Small-garden ideas from Thomas Rainer


Boy, when you reveal your garden here on the web, you’d better be prepared for feedback – the honest stuff, not for the thin-skinned.  That’s what I got after I posted photos of my new back yard, via comment and email, and I’m sharing some of the suggestions because they’re so damn good.

Thomas Rainer is a DC-area landscape architect whose blog and design ideas I’ve raved about, so I naturally picked his brain for ideas, and got ’em.  First, he said he loved my porch and terrace, and some of my preliminary additions to the garden – the Abelia, Cryptomeria, Viburnums, which he predicts will “all age with grace.”

Then he got to the meat of his advice, which is nothing like the New American Garden-style sweeps and masses of plants that I’d been attempting for years in my former garden.

“You have a relatively small garden (small spaces are the BEST places to garden), so that means the design strategies should address that context. The goal in small space gardens is to create the feeling of depth and expansiveness. One way you can do that is by creating the appearance of layers of plants. I know I preach a lot about massing plants (and you should still mass in a small garden), but the main thing to focus on is creating CONTRAST between small groupings of plants. In a small space, every plant counts, so each plant mass (or single shrubs) should strongly contrast in texture, foliage color, and form (structure) with the plant next to it. A blue conifer next to a spiky purple Eucomis next to a golden cascading Hakone grass. Exaggerate differences between plants to exaggerate the effect of layering. A richly layered garden gives the eye many places to rest and creates the illusion of volume, depth, and richness–even in tiny spaces.”

He counsels discipline:  “Don’t bring a plant into that garden unless it has a striking form (spiky, billowing, vertical spire), strong foliage color (blues/golds/purples, etc), or a long season of blooms (2 month minimum). In a small space, each plant must earn its keep. Expect more, get the perfect cultivar, and continue to adjust. Imagine the plant in your garden in black and white. Does it still read? Does it still contrast from its neighbor?

“I’m having a problem with this very thing in my border right now. I chose a bunch of aggressive perennials last spring just to fill in bare mulch (never intending them to be permanent) and now it’s just one big green blob. Most of the plants are finely textured filler perennials. Everything bleeds together.”

Thomas’s more specific suggestions for my space includes these:

–  Pick a theme for your palette. Choose colors, textures, or a mood for the garden. Only pick plants that reinforce the theme.

Arrange plants in clumps, not rows. Linear arrangements in small spaces flatten the feeling of depth. Roundness is better.

Invest in a few legacy pots. I’m still saving for mine. Save $500 for a gorgeous brown or blue urn. Create a focal point with it. Notice how these pots are key design elements in Mosaic Garden’s work.

Then he refers me to two great sources of inspiration, both of whom agreed to let me include their photos in this post.

Mosaic Gardens:  This is a design firm in Eugene, Oregon, a husband and wife team Thomas calls his “horticultural idols of the moment.”  In their portfolio, “every plant strongly contrasts with the plant next to it. They use foliage color for drama, but the real source of their beauty is that the form of each plant is different. Spiky verticals punctuate a corner, mounding conifers anchor a path, statuesque spurges spill over a wall.  And notice the scale of the massings. Each plant is PACKED IN (they have to thin later), but even in their smallest moment, there is at least 3-5 plants in a mass.”

And Nancy Ondra, whom Thomas calls the “queen of plant combinations.”  “Nancy has a large garden, but every moment in her borders are designed like she has a little jeweled courtyard. She uses foliage color to get contrast and even uses quite a bit of what I call “landscape” annuals (as opposed to bedding annuals).   Use tropical annnuals like cannas, bulbs like gladiolas, fillers like Verbena bonariensis or Emilia javanica.”  Nan’s written a whole book about Foliage, and her inspiration-filled website is called Hayefield.

Thanks to Thomas for his awesome ideas and letting me share them here!  But there’s more – his list of plants that “could work well aesthetically in your garden.”

Picea pungens ‘Globosa’, Dwarf Blue Spruce–evergreen, great form, blue color year round

Ligularia dentata ‘Britt Marie Crawford’–Great purplish foliage, likes sun and wet feet.

Corylus avellana ‘Red Majestic’–A great background shrub for texture and color

Physocarpus opulifolius ‘Diablo’–Black Ninebark. Another background/screening shrub. Stunning color.

Hakonechloa macra ‘Aureola’–You have to have some variegated Hakone Grass under your Japanese maple. Get a tray of 32 or 54, place them 12-18″ o.c. and plant them straight up to the trunk of that tree.

Spiraea thunbergii ‘Ogon’, Ogon Spiraea–Gold foliage and feathery texture is a wonderful addition to any small garden.

Euphorbia ‘Ascot Rainbow’ or ‘Rudolph’–Take advantage of some of the great new cultivars of spurges. I added Ascot Rainbow to mine and I love it. Mine is in a shady spot under a tree, but I think Rudolph

Persicaria polymorpha, Giant Fleece Flower–A big perennial, but blooms most of the summer. Place 3 of them in a spot with decent sun (perhaps by your hydrangeas)

Heuchera villosa ‘Frosted Violet’–My favorite purple Coral Bell. Clump in groups of 5.

