Design your own retreat with ideas from a small rooftop garden, a contemporary courtyard and a modern oasis
Much like creating a lean closet, designing a successful small garden is primarily about editing. In a limited area, each element should add to the overall style and feeling of the garden. Whether you’re starting from scratch on your outdoor space or updating an existing garden, the dozens of decisions of what to add and what to leave out can feel overwhelming without a plan.
For a more focused approach, consider this three-part recipe for putting together a stylish garden that will feel entirely your own. Then we’ll look at a few gardens that put it into practice with inspiring results.
Growsgreen Landscape Design, original photo on Houzz
1. Space. First, define your top priorities for the use of the space. For example, this could be creating an area for entertaining friends or a private retreat. In a small yard, you may not have room to include all the elements you’d like, but defining the primary use will help put the bones in place for the garden design.
This San Francisco backyard is designed for entertaining. Landscape designer Beth Mullins took advantage of gradient changes to create multiple areas for hanging out and gathering around a table for an outdoor meal.
Laara Copley-Smith Garden & Landscape Design, original photo on Houzz
2. Mood. Next, define a mood by choosing two or three words that describe how you’d like to feel in the garden. These could be words like peaceful and serene or playful and energized. As you begin to design your garden, include only the elements that resonate with your mood words.
For example, this courtyard garden in central London feels like a tranquil retreat from the noise and rush of the city. Garden elements and accessories are kept to a minimum, and each adds to the Zen-like atmosphere.
Jarret Interior Design, original photo on Houzz
3. Color palette. Finally, establish a color palette to act as a guide for all plants, furniture and hardscape materials. Selecting a palette can be particularly useful in small gardens, where swaths of a few hues, instead of a spotty mix of colors, can help make the space feel larger.
In this small backyard in Brooklyn, New York, the designer stuck to a sunny color palette of green, white, gray and yellow, which flows from the terrace to the outdoor lounge.
Now let’s see these concepts in practice. Each garden has a different mood and color palette, but they are all inspired designs.
Margot Hartford Photography, original photo on Houzz
Space: Outdoor living room
Mood: Curious, inviting
Color palette: Green, cobalt, pewter, navy, turquoise, gold
With the addition of an outdoor sofa, recycled bench seating and plenty of potted plants, what would otherwise be an unused industrial roof terrace becomes a beautiful outdoor living room for this studio apartment in San Francisco. Designer-author Baylor Chapman’s use of recycled objects as planters and seating gives her garden personality.
The plants fall in a color palette of greens and golden yellow, while the containers are silver, natural wood and rust-colored. The lemon-yellow rosettes of Aeonium ‘Sunburst’ pick up the color of trailing nasturtium blossoms and the tips of golden Leucadendron leaves. The planters are on wheels for easy rooftop rearranging.
Outdoor Establishments, original photo on Houzz
Space: Outdoor kitchen and lounge
Mood: Relaxed, private
Color palette: Gray, gold, green, blue marble, cinnamon
In Sydney, outdoor space can be enjoyed year-round, thanks to the mild coastal climate and ample sunshine. This stylish courtyard takes advantage of the climate, and encourages indoor-outdoor living with a full outdoor kitchen and fire pit lounge.
For the outdoor lounge, the designer chose plants, building materials and furniture within a sophisticated color palette of gray, green, gold, black and warm brown. Deciduous trees and recycled wood fencing provide a privacy screen from neighboring houses to give the courtyard a cozy, intimate feeling.
An overhang extending from the house keeps the kitchen out of the elements. Its cinnamon-colored wood coordinates with the dining table and fencing for a cohesive look.
Scot Eckley, Inc., original photo on Houzz
Space: Outdoor dining and fireplace
Mood: Calming, serene
Color palette: Mahogany, green, charcoal, purple, lime
This elevated deck outside a Seattle home packs style and versatility. Designer Scot Eckley was able to carve out space for an outdoor dining room, grill, fireplace and lounge, all surrounded by lush foliage, to create this contemporary oasis.
The clean lines of the decking and modern outdoor dining table add to the space’s calm and contemporary feel. Charcoal-colored containers at the back of the deck burst with lush plantings in chartreuse and deep purple. Bright green papyrus and purple Tradescantia fill the waist-high black planters at left.
All elements of the outdoor lounge and fireplace are in keeping with the garden’s color palette of mahogany, gray, purple and green.