How I Grew the Lush Garden Oasis of My Dreams—in 30 Square Feet

August 16, 2016

One of my favorite things about my house is the fenced-in patio area tucked in the back. The footprint of the house is basically an upper-case L, and the patio fills in the inner corner, accessible by two sliding doors from the dining room and den, all focused on a 6-by-5-foot patch of earth.

Photo by Liz Johnson

When the weather allows, I love drinking my morning coffee out there—or a happy hour glass of wine. I’ll also open both sliding doors and let rare breezes cool the house sometimes. Over the few years that I’ve lived there, it’s slowly transformed into something I’m proud of: a considered-yet-casual green corner, an effortless extension of our indoor living spaces.

Here’s how I went about planning my 30-square-foot patio garden:

Photo by Liz Johnson

First, I figured out what kind of vibe I wanted.

The first year, I made a vegetable and herb garden out of the main patch. I dreamily imagined sharp rows of bushy produce-bearing plants, and walking out to pick vine-fresh tomatoes right before preparing them for dinner. But outside of the peak growing season (after things really fill in, but before they grow leggy and shrivel up in the late summer sun) my patio garden wasn’t looking dreamy at all.

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I realized that I wanted this space to be more of an oasis than a farm. So the next year I moved my veggies to a raised bed in the backyard, and started over.

Photo by Liz Johnson

I planned a garden that would always have something peaking, yet also look good even when nothing was blooming. I wanted it to look dense and layered and a little wild, and to mostly take care of itself. About two-thirds of it would be perennial, with the remaining third open for annuals and experiments.

Then, I acknowledged the amount of sun the space was getting, and how often I was honestly up for maintaining and watering it.

My garden needed to thrive in full sun and be as drought-resistant as possible, as I’m gone for a few weeks each summer and don’t always remember to water even when I’m home. If this patch were in the shade or I lived in some dreamy, perpetually misty corner of the country—rather than North Carolina—naturally, this space would look totally different.

Photo by Liz Johnson

I played with color, texture, and height. If things were going to look interesting even when nothing was blooming, I had to get creative with non-floral color. A “Red Hot” crape myrtle anchors the back corner, and boasts dark purple leaves year-round. And some purple sweet potato vines creeping along the edges also help break up the sea of green. But of course, there’s not just one green, either. I’ve got “Silver Edge” thyme in one corner, which not only softens that hard 90º angle, but also brings in some silvery tones (Lamb’s Ear would work great, too). Creeping Jenny rounds out the spectrum of greens with a bright chartreuse.

I focused on flowers in the hot pink/red/purple family, to keep some feeling of cohesion. And I tried to bring in a variety of leaf shapes as well: large and angular (sweet potato vine, Japanese maple), small and round (Creeping Jenny, sedum), tiny and sharp (moss rose, lavender, rosemary).

Photo by Liz Johnson

I also got strategic about where I planted everything, to make this small space feel as large as possible.

My Japanese maple anchors the middle of the space, and I trim it a bit each year to keep it looking centered (and grow up instead of out). Taller plants like the guara grass, rosemary, and crape myrtle are kept in the back half of the patch (which is also more structured and symmetrical), and the front half is mostly sprawling ground cover and shorter annuals.

And finally, I planned for year-round interest.

In spring, the Japanese maple is fiery red and pops against the purple crape myrtle foliage. Then the lavender and purple salvia start blooming, followed by the pink guara grass and any other annuals I’ve planted (this year it’s red moss rose and a wide variety of stonecrop). The crape myrtle actually blooms in late summer, and finally the Japanese maple turns red again in the fall. After the annuals die out, I like to replace them with ornamental kale for winter color.

Sweet potato vine, posing for its close-up. Photo by Liz Johnson

Here are some of my favorite perennial and annuals in the garden right now:

Lots of texture and layers an interesting small space garden make. Photo by Liz Johnson

Small-space gardens force you to get purposeful about what you’re planting. It’s interesting to see how this space slowly shifts from year to year, as my priorities and life stages do as well (hello, new baby!). But that is what’s so great about gardens, regardless of size: they’ll grow with you, if you let them.

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  • Joanna
  • Liz Johnson
    Liz Johnson
stereotypical oldest child


Joanna August 23, 2016
Very nice pictures!
Liz J. August 26, 2016
Thanks, Joanna!