Ways to Utilize Wasted Space in the Home

Ways to Utilize Wasted Space in the Home

Those of you with small homes have probably wished for more space. But what about the wasted space you do have, and probably hasn’t it given a second thought?

Think about the various areas of the house that often go unused: awkward corners, small attics, and that space under the stairs.

These are just three examples among many. Now that you have thought about it, where do you have wasted space in the home, and how can you utilize it?

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Breakfast Nooks in the Kitchen

Double up on your space-saving techniques by designing a breakfast nook with storage. Do you have a corner with windows on both walls that sit empty because you cannot place cabinets on either wall?

You can always use this space in some way. For example, a breakfast nook is perfect because you can place an L-shaped bench in the corner.

A small table completes the breakfast nook. But that’s not all–the benches can double as storage for cooking utensils, hats and gloves and so on.

Cozy Attic Library/reading Nook

Most attics serve as storage space for boxes and totes full of things you are saving, or perhaps seasonal gear. Don’t have anything to store in your attic?

How about that collection of books you don’t have a library in which to display them?

If your attic is safe for spending time, why not design a cozy little library where you can escape and lose yourself in that novel?

Besides adequate lighting, built-in bookshelves, and some overstuffed pillows or beanbag chairs are all you need to get cozy in your attic library.

Storage Under the Stairs

That space under the stairs doesn’t have to be wasted. I have seen numerous creative ideas for storage under the staircase.

Open bookshelves are just one way to display your books or any other collection you might have. You could turn it into a storage cabinet with doors for house cleaning items.

The most creative idea I have seen lately, though, is a staircase that consists entirely of cabinet-style drawers and doors, complete with hardware and a stain that matches the stair treads.

Use that space under the stairs in any way that would meet your needs.

Where do you have wasted space in your home? How can you utilize it to fit your family’s lifestyle?

How to Make a Deadly Staircase Safer to Use

How to Make a Deadly Staircase Safer to Use

Our home possibly has the most dangerous staircase in the entire Northwest. Back in 1890, the home’s builder wasn’t one to waste valuable floor space.

Rather than building a functional staircase with wide treads, a gentle climb, and landings, he went straight up in a style our family had dubbed “Victorian Mine Shaft.”

Our witty friends refer to it as “Whoa, is that your staircase?” Staircases tend not to be remodelable without tearing apart half the house. To make a killer staircase less hazardous without remodeling your home, it takes thinking creatively.

image - deadly staircase

Once known as the ‘mine shaft’ because of it’s dark, steep ascent…this period staircase was remodelled into a safer and brighter entrance into the upstairs.

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Evaluating the Problem

Before reworking your staircase, it helps to evaluate the problem. Take a careful look at the lighting, the handrail, and the treads and note areas that can be improved.

In our home, we felt the biggest hazard of the staircase was the lack of light. The 1930s remodel closed up the stairwell in two locations which cut out natural light, a significant mistake since the staircase was only lit with a 25-watt closet bulb.

Adding to the darkness was a flat parchment green paint on walls, ceiling, and millwork which contributed to the “mine shaft” feeling. A substandard handrail was also a problem since it tended to pull out of the wall when held.

Last but not least, the bare wood treads had been painted with glossy red paint which was entirely too slippery to walk on.

Once we identified the problems, coming up with a plan was really pretty easy. Here’s what we did to open up the staircase, and make it one of the more inviting features of our home. These tips may help your staircase safer as well.

Bring in Natural Light

If your staircase is dark, look at the possibility of bringing in natural lighting through a skylight or by installing either an interior or exterior window.

With our staircase, we removed a retrofitted dividing wall that separated the staircase from the back bedroom hall and removed a fake “Craftsman” archway at the base of the staircase. These two modifications brought in incredible amounts of light from the bedrooms and eliminated the “mine shaft” look.

Paint or Wallpaper the Walls as Light as Possible

Since staircases do not tend to receive direct sunlight, semi-gloss paint and shiny wallpaper can reflect natural light around a room and make it appear both larger and brighter.

