The Plot of Small Things

I’ve never found the space, or more correctly, the context, for small stuff in my garden. I’d much prefer to be swallowed up in plants, than tiptoe over a carpet of them. 

But over the years I’ve accumulated a (fairly short) list of short plants that I’d like to grow.  That led to the challenge of creating a context for them – a place where they formed more than just a collection of small plants – where they worked together as a collective whole.


Hence my ‘steppe’ planting.  I’d been dreaming up a carpet of apparently self-sown grasses and perennials into which were tickled small bulbs, also distributed to look as self-sown as possible.

The whole thing surged forward late last year in response to 1. The discovery of some pictures that totally captured my vague mental images in Scott and Lauren Ogden’s ‘Plant-Driven Design’, and 2. The request by a client to plant up a shallow old quarry, which required similar massed low-plantings in order to avoid obscuring the appealing contours and exposed rock faces, and 3. The chance discovery of a chink in my procrastination armour.


I can’t claim that my planting has been a wild success, or that I’ve yet started to love it. It’s too early to determine the former, as I’m still planting, but I know for a fact that the location I’ve chosen would work better with plants in the 1.0 – 1.8m range.  The annoying thing is I can’t quite determine why this is, and therefore can’t work out if there’s a way I can change the surrounds to make my 25cm deep carpet planting look or feel more comfortable than it does.  But I’m sticking with the program until things have matured and the bulbs I’ve planted start to make a reasonable statement.  If the context fails to satisfy, I’ll turf (or move) the lot, and replace with taller stuff.


The trouble with low plantings is that you always feel like you’re on them, and never in them.  They can only work when surrounding features or plantings create the sense of in-ness.  To this end I planted a double row of Italian cypress that I intend to keep at about head-height ie just tall enough to define the space, and give me a vague sense of enclosure, and something that approximates my scale.


Furthermore, I’ve begun to suspect that the space is, paradoxically, too small to do justice to small plants.  To get any sense of the pleasing patterns of density and diffusion revealed by self-sowing plants in wild shortgrass prairie or steppe, you really need a lot of room.

But the jury is still out….


  1. You touch on a neglected subject Michael: the question of scale and the relation of a garden area to its larger ( landscape ) setting. Borrowing an idea well developed by the Japanese garden is to use rock or clipped rounded mounds of small leaved shrubs to create the idea of hills or
    mountains …in other words an abstracted miniature landscape. Shaped and contoured ground not only helps drainage that many of these plants need but it also plays into the landscape illusion. Speaking of miniature, play and illusion this also reminds me of some apt, if a bit twee, writing by Beverley Nichols where he describes the act of imagining making oneself miniature to enjoy the special beauty of these tiny plant treasures.
    Hey…it fits the modern trend to ..downsize!
    Cheers from Canada’s west coast.

    1. Yes, cheers back from South Eastern Aus, where it’s finally raining, after a cripplingly dry summer (at least where I am).

      Your Japanese garden description reinforces the point that the challenge with small stuff is that they’re incapable of shaping or defining our garden spaces (unless, like BN, as you say, you imagine yourself miniaturised). This means that we’ve got to do all the space-defining work with other, taller plants or structures, and make sure that the space feels really good, with our without our diminutive carpeters. They are, after all, just decorative floor coverings.
      This is where the downsizing thing gets it so wrong when applied to horticulture. I’ve seen a whole ‘knee-high’ range marketed to those with small gardens – a US idea, as far as I know. There’s a kind of logic to it, but it’s flawed logic. In a small space, you’re so much better with a small number of decent sized plants, aren’t you?!

  2. Patience Gulliver, Lilliput wasn’t built in a day.
    I love my small plants and use them a lot especially when I want to see to the back of the bed or show off a piece of dry-stone wall or smart hedging.
    I think the idea of the odd vertical accent such as your pencil pines breaks up the carpet nicely, and some of these mini plants will thatch up taller than others and should eventually give a bit of a heath effect.
    I look forward to more photos when the bulbs come up.
    cheers R

    1. And I love the accompanying image of my plants throwing ropes over me and tying me down. ‘Cos they kind of do, and I’m a willing participant in the lassooing.

  3. Loving the idea, and the look of your newly planted, low profile garden. Always such joy in a new project.
    Two books for you which are apt. The first, a garden I visited in Castlemaine, Vic., some years ago and was blown away. Now in new ownership so no longer open.
    The Pleasures of Dry Climate Gardening: one women’s project. By Barbara Maund (the creator), & Denise Jepson. Maybe hard to source?? self published.
    ISBN 978-0-646-97726-3
    The other, a follow up on ‘land sculpting’ which allows varying growing sites.
    This is a garden, Wildside, you really should see when visiting Devon UK.
    “on the WILDSIDE. experiments in new naturalism “
    by Keith Wiley. Timber Press.

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