I recently moved to a home with acreage, but quickly realized that even large lots have small or quirky outdoor spaces that must be designed carefully and thoughtfully.

Fortunately, with attention to appropriate plant and variety choices, just about anything that can be done to dress up a larger space can be done on a smaller scale with equal success.

Even the smallest spaces can be made to appear larger with a few design tricks that fool the eye into thinking the space is bigger than it actually is.

Some ideas:


• Garden in layers. Layers give the illusion of more space than you really have. “Garden Up,” a book by California landscape designers Rebecca Sweet and Susan Morrison, recommends that we think in terms of three layers: top, middle and bottom. For the tallest layer, choose vines that naturally grow flat against a wall, vase-shaped plants or trees you can train or shape to allow plenty of room for planting beneath them.

In the middle layer, select plants that are 3-4 feet tall, with a vertical, light, open habit, such as perennials with tall flower stalks or finely textured ornamental grasses. The reason is how our eyes perceive depth. If we can see several things at once where we might otherwise only see one, it tricks the eye into thinking the space is bigger than it is, and gives the area a more overall lush feel.

The bottom layer should fill in the gaps and can offer multiseason interest. Select small-scale grasses, ground-hugging shrubs and compact perennials to visually anchor the bottom.

• Introduce color with non-plant selections. Depending on flower color to provide accent and impact in your design can be risky in a small space. Since every inch must count, a potentially underperforming flower display can diminish the impact, and even the most accomplished plant experts struggle here. Instead, bring in color through other objects, such as brightly painted furniture, accessories, wall objects or garden art.

• Ditch the dirt. With limited overall space, yielding some of that to a patch of dirt for planting may seem impractical, and it often is. Instead, consider making a limited outdoor space feel like a continuation of the indoors. That may include replacing dirt for brick pavers, tile or concrete. Then add an all-weather area rug to give the feel of another room. Add attractive planting containers of different shapes and sizes and fill them with a variety of plants and trees. You’ll have an instant garden, and another room to extend the living space.

• Maximize usable space. The recurring theme by all designers when it comes to making a small area look its best is to take advantage of every inch of space, especially vertical opportunities.

In just a glance, visitors may get the sense that they’ve seen all there is to see in a small garden. That can be disappointing. So keep it interesting and mysterious. Add other objects like a small water feature, or even a mirror to give the illusion the space continues. Tuck in a few surprises that require a more lingering stroll through the garden. Containers work very well, either as a focal point or when tucked discreetly in the back of a bed where they aren’t immediately on display. Other tricks include a garden path that leads beyond the field of view, even if it stops just around the corner. The eye is again tricked to thinking there is more than there actually is.