For our staircase, we brought the foyer wallpaper up the staircase and into the halls. The millwork was painted a semigloss white and the ceiling painted a mid shade of yellow. From the photograph, you can see the natural light bouncing on the walls.

Replace Existing Light Fixtures

In older vernacular homes, staircases often had a minimum of lighting. One small fixture at the top of the stairs was typical. By adding a second fixture, or relocating a more substantial fixture in the center of the stairwell, you can increase the brightness of the area.

Since our staircase was illuminated by a tiny closet fixture, we had our electrician move the parlor chandelier into the center of the stairwell, and update it to hold three 100 watt bulbs.

The old fixture was removed and placed in a coat closet elsewhere in the house. The combination of light paper and the new 300-watt chandelier made the stairwell comfortably bright.

Replace the Handrail

If your handrail is substandard, replacing it with a sturdier model will make it easier to grip.

Many vernacular homes I’ve been in over the years seemed to use a simple dowel for a handrail. These dowels usually rested on brackets that were anchored into the lathe and plaster.

Our staircase had also had a dowel handrail that had pulled away from the walls after 130 years of folks grabbing for the rail as they tumbled down the staircase.

Part of our remodel included removing the existing lathe and plaster from the walls and replace it with sheetrock.

The new handrail was secured to new support studs and now is sturdy enough to hold a person who trips while coming down the stairs. The curved profile of the new handrail offers a hand better purchase than the old dowel.

Slip Proofing the Treads

While there are many ways of making a staircase slip-proof, what you use depends on how your stairs are designed, to begin with. While a hardwood staircase looks wonderful, with the steep pitch of our staircase, plain wood would have been a safety hazard.

We opted to carpet the staircase in a commercial Berber carpet which provided the slip-proof surface we needed without showing wear and tear.

All staircases have different challenges, and what worked for us might not necessarily work for your home. However, by providing more light, a good rail to grip, and a solid place to set one’s feet while climbing or descending, you can make any staircase safer.

Home Improvements that Save You Money, Save the Planet and Make Your Home Beautiful

Home Improvements that Save You Money, Save the Planet and Make Your Home Beautiful

In today’s economy, going green is more than just an effort to save our planet it is also a way of trimming your budget. Eco-friendly home improvements do not need to be costly or time-consuming to be effective.

The following simple green projects will increase the eco-friendly value of your home while saving energy and money.


Begin your eco-friendly upgrades in your home in the one room that uses more water than anywhere else in the house — your bathroom. Between the sink, shower, tub, and toilet a family can consume thousands of gallons of water each year.

However, there are simple green ways to conserve water in your bathroom with easy eco-friendly upgrades.

Install showerheads that save water while providing a fantastic shower or install a toilet that will save water and lower your utility bills without sacrificing comfort and performance.

Light Bulbs

One of the easiest eco-friendly home improvements is replacing your light bulbs. Energy-efficient light bulbs are readily available at most home improvement stores and discount retailers.

Light bulbs that have the Energy Star label meet the high standards set by the U. S. Department of Energy and are guaranteed for two years.

Compact Fluorescent Light Bulbs (CFL), Light Emitting Diode (LED) and halogen light bulbs are all eco-friendly upgrades to your home because they save money by lasting longer and using less energy than incandescent light bulbs.


When redecorating your home, use eco-friendly paint and green accessories throughout your home. Eco-friendly paints are free from or emit very few harmful VOCs (Volatile Organic Compounds) that contribute to air pollution.

According to GreenLivingIdeas, natural interior paints do not contain metals or VOCs and are an all-natural alternative to harmful chemical paints. You can purchase natural, organic bedding for a relaxing, comfortable and healthy bedroom.

Water Heater

Unfortunately, at some point, homeowners will face the task of replacing their hot water heater. When this happens, replace your conventional hot water heater with a solar water heater to save energy, reduce utility bills and reduce pollution.

Solar water heaters are gaining in popularity and installing a solar water heater is an easy eco-friendly home improvement that will also save you money in the future.

