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Too Little, Too Late?
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Too Little, Too Late?



Many watershapers have a single-minded focus, doing all they can to deliver quality shells and surrounding decks to their clients. Quite often, however, that narrow focus means that inadequate space is left for planting – a problem I face quite often as a landshaper.

It’s clear in many cases that no thought at all was given to the landscape – and certain that no design professional was consulted before laying out and installing the hardscape. The result all too often is that there simply isn’t enough room to allow for good-size planter beds.

I often find myself rolling my eyes and lamenting the missed opportunities to

use certain plants or even to install ones big enough to make a visual statement. It’s obvious to me that these situations could easily have been prevented by better planning and communication: Sometimes there will be no option to cramped planting spaces, but in the majority of cases I’ve seen, it’s simply that the possibilities were never even considered.

That’s a pity, but it’s something I and other designers have learned to live with. Somehow, we manage to make things work.


More often than not, what’s happening in these cases is that the homeowner expects the contractor to accommodate (or even do) all the landscaping work, including planting design, only to find that the contractor really doesn’t know all that much about plants. At that point, whoever is brought in is left with unusual planting spaces but still needs to meet the homeowner’s desires.

Panic is never in order. True, we can’t plant 24-inch boxes in 12-inch-wide spaces, but that’s no reason to surrender. Instead, it’s time to think creatively, and I always start by coming up with a list of options from which to choose.

Let’s take a situation in which the contractor has built a concrete patio that leaves only 12 inches between the new deck and the foundation of the house. This is a case where a small tree would do a great job of softening up the façade, but there are a number of other approaches you can take with these vertical spaces.

With only that small gap, however, tree choices are truly limited. In these situations, I develop a list of those grown in five-gallon containers, because I know that’s about all that will fit. Many trees start out this small, of course, but some nurseries don’t stock them and you need to find out about availability before you commit yourself to anything with your client. (As a rule, I keep my thoughts to myself until I’ve worked through the possibilities completely, as sometimes clients get stuck on something that just won’t work.)

In my area, Weeping Birches (Betula pendula) are widely available and may be a good choice for this sort of application. Using that tree for illustration, I would next consider whether there’s enough space for the roots to spread out in the gap and under the decking so that the tree will be fed adequately – or if the tree will suffer because its feeder roots can’t access water and nutrients. In some cases, this isn’t a problem, but the tree must be one that is hardy, noninvasive and adaptable to minimal space or I’ll keep looking for other candidates.

Of course, containers are always an option when we’re faced with these difficult situations. Here, I take my cues from roof gardens, where there is no ground-level planting space at all and well-placed containers are just the ticket for defining spaces and giving them a sense of dimension and flow. Containers, however, are a substantial topic on their own and will be dealt with at another time.


Next, I’d consider vertically-oriented plants and shrubs that will grow to a specific height against the wall. On the average eight-foot exterior wall, the plants I choose will either define a good balance between the plant material and open wall space (five-foot-tall plants under three feet of wall space) – or leave a big blank with two or three feet of plants under five or six feet of wall space.

If it’s the former condition, you wouldn’t need to do anything more: It may not be what you’d hoped for, but the balance created between the plant material and the wall may be enough to satisfy your client. And you might be able to cinch the deal by suggesting that the wall should be painted to contrast the plants’ color to create more visual interest.

In cases in which the chosen plants stay low and leave a big, blank wall, there are lots of ways to fill the space. Placing artwork on the wall, for example, will easily fill the void – and in a highly interesting way. There are so many choices available these days of art pieces that withstand the elements.

I spend a good bit of time looking at these possibilities at statuary yards or garden centers, and I’ve also seen projects in which incredible compositions in art tile or mosaics have completely transformed outdoor spaces.

You can even consider placing an interesting piece of stone to reach up into that space. I’ve recently been intrigued by a marble called Rainforest that would, all on its own, make an excellent choice for a piece of flat artwork against a blank exterior wall. A single slab with either a chiseled or polished edge would not only pick up contours seen in nature, but it would also tie into colors and textures occurring in most garden settings.

If nothing seems to make the client happy, I will often suggest increasing the size of the planter by removing some of the hardscape. Most often, this inspires such horror (especially if the deck is brand-new) that the owner will cooperate in development of less-destructive options. In cases in which the client is going to be forever unhappy, however, this may be the best option.

And of course, these planter-space problems often happen away from the house and over at the equipment pad, where the watershaper leaves me that same 12-inch planter space pinioned between the pad and the decking. The walls in front of pool equipment are generally quite imposing, so the challenge is to find a solution that minimizes their visual presence.


I faced this exact situation recently, and removing hardscape was simply not an option. The client hated the wall and still wanted it completely covered, so I planted Creeping Fig to create a green wall that blended into the planting behind the pool equipment in a way that still left most of the narrow space available for other plants.

This, by the way, is the client I’ve mentioned in a couple of recent columns who wanted the all-white garden – a plan that severely limited my plant options, particularly in this small space. Happily, we had enough room to plant Iceberg Roses, Bacopa and White Agapanthus (all client favorites) in a way that set off their white blooms against the green backdrop. This pulled the visual focus away from the wall and took as much advantage of the planting space as possible within the strict parameters of the design.

I have to admit I’m not totally satisfied with the outcome, but since all the plants are small, if we need to replant or add other selections for interest, we haven’t created a situation where the client has spent too much money to want to change things.

Another circumstance I’ve faced has to do with an interior atrium. The house completely surrounds this space, which has a waterwall on the east end opposite a large picture window. The north and south walls have sliders flanking the water wall, and there’s a partial picture window on the south wall.

The space is approximately ten feet wide, with about 18 feet between the waterwall and the opposite window. Under that window and up either side, terminating at the sliders, is a planter that’s about (you guessed it) 12 inches wide. Removing any hardscape wasn’t an option: The client wanted to preserve the area for parties and as a place to sit without having to deal with water or plants.

On the west and south walls, I was limited in the height of the plants I could use, as the windows were only 18 inches above the finished floor. This meant I didn’t want any plants that would grow taller than about two-and-a-half feet here, so my palette was limited to small, upright varieties. I selected Juncus, a rigid grass that grows to about the maximum height I wanted. On the north wall, I wanted a little more height, so I chose Kangaroo Paws. This plant has tall flower stalks that reach up into the vertical space.

I’ve recommended to the client that she consider some artwork on the wall above the Kangaroo Paws, as the space serves as the main view out of the dining room and needs a focal point. The blooms will be delicate enough to complement the right artwork without competing with it.


The point here is, we can’t always control the environments in which we’re asked to work. As always, I believe that the greatest tool at our disposal is the ability to communicate effectively with clients and other professionals. Beyond that, we need to fend for ourselves and think creatively.

It never hurts, naturally, to have a few reliable tricks up your sleeve when it comes to solving the problems that come with undersized planting spaces. These approaches can turn unpleasant challenges into visually happy solutions – and make your clients smile at the same time.

Stephanie Rose wrote her Natural Companions column for WaterShapes for eight years and also served as editor of LandShapes magazine. She may be reached at [email protected].

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