How to Design a Small Patio Garden

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A small patio garden is small on space, but big on possibilities. Depending on the growing conditions, such as full sun or shade, and the style of the house, a small patio could be a Mediterranean courtyard garden; a moist, ferny woodland dell; a tropical oasis; or any other design scheme that appeals. A sunny patio receives at least six hours' direct sunlight per day, and a partially shaded patio receives four to six hours' sunlight.

Containers and Beds

Growing in containers is often the only method for growing plants in a small patio garden, but the garden may also have a patio bed.

Containers

Container materials include terracotta, wood, plastic, metal and glazed ceramic. In a Mediterranean garden plants are traditionally grown in terracotta pots. Containers made of other materials are available in colors and styles to suit most patio garden designs. Terracotta and wood containers are porous, and they require more frequent watering than containers made of plastic, metal or glazed ceramic.

Large containers hold more moisture than small ones, which means they require less frequent watering, but they are also heavier and more difficult to move around. As well as requiring frequent watering, small containers by themselves don't supply much visual impact. Use a range of container sizes in your patio garden, and group them together to provide interest. Generally, the height of the container should be one-half the height of the plant.

Space is limited in a small patio garden. Make use of vertical space by growing plants in hanging baskets, which are wire baskets lined with sphagnum moss or coconut coir. You can also grow climbing plants on trellises.

Containers for a patio garden must have drainage holes.

Beds

A patio bed is an area of soil bordering on or within the hardscaping of the patio. A bed surrounded by patio is an island bed, which can be viewed from all directions. Tall plants should grow in the center of an island bed to avoid screening medium-height and short plants around the sides. Where a bed is only viewed from one side, taller plants should be grown toward the back.

A patio bed offers the advantage of growing room for plant roots, and the large soil area holds plenty of moisture, but the soil may be affected by the patio hardscaping foundations. Remove any rocks or rubble from the soil. A home soil test kit tells you the soil pH. Select plants that thrive in the existing soil pH, such as alkaline or acidic.

Trees for a Patio

Compact trees grow well in containers and provide height in a small patio garden.

Meyer lemon (Citrus × meyeri) adds Mediterranean style to a small patio garden. Growing 6 to 10 feet tall and 4 to 8 feet wide, Meyer lemon grows in sunny and lightly shaded spots. This evergreen tree is hardy in U.S. Department of Agriculture plant hardiness zones 9 through 11. In colder zones, it can overwinter indoors in a bright, cool room.

Full moon maple 'Aconitifolium' (Acer japonicum 'Aconitifolium') is a compact tree for a sheltered patio garden in dappled shade. Hardy in USDA zones 5 through 7, 'Aconitifolium' offers deeply divided medium-green leaves that turn crimson in fall, providing a woodland effect.

A tree that provides showy, tropical flowers is pachypodium (Pachypodium rutenbergianum). Featuring yellow-centered, white flowers, pachypodium is hardy in USDA zones 10 through 11, but it grows well as a container plant and can be overwintered in a bright, cool room. Pachypodium grows 6 to 15 feet tall and 3 to 8 feet wide, and it grows best on a sunny patio.

Annuals and Perennials

Annual and perennial plants brighten a small patio garden with colorful flowers.

Sweet pea (Lathyrus odoratus) is a traditional cottage garden annual that features scented flowers in a range of colors. A vine that grows 3 to 8 feet tall and 2 to 3 feet wide, sweet pea also provides height in a small patio garden. Grow sweet pea in a sunny spot.

Peony (Paeonia japonica) grows best in a partially shaded patio garden, where it offers gray-green, segemented foliage and fragrant, cup-shaped blooms. A woodland perennial, peony is hardy in USDA zones 5 through 8 and grows 1 to 1 1/2 feet tall and wide.

Offering cascades of showy pink blooms spring through fall, petunia Supertunia Vista Bubblegum (Petunia 'Ustuni6001') is a perennial plant usually grown as an annual in containers or hanging baskets in full sun. Hardy in USDA zones 10 through 11, Supertunia Vista Bubblegum grows 1 1/2 to 2 feet tall and wide.

Vegetables and Herbs

Growing vegetables and herbs in a small patio garden is a practical use of space.

Beans (Phaseolus vulgaris) grow as annual bushes or vines 2 to 15 feet tall and 2 to 3 feet wide, depending on the variety. Bush beans grow well in 2-gallon containers on a sunny patio. Sow beans at two-week intervals to prolong the harvest.

Lettuce (Lactuca sativa) grows well on a partially shaded patio. Lettuce plants are annuals and grow 1/2 to 1 feet tall and wide, depending on the variety. In some areas of the United States, lettuce is invasive. Grow lettuce in a 1/2-gallon container.

Peppermint (Mentha × piperita) is an invasive herb in open soil, so it makes sense to grow it in 1/2- to 1-gallon containers in a patio garden. Growing 1 to 2 feet tall and wide, peppermint is hardy in USDA zones 5 through 9, and grows in sunny and partially shaded spots.

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