The U. S. Department of Energy has information available to consumers about solar water heaters – how they work, how to choose a solar water heater, installing and maintaining a solar water heater and where to purchase a solar water heater.


Heating and cooling your home is a necessity; however, properly installing and setting your thermostat will reduce the amount of energy you consume heating and cooling your home.

A simple eco-friendly home improvement you can do yourself that will maximize these savings is to install a programmable thermostat.

A programmable thermostat is designed to save energy by controlling the temperature in your home without sacrificing a comfortable environment.

How Much Will You Need for Retirement?

How Much Will You Need for Retirement?

Most people aim for a specific age to begin retirement. A better strategy is to target a number: the number you will need to adequately fund an active retirement lifestyle.

When it comes to retirement, most people have an age in mind. For many of us Social Security has set 67 as the magic number for full retirement benefits and so that has become our target. For others 65, 62, 55, and even 50 have become popular retirement numbers of late.

A better way to plan for retirement, however, is to target a budgetary value rather than an age. For some, this number may be $250,000, for others $500,000. Some will feel that nothing less than $1,000,000 will adequately fund an active senior lifestyle.

So, with so many numbers out there, how does one calculate their own personal optimum retirement date? Here are some simple mathematical calculations that can take the mystery out of figuring out what retirement number is right for you.

image - Active retirees may want to include travel costs in planning retirement budgets

Active retirees may want to include travel costs in planning retirement budgets

Create a Retirement Budget

The first step in calculating when you can retire is to prepare a retirement budget. You won’t know how much money you need until you figure out how much money you plan to spend.

Make sure you include line items for what you want to do (golf, trips, grandkids), as well as the necessities (mortgage, utilities, food).

Identify Other Income

Social Security is the big one here. The Social Security Administration no longer issues annual benefit statements outlining how much you will receive in case of death or disability. However, you can still get a fairly accurate estimate by using the Retirement Estimator on the Social Security website.

Consider any vested retirement or pension plans as well. Rents or royalties that you expect to continue through retirement should also be added in at this stage. Other income should include any known, dependable income that is not tied to your personal savings and monetary investments.

Determine Your Annual Needs

Once you have calculated your expenses and your known income, the difference is what you need to be able to withdraw annually from your personal retirement savings.

For workers looking to fund a 20-year retirement, calculations should be based on withdrawing 5% per year starting the first year of retirement.

For those hoping to fund a 30-year retirement, plan on only being able to withdraw 4% annually in order for your funds to last. Annual withdrawals should only be increased by the amount of annual inflation.

Running the Numbers

To find your perfect number: multiply your monthly shortfall by 12, and then divide that number by .04 (30 year retirement) or .05 (20 year retirement).

For example, a single woman projects that she requires $2,000 monthly to fund a comfortable retirement. Her Social Security calculator estimates her full retirement benefits to be $1,038.

Born in 1959, she must wait to start collecting benefits until age 66 years and 10 months in order to receive the full amount. She will begin receiving a $300 per month pension from a former employer at age 65.

If she waits until full retirement age for Social Security purposes, her monthly shortage is $662 ($2,000 – $1,038 – $300). If she wants to fund a retirement until the age of 87, her target is $158,880 in retirement savings. ($662 multiplied by 12 months, divided by 5% equals 158,880)

For a more conservative approach, she may choose to plan for a life expectancy until age 97. She will then need at least $198,600 in investments in order to meet her monthly budget needs. ($662 multiplied by 12 months, divided by 4% equals $198,600)

If she can save as much as $236,700 for retirement, she can actually move up her retirement date to age 65 when her pension starts paying out. Her Social Security benefits will be reduced to 87.8 of her full benefit, making her new distribution $911 monthly. (Social Security provides a chart for calculating benefits for early retirement on its website as well.)

Her budget shortfall is now $789 ($2,000 – $911 – $300). Using a 30-year retirement calculation, $789 multiplied by 12 months, divided by 4% equals $236,700.

Guide to Replanting a Christmas Tree

Guide to Replanting a Christmas Tree

Congratulations. You’ve bought yourself a live Christmas tree that can be replanted in your yard and enjoyed for years to come.