Brunnera ‘Jack Frost’–for low shady areas. Mass in groups of 6-12.

Iris pallida ‘Variegata’–Need some spiky plants for interest.

Eucomis ‘Sparkling Burgundy’ –Plant this as a bulb and get purple, Phormium-like spikes.

Penstemon digitalis ‘Dark Towers’–A great native, love the foliage color.

Then for color, add annuals (Verbena bonariensis, and bulbs (hardy lilies, poeticus daffodils, species tulips, even a few Canna Pink Sunburst–they blend with a surprising number of plants).

Think about some columnar spires–they really add structure to the garden. Hicksii Yew (shear it into an evergreen pencil). I even like the ubiquitous Emerald Green arborvitae dropped into richly layered herbaceous plantings. They really pop. Or a Juniperus ‘Skyrocket’ One of these would work well to screen your neighbor’s shed. Place another one along the back of the property for screening.


  1. And the path makes each garden pic.

    Hmm, also seeing the same pics in February. Not quite as interesting. But, differently interesting. Change thru the seasons as Providence provides.

    Love the idea of Legacy spots.

    Gardening is all about contrasts. Small green leaves next to huge burgundy leaves. See it at 70mph?

    Garden & Be Well, XO Tara

  2. Sure, pick a set of pictures from a garden in Eugene Oregon to throw in our faces. I don’t want to cast stones at the marvel that Mosaic Gardens has produced, but, really, a monkey without thumbs could grow great plants in that region. Great garden design is easier when most of your plant choices survive!

    • It is so funny to me the envy that people have for Oregon! I am from Oregon and gardened there for most of my life- and I am here to tell you that plants (different plants mind you) grow great anywhere you have met their particular needs. In Central California we have success with many of the same plants as Oregon (mostly because our garden center is obsessed with plants from “woodsy” Oregon) by giving them a rich soil and plenty of water! Of course it is more appropriate to grow more arid loving plants here that need less- and you can create the same feeling here without all the overcast skies of Oregon. My question is this: why don’t we celebrate the wonderful “Quality of Light” right where we are?? The California Floristic Provence is gorgeous indeed!

      • I know–and I had to modify all the tools for my thumbless gardening monkeys, too!! 🙂
        But really, three-fifths of Oregon is high desert, so be careful with the broad strokes. And even in Eugene, there are all kinds of problems–too much moisture at the wrong times, no sun, rots, molds fungi, powdery mildew…and the never-ending weeds! Every clime has it’s nemeses I guess.

    • I’m amazed that you think gardening is so easy in Eugene! We have dense clay soil, herds of roaming urban deer, and fir canopy creating dense shade. I have been to Rebecca and Thomas’s own garden as well as a couple they have designed, and they have really met challenges in each one.

  3. The advice sounds good, but I fear harder to follow for those of us who just want to have fun with plants, lots of different plants, when we garden.

  4. “Hakonechloa macra ‘Aureola’–You have to have some variegated Hakone Grass under your Japanese maple. Get a tray of 32 or 54, place them 12-18″ o.c. and plant them straight up to the trunk of that tree.”

    That sounds like an awful lot of Haakone for the space. Love the stuff, but it does spread ( in a very controlled way). I

  5. Thank you for this post! I enjoyed all of the design tips, especially the Thomas Rainer suggestions. The front yard design by Mosaic is incredible. Can someone PLEASE tell me where I can buy that urn???

  6. Wonderful post, and I love the pictures. Great tip about achieving layering by providing strong contrast between small groups of plants! And thanks for the long list of great plant suggestions! I find Hakonechloa runs pretty expensive, so I can’t imagine paying for “a tray of 32 or 54” even if I could find that. Must be a garden designer wholesale thing.

  7. This just in from the high desert that is 70% of Oregon. We too envy Eugene – not the clouds and rain, but that clay soil — hey, at least it holds moisture, unlike our pure sand — and moisture. Not really, but I agree that every climate has its pros and cons. Here we love our sun and dry air that precludes much in the way of mildew or rot, but wish we had a longer growing season. I’m going to reread this post carefully, and look up the selections made by your professional commenters. I would fantasize about having the Eugenians come over and help with my garden, but plant material wouldn’t be familiar to them. I’m on my own with my huge dry shade and sun front yard. Back to the mulch and sprinklers.

  8. Great advice from Thomas, thank you Susan for sharing. I think getting plants and flowers of contrasting colours is the most important piece of advice, you don’t want a small garden of just 3 similar colours otherwise it’ll be boring. Tall, bold and round flowers in a small garden would look beautiful and would be a lovely place to have a cup of tea if you have enough room for a little table and a few chairs.

  9. I love how Mr. Rainer emphasizes the importance of chosing proper plants, especially in a small garden. “In a small space, each plant must earn its keep” lol i just loved that.

  10. Great advice from the wise Mr. Rainer. Thanks for sharing it. I look forward to seeing how your garden comes together with some of his suggestions, Susan.

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