Maximizing Minimal Space
Tips and tricks of the trade

From suburban backyards to condo balconies, landscaping for a small area poses its own challenges.

The first challenge, our experts say, is understanding the scope of work. Most people are surprised to find that designing a small space takes more time. “That’s because we are trying to squeeze in multiple design elements — like a dining area, grill location, a play area — into a limited space. Sometimes we have to help a client prioritize their wish list because everything simply won’t fit,” says Jim Drzewiecki of Ginkgo Leaf Studio.

In small spaces, Drzewiecki says a common mistake people make is not planning for space that will be lost to circulation. Spaces include not only the back door of the home, but other entry points, such as a fence gate, driveway or garage service door. “This then impacts where furniture can be placed,” he explains. “You also have to plan enough space for furniture and a grill. For example, don’t just look at the footprint of a table and chairs, but plan for the space needed to pull the chairs out and give people room to walk around the furniture.”

“In a small area, drainage can also be an issue,” says John Ciesielski of Stano Landscaping. “When adding paving or other impermeable surfaces, you have to make sure that water can be directed away from the foundation of the house and the
neighbors’ properties.”

David Guthery, landscape designer at LandCrafters, says something as simple as finding access for construction materials can be a challenge when working with a small area. “This has to be taken into account during design, because if you can’t get the machinery in to build it, then you shouldn’t waste time designing it,” he adds.

One of the biggest issues stems from people wanting to do too much. “This just gives the space a cluttered look and makes it more confining. The mistake most people make is they want to jam in everything, and it results in a big mess,” says Guthery.

To avoid the mess, Ciesielski says everything has to be in scale. “Plant selection is critical,” he adds. “You want more compact plants that will not outgrow the space. Often it’s best to keep it simple and not try to incorporate too many elements.”

Proper use of color is one of the best ways to give the area a greater sense of space. “Cool colors recede visually, so placing a blue-green foliaged plant in a corner can make that corner feel farther away,” explains Drzewiecki. “Fine-textured foliage on plants has the
same effect.”

Drzewiecki also says shape is a key factor when designing for small areas. “Instead of building a patio parallel to a home, we often use an angled grid. This creates the optical illusion that a space is longer than it really is,” he explains. “Plus, a circular patio instead of (a) square with plantings around it can give the feeling that the overall space is bigger.”

“Geometry or strong structure is the best friend of small spaces,” says Guthery. “Rectangles, squares, ovals and circles are all good. Strong forms are required. Wavy lines don’t work. In addition, strong focal points help direct views and make areas easier to process for the viewer.”

Super small spaces like condo balconies or terraces provide a special set of challenges and tricks. Guthery likes to use pots and planters in colors that complement the interior décor. Whenever possible, he suggests that the flooring also visually flow from the interior as a way of softening the space, helping break up that feeling of sitting on the edge.

“If there is enough room, use large insulated planters so plants have a better chance to survive harsh winters and do not require frequent watering, especially if the owner travels — which with condos is often the case,” says Ciesielski. “Water features, such as small fountains, also work well to drown out city noise and create a soothing environment.”

Is Nativescaping Really the Best Route? Two Experts Weigh In.

Vance Barnes of David J. Frank Landscape Contracting says most clients request plants and shrubs well adapted to our climate. “A lot of people will ask for native plants, but that can be a very restrictive plant palette and you forgo a significant amount of ornamental value when restricted to true natives,” he warns. “Being able to acquire locally sourced material would be great for everyone involved, but it’s not always feasible or available.”

Barnes says there is high demand for trees like oaks and red maple cultivars, and that the American elm is making a comeback. “There are lots of perennial flowers that are descendants of natives, and some are quite nice. Black-eyed Susans, coneflowers, little bluestem grass and switch grasses are all very popular, native and grown locally,” he says. Barnes recommends attending home and garden shows to find out who the local suppliers are.