If you don’t know how to replant a Christmas tree, your tree may not survive if you just plop it into the ground. You need to know how to do it properly so that your tree will live.

When I was a child, my parents bought a potted tree for Christmas that we replanted in the yard after the holidays. It was a special time because we didn’t just throw a tree away and it was a family activity that we did together.

Step by Step Instructions for Replanting Your Living Christmas Tree

This article will give you a few suggestions on how you can replant a living Christmas tree. Follow the steps in order and you should be able to successfully plant your tree.

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The Transition

Before plopping your tree into a hole outside, you have to transition the tree. Think of all that the tree has been through, climate-wise at least.

First, it was at the nursery, then inside your home, and now you want to take it back out and plant it? Before you plant it outside, have it set somewhere outside in its a container (with burlap sack so it doesn’t try out) for 3-4 days so it can get used to being outdoors again. This is important for successful replanting.

The Hole

The second step to replanting your living Christmas tree is to dig a hole. Chose a nice area with lots of room for your tree to grow and grab a shovel.

Mother Earth News suggests that you dig a hole about 1 ½ time larger than the mass of the root and gently putting the tree into the hole.

Use the dirt that you dug up and pack it carefully around the root of the tree, though you can use a combination of soil and sand for successful replanting.

If you do this method, first put the soil and sand combination at the very bottom of the hole. Plant the tree and then fill in around the rest of the way.


After your tree is in the hole, eHow.com recommends that you water plenty with mulch. Water the mulch close to the trunk of the tree so the tree gets watered well.

When my family replanted our living Christmas tree growing up, we used vitamin B1. eHow.com also recommends this method because it reduces transplant shock.


Fertilizing your tree should only be done with you see new growth. You shouldn’t use fertilizing at the time of planting because it can be more harmful than helpful.

What You’ll Need

You really don’t need that many items to replant a living Christmas tree. You need your tree obviously, as well as a good shovel. Gloves are helpful if you don’t want to get dirty or hurt.

Vitamin B1 is recommended, though not required. Water and mulch are the last two things you’ll need for a successful tree planting.

Green Christmas Gift Wrap is Recyclable or Reusable

Green Christmas Gift Wrap is Recyclable or Reusable

Pretty papers are attractive, but using Christmas gift wrap once and throwing it away is not eco-friendly. Try these green alternatives to wrapping paper.

Stores are filled with Christmas gift wrap paper: Shiny, pretty papers block the aisles and are stacked up at checkout counters in supermarkets, drug stores, stationery stores, and virtually every other shop that sells small gifts and notions. ‘Tis the season to fill the landfills.

Wrapping paper is such a big part of gift-giving that we don’t even think twice about the irony of buying beautifully made papers that will be used to make a five-second impression, only to be torn off and thrown away. Coated and painted with metallics, gift wrap ends up in landfills. What a message to send to children!

Here are some green alternatives that will make special and clever Christmas wrappings, and reduce your holiday carbon footprint.

Read Also: Craft a Festive and Fragrant Christmas Twig Tree from Nature

Wrapping Gifts with Newspapers and Magazines

Using pages from newspapers or magazines to wrap gifts can look smart and crisp, especially if you take a few moments to select a page with lots of bright colors. Or take the time to select a page that has something to do with the gift itself, such as a book review of the book you are wrapping, or a page from the finance section to wrap a wallet.

Newspaper works especially well on books and similarly shaped packages. It’s not such a good choice for irregularly shaped gifts.

Baskets, Gift Bags, and Gift Boxes

Gift baskets make wonderful holiday presentations, with contents especially chosen for the recipient. You can “hide” the gifts in the basket by wrapping them in a newspaper or burying them in tissue paper. Choose a high-quality basket that the recipient will enjoy reusing throughout the year.

Gift Bags are another solution:

More and more gifts are presented in attractive little holiday bags, which are easily reusable. Indeed, while most people don’t even think twice about rumpling up beautiful wrapping papers and tossing them, they carefully keep the gift bags.

