Small Space Garden, Big Impact
This Washington, D.C., garden proves that a focused color scheme and thoughtfully chosen plants are the solutions to maximizing small-space potential.
Washington D.C. Garden Renovation
When Loi Thai and Tom Troeschel bought their D.C. home in 2008, they immediately began renovating the interior—but not the landscape. "We wanted the garden to complement and extend the views from inside," says Loi. With two streets and a service alley bordering their property, screening for privacy topped their list of goals. At the same time, they didn't want to feel hemmed in by towering wooden fences that closed out the neighborhood. "It didn't seem very friendly," says Loi. Instead, they opted for layers of evergreens with breaks that would frame borrowed views beyond. Echoing the interior's chalky hues ranked a close second.
Swedish furnishings painted classic whites, dove grays, pale greens, and cool blues would be the driving force behind the plants they chose for the landscape. Avid travelers, Loi and Tom drew from famed venues they had visited around the world, and then used their keen eyes for design (they own Tone on Tone, an antiques store in Bethesda, Maryland) to create an oasis for themselves. The result: a series of color-inspired garden rooms that together feel more like a country estate than an urban lot.
Pictured here, the garden before the renovation.
The Front Yard
Choose evergreens for year-round appeal.
The Big Idea: "We wanted a welcoming entry that wouldn't compete with the architecture," says Loi. Borrowing ideas from their favorite English, French, and Belgian landscapes, Loi and Tom created a formal but not perfectly balanced composition. A new 6-foot-wide pea gravel path leads from the relocated stairs, which had previously been centered on the house, to the home's reconfigured entry. Layers of shaped shrubs and trees surround the open lawn, lending structure and privacy in all seasons.
The Front Yard
The Plants: A 'Nellie R. Stevens' holly hedge screens the front yard from the street. Four box-clipped European hornbeams create a strong cross axis on each end of the garden. English boxwoods, protected from hot afternoon sun, soften straight lines. 'White Out' roses and urns of easy annuals such as pansies, impatiens, and petunias add hits of color.
The Details: To keep an all-green garden interesting, vary textures, shades, shapes, and heights. In the photo at right, check out how the dark foliage of roses contrasts with the chartreuse new growth on the yew hedge.
The Big Idea: The backyard was the most challenging garden they designed. "We needed a private retreat for relaxing," says Loi. The area is visible from the family room, which is decorated with blue accents, so that hue was used in this garden. A driveway that had accessed a now-unusable garage beneath the home was removed and filled with soil. They tested the compacted clay and amended it with Leafgro (compost made from leaves and grass clippings), lime, and organic fertilizer. Tall screening went in along the perimeter.
Pictured here, the backyard before the renovation.
Use shades of blue to visually cool a sunny space.
The Plants: For color throughout the seasons, add variety. When Loi and Tom began to hunt for sun-loving blue flowers, they learned there are fewer options for blooms in this hue. Many blue-flowering plants prefer shadier settings, with bulbs being exceptions. Spring showstoppers include columbines, Spanish bluebells, camassias, false indigos, and violas. In summer, long-blooming lavenders, butterfly bushes, and Russian sages are key. You can also get the cooling effect of blue using similar hues of purple and lavender. They discovered that no one plant is the silver bullet. "Gardening is trial and error," Loi says. "If it doesn't work, just try something new."
The Details: Blue can be tricky to use because it visually recedes. Add blue flowers in front of bright green leaves such as Japanese cryptomeria, glossy foliage such as Southern magnolia, or variegated leaves such as redtwig dogwood.
Make your own spring garden sing the blues with these four varieties (pictured clockwise from top left).
1. Viola Opt for continuous flowers with these easy, low-growing annuals.
2. Clematis Give this climber shady roots and a sunny top for beautiful flowers.
3. Columbine Plant this 18-inch-tall perennial in partial sun with afternoon shade.
4. Allium Set out these bulbs in fall for 2-foot-tall late-spring blooms.
The Side Yard
Transform leftover space with elegant white.
The Big Idea: Transitional spaces such as side yards are often treated as service areas, holding little more than garden hoses and trash cans. Elevate yours by turning it into a feature, as Loi and Tom did. "The side yard, or white garden, was planted as a refuge from busy city life," says Loi. Inspired by the famed White Garden at Sissinghurst Castle in England, the relaxed planting style counters the structured green front yard. You can enter this little slice of heaven from the front yard, through flanking urns of 'Surfinia White Improved' petunias, or from the porch.
The Side Yard
The Plants: "Borders should have repetition and a backdrop," says Loi. Repeating perennials and bulbs such as alliums, Asiatic lilies, and 'David' summer phlox creates a rhythm that carries the eye—even through a small space. An English laurel hedge is the canvas from which it all pops. To increase depth, texture, and interest, Tom and Loi included silver, gray, and variegated foliage such as lamb's ears, 'Diamond Frost' euphorbias, dusty millers, and spotted dead nettles (contained by a brick walk).
The Side Yard
The Details: White gardens are as much about mixing foliage colors and sizes as they are about the flowers themselves. Varied shapes, from fine to broad, add interest.
Like to host evening events? Plant white. No other color makes the most of low light once the sun sets. Bright pinks and eye-popping reds go gray, and purples all but disappear. White, on the other hand, will impress your guests and garner glowing reviews.
Plant a Smart Border
Get The Soil Right Do a soil test before planting. Whether you have sand, clay, or something in between, adding organic matter (such as compost) will improve soil structure, making it easier for plants to take up needed nutrients.
Layer Like a Pro Install space-defining shrubs and small trees toward the back and corners, perennials in the middle, and annuals near the front. Don't place features like sundials and birdbaths in the center—it looks contrived. Put them about a third of the way down the border.
Know When to Say Good-Bye No plant lives forever. Even perennials have a certain life span, with some lasting only three years. If a plant isn't healthy, take it out and replace it with something else. This is one of the most earth-friendly ways to keep your garden free of diseases and pests.