irrigation system, water infrequently but deeply, so the water finds its way to the roots.
Shop your garden for new plants by dividing and transplanting when necessary. This keeps the garden interesting and adds a different dimension to the scene.
Let actions determine where to place paths. Cut across the lawn enough times to smell the roses, and you will begin to see where a path should go. Our dog’s daily romps helped us define our woodland garden paths.
© Caruth Studio