Just be sure you store them neatly so they are in good condition for reuse. Or, your children can use them next year to make Christmas arts and crafts.

Gift Boxes are an increasingly popular variation on gift bags. These cardboard boxes can come in shapes ranging from tubes for posters to boxes usable for clothing. They are sometimes given out at high-end stores.

The store’s logo is sometimes on the box somewhere, so the store gets a bit of branding benefit (and they reduce staffing needs in a department store’s gift-wrap department). The boxes are usually festive and attractive and don’t need to be wrapped. Boxes can also be bought at stationery stores.

image - Recyclable Gift Bag

Recyclable Gift Bag

Creative Gift Wrap: Using Scarves and Fabric

In Japan, silk scarves are sometimes used to wrap special gifts. There’s no reason you can’t do the same.

If you happen to travel a lot, note that scarves can be bought for as little as a couple of dollars in many developing countries, especially in Asia and the Middle East. So your gift includes not only wearable wrapping paper but a souvenir from a far-off land.

Along the same lines, if you happen to sew, you probably have a collection of gift-wrap sized fabric scraps that you’ve never found a use for. Now you have a way to use them!

Reusing and Recycling Gift Wraps

With your holiday supplies, keep a Christmas scrap box of small bits of old or odd-sized wrapping papers that will be good for wrapping little items such as jewelry, wallets, or ties. Bows and trimmings can also be reused if they are in good condition.

Good quality gift wrap can also be reused. The cheap metallic paper probably won’t survive in good enough condition, but thicker papers that were carefully folded can be used more than once.

Finally, if you feel you simply must use a newspaper for a special gift, be sure it is made of post-consumer recycled paper, and that it can be recycled. At least that way, you’re doing your part to reduce Christmas waste and keep the holidays from making too much of a contribution to the town dump.

Craft a Festive and Fragrant Christmas Twig Tree from Nature

Craft a Festive and Fragrant Christmas Twig Tree from Nature

A Christmas twig tree is hung on a wall or door like a wreath or given as a gift. The natural decorations from the garden and woods change with the seasons.

Making a twig tree can be a solo project, partner endeavor, or family adventure. While nature provides an endless storehouse of decorations, human imagination generates infinite combinations and variations.

The use of natural materials to create a Christmas twig tree in December can be the inspiration to adapt the tree for every season and reason throughout the coming year.

Framework for a Twig Tree

The framework for the twig tree is made of branches from trees and shrubs found on your property or on walks in the woods. The triangular frame requires three twigs. Two or three more twigs are needed to form crossbar branches for support.

Sturdy straight hardwood twigs with bark are best. The following specimens provide good twigs but experiment with what is in your surroundings:

  • Birch
  • Cherry
  • Maple
  • Oak
  • Persimmon
  • Pistache
  • Sassafras
  • Grapevines

The size of the framework depends on the space allocated for hanging the tree. For beginners, the manageable tree size is 36 inches tall.

Assembling the Twig Tree

Lay the three long sticks in a triangle on a clean flat surface indoors or outdoors. After deciding how large the tree will be, cut twigs to the desired lengths, allowing them to overlap an inch or two. Tie the twigs together at the three corners using cord, fishing line, floral wire and tape, raffia, ribbon, rubber bands, twist ties, yarn or wire.

Space, cut, and fasten the crossbars between the two vertical sides of the triangle. These branches add to the strength of the frame and provide additional space for decorations.

The tree framework should hold together firmly when held upright. Test hang the framework at its potential site.

Natural Materials for the Twig Tree

Use your imagination, ingenuity, and the natural materials at hand to make your first tree before branching out from there.

