Russell McCulley Photographed by Cheryl GerberThe Japanese, who know a thing or two about making the most of cramped living conditions, have a word for small-scale gardening: tsuboniwa, or the art of turning a very small courtyard into a sensually appealing space. Tsuboniwa began more than a thousand years ago as a way to adapt the clean, uncluttered aesthetic to courtyards—some smaller than 100 square feet—created by the closely spaced buildings that sprang up in Kyoto and other populous cities.
This is familiar turf for residents of New Orleans, where private outdoor space is often restricted to a shady courtyard, a narrow balcony or a small condominium terrace. Without the benefit (or the burden) of a large yard, local gardeners have developed their own techniques for getting the most bang out of limited space, even we haven’t come up with quite so lyrical a word for it in English.
This French Quarter courtyard is centered by a fountain with baskets of chenille plants and Japanese maples on each side. Flanking raised beds hold a hedge garden (boxwood and compact holly) with Mother Teresa hydrangeas planted for a special event. Bougainvillea arches over carriage opening. French baskets are filled with white impatiens, English ivy and nemesia.
One morning this spring, I tagged along with landscaper Patrick Harper as he made his rounds in the French Quarter. First stop: a townhouse on Chartres Street where Harper maintains an airy courtyard surrounded by high brick walls. “I like working with small spaces in the French Quarter. The courtyards here can be so intimate—you can have these little secret gardens,” he says. This garden’s most prominent feature, other than the gently trickling fountain pressed against one wall, was a large magnolia tree in a far rear corner. That was as good a place as any to start.
Baskets of bacopia flank a pot of selaginella and Irish moss hanging over a corner of “misfit plants” made up of past seasonal pots of amaryllis, primrose, azaleas, begonias and roses.
“Trees, in a small space, can suffocate everything else,” Harper says. “Keeping them trimmed keeps the trees and the courtyard healthy.” In a tight space, it’s important to think vertically. Prune the lower limbs of trees to clear space and to create a nice canopy. “That’s good if you entertain on your courtyard, and it also draws the eye upward,” he says. Harper applied the same technique to a riotously blooming bougainvillea, which created an arch high above the courtyard entrance.
A cherub statue amidst pink salvia, irises and double impatiens.
Righteous Raised Beds and Containers
Containers and raised beds are also important elements in a small garden. Harper likes to include a few tall, permanent plants in beds for year-round greenery and to reserve the lower layer for a palette of colorful plants that can change with the seasons: petunias and other cool-weather flowers in fall, for example, and heat-resistant coleus and salvia for summer gardens. As for containers, Harper suggests two or three large, strategically placed pots with “dramatic” plants for small spaces, rather than many smaller pots, which create a sense of clutter. And he often plants white flowers in small gardens; as with fabrics in a small room, light-colored blooms make the garden appear larger.
Patrick Harper of Patrick B. Harper Garden Design
One Balcony’s Trial and Error
We moved to a second-floor balcony, where hanging baskets held Confederate jasmine and another bougainvillea was in full flower. “Balconies usually get a lot of sun, so you can get more variety,” Harper says. But they tend to dry out quickly, so if you don’t want to be outside watering every day, consider investing in a drip watering system. Even more than in courtyards, space is limited on balconies. Many French Quarter balconies sport baskets that hang on the outside of the rails, creating a bit of privacy without encroaching on typically narrow balconies. Buy strong but lightweight baskets, he says, and be patient: he had to test several different species before he found what grew best on this particular balcony. “It’s trial and error,” he says.
A hanging basket of bacopia, potted mixed plantings of variegated pineapple mint, pincushion flowers, coneflower, agapanthus, rosemary, gara, Maid of New Orleans and variegated citrus.
Changing the Landscape
We ventured a few blocks to a cottage on Ursuline Street, where the back patio had been arranged around a large raised bed, which contained a number of large shrubs and a fountain. Dozens of sprouted caladiums were still in their plastic pots, waiting to be planted. “They’ll be our summer color,” Harper says. Unlike the somewhat austere Chartres Street courtyard, this one had many potted plants, including a kumquat tree, scattered throughout. “The nice thing about pots is that you can move them around,” he says. That’s good for people who like to rearrange furniture often, and also for adapting to shifting seasonal sunlight.
The most important element to avoid when dealing with small spaces, Harper says, are “things that are going to fight for space,” including oversize patio furniture and some species such as wisteria, swordtail ferns and even maidenhair ferns, which can quickly spread out of control. Otherwise, even tight spaces can yield big rewards. “The hardest part is determining what’s going to work with the light you have and the restricted airflow that you sometimes get with courtyards, which can cause things to mold,” he says. “It’s finding corners that get the morning sun, places that get the heat of noon, and finding plants that
fit those environments.”
A balcony near Ursuline Convent is overflowing with pottedConfederate Jasmine and bougainvillea, a hanging basket of petunias andEnglish ivy, baskets of gara, Alabama coleus and impatiens, and abasket of mocha fern.
Savoring Your Small Space
• Keep trees trimmed. Prune the lower limbs as to create a canopy.
• Use two or three large pots in a courtyard, rather than a bunch of smaller ones, which can create a sense of clutter.
• Plant white flowers—light blooms make the gardenappear larger.
• With hanging baskets, you may want to invest in a drip watering system so you are not watering every day.
• Be careful not to buy large-scale items for your courtyard, such as large patio furniture, which will make the space seem smaller.
• Also be careful of what you plant—for example, wisteria and maidenhair fern—as it might take over the whole garden.