According to Anne Marie Adams of Ebert’s Greenhouse Village, most retail garden centers grow the annuals and perennials they sell. “Even most of our trees and shrubs are purchased from nurseries in southeastern and northern Wisconsin, depending on what’s available at the time of order,” she says. “But, honestly, most of our customers want what will grow in this area and aren’t really concerned with where it comes from.”  – Guy Fiorita

Outdoor Living Resource Directory

M’s resource guide to creating your perfect outdoor space

Outdoor Accents is the premier designer and installer of landscape sprinkler systems and architectural and landscape lighting systems. The company designs, installs and maintains sprinkler systems and lighting systems for residential and commercial clients as well as athletic fields and rooftop gardens. Outdoor Accents has built its company around the importance of customer service, and that is one of the reasons the company currently provides services to more than 1,000 clients in southeastern Wisconsin.                                                

PO Box 528, Thiensville

(414) 839-6530 | outdooraccentswi.com


Milwaukee Lawn Sprinkler Corp. is a full-service landscape irrigation contractor. The company provides expert design, construction and maintenance exclusively for residential and commercial systems, serving all of southeastern Wisconsin.

N60 W16180 Kohler Lane, Menomonee Falls
(262) 252-3880  |  milwaukeelawnsprinkler.com


Celebrating 60 years of irrigation excellence, Acme Systems is your full-service provider for all your irrigation needs, including design, estimates, professional installation, maintenance and repairs for all residential, commercial, athletic fields, golf courses, green roofs and drip/micro spray systems. The team installs systems to new as well as existing landscapes, while Acme’s experienced service department maintains all types and brands of residential and commercial systems.

6101 N. Flint Road, Glendale
(414) 351-8866 | acmesystems.net

David J. Frank Landscape Contracting Inc. is an award-winning company that provides design-build, maintenance, irrigation services and more. Experienced professionals welcome projects of all sizes, residential or commercial, throughout southeastern Wisconsin.

N120 W21350 Freistadt Road, Germantown
(262) 255-4888 | davidjfrank.com

Stunning landscapes begin with exceptional design. That’s Ginkgo Leaf Studio’s expertise. At Ginkgo Leaf Studio, the staff designs both residential and commercial landscapes, from intimate gardens to large estates and businesses. Twenty-nine years of experience in both the architectural and horticultural fields inform and inspire Ginkgo’s matchless style — landscapes with strong geometric lines, bold flowing curves and innovative architectural components, enhanced by beautiful and unexpected plant compositions. At Ginkgo Leaf Studio, the dedicated staff believes exceptional landscape design follows nature’s inspiration.

W63 N672 Washington Ave., Cedarburg
(262) 376-5050 | ginkgoleafstudio.net 

LandCrafters of New Berlin and Wauwatosa offers the best value in landscaping, brick and stone masonry, tree planting and all outdoor landscape design and installation for the Milwaukee metropolitan area as well as the surrounding counties of Waukesha, Ozaukee, Washington and Racine. From a small, simple lawn installation in Milwaukee’s downtown to a 5-acre landscape design in Lake Country that includes landscape grading, stone paving, retaining walls, landscape lighting and tree planting, LandCrafters will provide you with unsurpassed landscape design and installation service at every step of the landscaping process.

7001 W. Center St., Wauwatosa  |  (414) 897-8232  

The knowledgeable team of horticulturists and designers at LAMMSCAPES! will help customers on any level — from DIY projects to full-service landscape design and installation. Year-round care programs include landscape management, seasonal displays and snow removal services. Lamm Gardens offers a variety of plants, garden accessories, educational seminars and workshops. Seasonal events, including school field trips with nature education and a children’s garden area, are fun for all ages. Weddings and floral services are also offered in the beautiful gardens on the property.

2708 Sherman Road, Jackson
(262) 677-3010 | lammscape.com

Servicing everything from gardens, patios, walks, driveways, outdoor fire, pools and hot tubs to walls, fountains and ponds, arbors, decks and fences, lighting, designs and drawings, outbuildings and furniture, Flagstone Landscaping Inc. will create customized outdoor environments utilizing an array of high-end and natural elements. Aiming to perfect your environment, the staff of professionals is intimately involved in each project, from the very first sketch until the final stone is in place.

1840 Lakefield Road, Cedarburg
(262) 377-7627 | flagstonelandscaping.com

Whether you build new or remodel, Zuern Building Products has the experience and expertise to transform a house into your dream home. The showrooms feature the latest design innovations that combine beauty with functional solutions. Experts take the time to help guide you through products and elements that are right for you and your budget.

Allenton, Cedarburg, Franklin and Watertown
(800) 924-5551  |  zuerns.com