Start by taking a collecting walk across your property with pruning shears and basket. Snip colorful cuttings from each of your most berried trees and shrubs like:

  • Holly
  • Nandina
  • Photinia
  • Pyracantha
  • Wax myrtle

Snip cuttings from fine long-lasting broadleaf evergreen trees and shrubs specimens including:

  • Acuba
  • Boxwood
  • Camellia
  • Mahonia
  • Magnolia
  • Podocarpus
  • Tea olive

Snip cuttings from conifers like:

  • Arborvitae
  • Juniper
  • Pine
  • Spruce

Take cuttings from evergreen vines:

  • Ivy
  • Smilax

Collect decorative structures from the following:

  • Crepe myrtle seed pods
  • Golden rain tree pods
  • Groundsel shrub pappus
  • Lunaria pods
  • Milkweed pods
  • Pinecones
  • Sweet gumballs
  • Sycamore balls

Trimming the Twig Tree

There are many ways to trim the tree. One way is to space clusters of the most colorful foliage and berries at all of the angles of the triangle and cross branches. Then fill in the bare spaces with greenery and pods. The flexible vines can be wound around the twig surfaces.

Or, twine plant material around the framework first. Evergreen vines work well for this. Once the frame is covered in the vine, berries or pods are hung to dangle from the crossbars.

Having the framework on a flat surface allows you to arrange, rearrange, and tweak your design before fastening all with string or yarn for the final display.

Experiment with a variety of materials and hanging methods. Herb gardeners tie small bundles of dried or fresh herbs like rosemary, oregano, thyme, and sage to the frame.

Flower gardeners make an everlasting twig tree with bundles of dried flowers including babies’ breaths, candytuft, celosia, globe amaranth, hydrangea, lavender, statice, strawflower, and yarrow.

If the twig trees destination is a kitchen, then garlic, dried peppers, and dried ears of strawberry popcorn are appropriate decorations.

Another scent for a Christmas twig tree is citrus. Make dried lemon, lime and orange pinwheel ornaments sprinkled with cinnamon or studded with cloves and hung from the crossbars with ribbon.

Variations on a Twig Tree

The twig tree is an excellent activity for students learning to identify plants and plant parts. The activity also is one to teach elements of design in art class.

The simple triangle twig tree design with the use of scented natural materials is an activity visually impaired students can successfully participate in.

Making twig trees is a fun and frugal activity for families and for children’s parties. Provide the tools, twigs, and materials for guests to make their own twig trees to take home to hang.

Whether you make a twig tree as an alternative to an evergreen Christmas tree or an additional holiday decoration, it is a versatile natural craft for all ages and many occasions throughout the New Year.


  • Haynie, Don. “Christmas Crafting.” The Herb Companion. December/January 1995/1996. pgs. 60-63.
  • LeVan, Marthe. Nature Style. New York: Lark Books, 2002.
Rain Gardens: What They Are and How to Plant One

Rain Gardens: What They Are and How to Plant One

A rain garden is a beautiful way to clean the water that runs from a lawn to sewers and eventually into lakes, rivers, and oceans.

A rain garden consists of a depression in a lawn planted with native, deep-rooted plants. If positioned near a source of runoff, the garden will collect that runoff and use it rather than wasting it by sending it down to sewers.

This cuts down on wasted water but also prevents chemicals such as fertilizers, salt, and pet waste from reaching waterways.

How Rain Gardens Work

Because they are planted in a depression, rain gardens collect rainwater and any water that flows toward them–roof runoff, water from sprinklers that are not taken up by lawns, etc. A properly placed rain garden will capture a large portion of this water, which will soak into the ground.

The deep roots of the plants in a rain garden send this water far down into the soil, where it can be used by nearby plants. The deep roots also break up hard soil.

These plants also break up pollutants and make them inert. They sustain microbial populations that aid in biofiltration, a process by which small organisms degrade pollutants. One small rain garden can handle all the water and pollutants from one yard.

image - Rain Garden Overflow Channel

Rain Garden Overflow Channel

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Benefits of Rain Gardens

Not only do rain gardens clean runoff and reduce wastewater and pollutants, but they can also be beautiful. A gardener can choose a wide variety of flowering plants and grasses to create a rain garden.

Because they consist of native plants, birds and beneficial insects will also find them hospitable and are likely to take up residence in rain gardens.

image - Rain Garden Inflow Channel

Rain Garden Inflow Channel

How to Plant a Rain Garden

Rain gardens will look different depending on the climate and region where they are planted. A rain garden will generally do best in the sun and will be most efficient when located in a natural depression in the ground. It should also be located at least ten feet away from the house to prevent flooding into the house.

