Lessons Learned in a Tiny Garden

There’s a space outside our house where I just love to sit and watch. It’s my little back garden. I write about it all the time (I know), but it’s really important.

This little garden space has been a work in progress for 4 years. I know I say that frequently on here, but it’s because it’s true. This is a picture taken the week we moved into the Huffaker House:


Not only was the whole place full of bindweed, it was also full of ill-selected plantings and had a horrible drainage issue. Every time it rained, water would sit at the bottom of that rock wall and we’d trek it into the house. I did my best to clean it up right away, but made some poor choices (why would I use red mulch? Oh, the things I’ve learned).


Over the four summers we’ve lived in the Huffaker House, I’ve made some tough decisions and done a lot of hard labor. I removed almost all of the plants that were originally back there, including the hostas (they were burning up, as you can see in the pic above), the lillies (destroying the rock wall), the monkey grass/liriope (I just hate it), the irises (diseased– it was a sad day), and the large sedum (had a tendency to die in the middle and look like an upside down dead spider). We dug out the soil below the rock wall, even though doing so drastically reduced my gardening space, and put in a French tile and pea gravel for drainage.

(Photo from last summer before I took out the irises.)

This is the year all that work will all pay off. And while I wait (rather impatiently, I might add), I’m thinking of some things I’ve learned from this little garden.

A tiny space can still be a lovely space.

My garden is only about 20′ long and only about 3′ deep, but I love it for all the beautiful moments it gives me. And I don’t mean in time; I mean garden moments like this:

Creeping phlox filling in the spaces in the rock wall.

People decorate their homes in “vignettes” (or so I’m told by house blogs). I like to think of my garden as full of them. I don’t have room for a mass planting (well, I do, but I’d only get one long one and I wanted to have more freedom than that, so I went “cottage,” which is short for “do whatever the hell I want and if it’s messy, it’s because it’s supposed to be that way). This little space is full of lots of varieties, colors, big hunks of stone, and little rocks. I like to find places where a color combo or a plant creeping over a rock just makes me stop and look.

Everything in its time.

A pretty garden takes a long time to develop. I think people who landscape early and then leave it forever miss an opportunity. Just like it takes years to figure out how to live in a house (hello, 3rd bedroom we’ve occupied in 4 years), it takes a while to find the right color, form, and seasonal combos in a garden. And it’s fun to play with things from year to year; you’ll never get bored and the whole thing will be so much more personal when you’re done.

3/24/2016– just a little bit more sunshine and it’s gonna explode!

Don’t try to make a space into something it’s not.

I think the previous owner tried to do this. She liked hostas, so she planted tons of them behind the house. And guess what? They blistered in the sun and looked awful by mid-June. The place gets full sunlight for about 9 hours in the summer; you can’t force plants to grow where the conditions make it impossible. Embrace the fact that you’ve got a sun garden or a shade garden, buy some books, learn what thrives in that spot, and then roll with it! Do I wish I had more shade gardening space? Oh, man, do I. But I don’t here. I’ll work on my little sun garden, and dream about the day I have a corner in a yard where I can grow astilbe and bleeding hearts and columbine and everything else that thrives in the shade. In the meantime, bring on the salvia and Russian sage!


Enjoy it while you can.

This isn’t just about the seasons coming and going each year, though it’s partly about that. It’s also about the time you have on the property as a whole. We won’t live in this house forever, but I’m going to love this garden regardless of when it’s time to leave. I’ll try not to plant things that take 5 years to put on the first bloom, but each spring, I’ll buy things to put in my garden because planning, planting, and tending are all activities that make me happy. When we leave this house, I’ll pass this space on to someone else and hope they love it as much as I do.


Learn from it.

I’ve killed plants. I’ve regretted decisions based on color and spacing. I researched why my tomatoes had blossom end rot and the disease my irises had. This is my first garden, and it has given me some confidence in plant care and garden design. I look forward to the day I have more space, because this little spot has given me lovely ideas and taught me so many things (including, frequently, what not to do).

I’ve also learned to find meaning in little things because of my tiny garden. I have plants back there that came in the mail the day my Grandma Noel passed away. I opened them right after getting the call that she was gone, and it was comforting. I enjoy those plants so much that they’ll come with me to my next spot. She’d be happy to see them growing, and they help me accept her loss.

She’d pick something other than catmint, I think, but it’s my Grandma flower, and I think she’d like that I have one.

Let purpose guide your progress.

Last year, I really concentrated on pollinator-friendly plants. I had bees, butterflies, and even a hummingbird moth flitting from one bloom to the next all summer long, and The Boy loved it. He’d come home and spend hours chasing butterflies through the yard, always coming back to the garden when he lost one to find another. I loved how interested he was in the little creatures living in my garden, and I loved knowing that I was helping an insect population that’s in dire need of pesticide-free food sources. It was the best thing to watch them moving from one flower to another!

Last June.

Those are the lessons I’m letting my garden teach me this spring.

You know the best part? You can find lessons in any hobby or space. For me it’s gardening, but what my garden is really about is building and reflecting. It’s a tiny little spot, but it means so much as I learn from and about it. Do you have something or somewhere like that?