Native plants are best for a rain garden because they are best suited to the local climate. Gardeners should check local guides to determine what plants are native to their area. Rain garden plants should tolerate both wet and dry conditions, as the amount of water they receive may fluctuate.

Gardeners should dig the garden four to eight inches deep and then add a few inches of compost. Plants should be about one foot apart from each other but can be arranged in any way.

Once the garden is planted, two to three inches of mulch should be added on top of the soil to keep out weeds and retain moisture. The new plants may need watering for two weeks if it does not rain.

These instructions may vary by climate, so this is only a general guide.

Many communities, including Maplewood, Minnesota, Seattle, Washington, and Atlanta, Georgia, have created rain garden programs and policies. But anyone with a lawn and a source of water, either rainwater or runoff, can create a rain garden. Rain gardens provide an opportunity to eliminate one’s environmental impact due to chemical runoff.


Small Gardens: Choose Perennials!

Small Gardens: Choose Perennials!

Perennial plants in a small garden maintain order and are easy-to-care-for.

A small space needs a strong design and judicious plant selection: It needs a big impact!

A small garden with perennial plants will have a lasting effect and will require little maintenance.

Summary: Get it Done in Four Stages or DIY

  1. A landscape designer provides several versions of a plan that includes hardscape, trees, bushes, and plants.
  2. The homeowner chooses one version or a combination.
  3. A landscape contractor executes the entire design or builds the hardscape and plants accent trees and bushes.
  4. The homeowner completes the project with the small plant material.

If you opt for a DIY project instead, once the hardscape is built, planting can be done in stages. Begin with the larger and more costly specimens because they will anchor the space.

As the project progresses technically and evolves visually, new ideas might come up: Be focused on the intended use of the garden. Keep in mind children and/or pets!

How to Use Ideas from Garden Magazines and Websites

A landscape designer must know what you like, or time and money will be wasted when his proposal does not reflect what you had in mind.

Make a scrapbook of photographs or magazine clippings, and bookmark garden designs from websites. Give this collection of vignettes (ideas with all the components) to the designer, or create your DIY sketch:

  1. Create a sketch of your garden.
  2. Select a vignette for a particular location.
  3. Trace it, or paste it, at the desired location on your garden sketch.
  4. Repeat the process for another area.
  5. If you traced instead of pasting, make copies of the sketched design.
  6. On each copy, add colours to show seasonal foliage and perennial blooms.

Vignettes might incorporate a path, a retaining wall, some water feature, or a shady corner. Remember that less is more and choose only one or two complementary garden décor such as:

  • A cast-iron antique urn and a salvaged small gate
  • A birdbath or birdhouse and a harbour
  • Garden sculpture and decorative stepping stones

Keep in mind that the plants shown in a vignette might not be adequate for your climate. Get advice from nurseries for appropriate substitutions.

Have Fun Choosing Plants with the Gardener’s Colour Wheel

This clever tool lets you understand how colours work together through contrast and harmony. In a small garden colour selection must follow basic rules:

  • Combine three colours, including foliage, for harmony and an illusion of space.
  • Expand the palette with variations of the same colour for a monochromatic effect.
  • Choose trees, bushes, and roses that bloom in the same family colour.
  • Create the right depth by placing dark colours and rough textures in the front.
  • Extend space by placing light colours and fine textures in the back.

Plant with a Purpose

Before going to the nursery make a list of the varieties of bushes and plants needed, for which exposure, for what purpose (privacy, flowers, fragrances, fall foliage) and keep in mind that:

  • Plant repetition over several areas creates continuity
  • Plants with vertical interest create dimension.
  • Bushes growing flat against a wall enlarge a garden space.
  • Vines hide the rigid lines of privacy fences.
  • Mature plants need replanting sooner.
  • Plants must match their hardscape (pond, arbour).
  • Plant colours are best coordinated with the pots they grow into.

Know your Trees, Perennial Plants and Topiaries

True: Knowledge can prevent mistakes, but equally true: Plants can fail in any location. All you can do is to choose plants for a reason:

  • Perennial plants with interesting foliage bridge the seasonal gap.
  • Deciduous bushes contribute to the glowing colours of autumn.
  • Bushes with colourful stems create visual impact in winter.
  • Evergreen bushes with needles contrast nicely with leafy textures.
  • Bushes with berries offer off-season interest.
  • Annuals help to experiment before planting perennials of similar effect.
  • Ground covers leave space for specimens such as topiaries.
  • Non-deciduous trees give shade and year-round privacy.
  • Climbing vines provide flowers at eye-level and fragrance.

When your garden is taking shape and you begin to feel a connection, trust your instincts. Your garden should awaken your own senses to replenish your mind and your soul.

Designing a Small Garden Begins with Good Planning

Designing a Small Garden Begins with Good Planning

A successful landscape for a small garden must begin with a clear plan whether it is done as a DIY project or by a landscape designer.

A small garden designed by a professional will convey harmony and balance, which can also be achieved as a DIY project with a clear course of action. Online garden designs and publications are good resources for ideas, or for a whole project, but achieving a valuable impact on a limited space requires discipline.

Ideas from Landscaping Magazines, Garden Shows, and DIY Books

Online garden designs will help visualize the potential of the space whereas inspiration can be found in specialized publications, and garden shows.

Small Garden by John Brookes proves that balconies, terraces, courtyards, and small backyards can be transformed into havens for relaxing, meditating, entertaining, or for enjoying luxuriant vegetation.

Small Spaces, Beautiful Gardens by Keith Davitt explains how to rehabilitate a soulless garden by eliminating the negative, enhancing the positive, and injecting personal style.

Practical Techniques for the Home Gardener by Judith Adam is an ingenious guide with basic design techniques for small or large projects.

National gardening associations will advise on guides specific to an area or purpose (for example, the Western Sunset books series).

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Small Garden

Preliminary Steps for Planning a Small Garden

Homeowners usually assume that a small outdoor space is too limited for a “real” garden. The following steps identify the characteristics of the project and will help the planning:

Decide on the function of your garden:

  • Relaxing (water feature, lounging chair setting)
  • Entertaining (barbecue, seating area)
  • Playing (kids sandbox, small wooden play structure)
  • Gardening with flowers(small garden shed, small compost bin)
  • Growing vegetables (raised beds, irrigation system)

Identify the micro-climates areas of your outdoor space:

  • Sunny
  • Light shade (2-3 hours without direct sunlight)
  • Partial shade (4-5 hours without direct sunlight)
  • Exposed to wind or frost
  • Protected from the rain (under eaves)

Observe the existing garden, or those in the neighbourhood:

  • Make a list of well-established perennial plants
  • Notice appealing bushes and trees
  • Consider the loss of privacy from deciduous trees
  • Notice the hardscape (paths, arbours, fountains)
  • Get inspired with Planting Guidelines for a Small Garden

Resist the temptation of a quick makeover:

  • A small scale garden needs a well-defined structure
  • A mistake with the hardscape is expensive to correct
  • An unprofessional look adds no value to a property

View the garden from inside the house:

  • Envision the view from the main rooms
  • Consider privacy needs
  • Create a sketch with landscape-lighting

Collect pictures to help a landscape architect or to keep the DIY vision on track:

  • Pictures that strike a chord, perhaps a Japanese garden or a water basin
  • Ideas bookmarked in specialized publications or online landscape designs
  • Clippings from garden magazines
  • Photographs from trips, or from gardens with interesting plant selection

Consider carefully the overall budget:

  • A small scale landscape can be surprisingly costly
  • Remember that the “investment” will be enjoyed from close look
  • Visit landscape suppliers for options and guidance

Last but not least, if the project follows a move to a house with an established garden, experience it through the change of seasons before tearing everything apart.

With this planning in mind, the next step will be to sketch the site: A Small Garden Needs a Strong Design.