developing a signature garden style, even in a small space, with designer susan morrison

I DON’T HAVE a small yard, but I nevertheless sat down with a new book called “The Less Is More Garden” by landscape designer Susan Morrison, and came away with numerous practical ideas for fine-tuning the design of my outdoor world. One thing that struck me in particular: Susan’s advice on what goes into developing a signature style for your garden—and who doesn’t want that?

Susan Morrison is based in the Bay Area of California and known especially for her experience on solving the puzzle that small-space gardens can pose. Her own backyard is just 30 by 60 feet, though anything but boring.

The subtitle of her new book, “The Less Is More Garden,” is “Big Ideas for Designing Your Small Yard,” but even big-yard types like myself have plenty to learn from Susan’s ideas. We talked about how each of us can look at our own spaces with a designer’s eye, about breaking up too-boxy rectangular spaces to bring life into them, about use of color and other elements, and also when to call a friend in for a fresh set of eyes.

Read along as you listen to the Feb. 12, 2018 edition of my public-radio show and podcast using the player below. You can subscribe to all future editions on iTunes or Stitcher (and browse my archive of podcasts here).

‘the less is more garden,’ with designer susan morrison


Q. Welcome. I think you’re out at the Northwest flower show, aren’t you?

A. Yes, I’m at the Northwest Flower & Garden Show. And in fact, this morning was great, because I had an opportunity to be on the show floor before they turned the lights up and the people came in, and so I got to explore the show gardens and take some great photos and get some inspiration without elbowing my way through.

Q. I haven’t spoken at that show in a long time, but it’s one of the great shows in this country, so good for you.

A. I would agree, yes.

Q. So generally, small yards are kind of the norm in modern America, aren’t they? I think in the beginning of the book, you kind of talk about the sort of ubiquity of the small yard.

A. That’s very true. And in fact, when I was growing up in Southern California, I lived in a very modest-size ranch home that had a very big backyard. And the first house that I bought was a new house, and I think it exemplified the way houses are now, which is a very big house on a very small yard. And that’s not just in California, that’s really in a lot of parts of the country.

Q. What is the average scale of your clients? I mean, you do this as a profession—you help people to sort out their landscapes—and what’s the average sort of size that you would say that you’re working in?

A. I occasionally do work with large gardens, an acre-plus size, but that’s not the norm. And so I have a lot of gardens that are about my size, that go back maybe 30 feet or 40 feet, sometimes even smaller than that. I have a design where we’re just going to start the installation in another week, and it is only 12 feet deep. So small is definitely … It’s more the norm than you might think.

Q. Well, I think every gardener sort of, no matter what the size of the canvas that he or she is working on, really wants to kind of imprint their own style on the place. And in the book, as I mentioned in the intro, you talk about the idea of signature style. It’s in an anecdote about how you once visited two gardens nearby to each other on the same day. So tell us that anecdote in brief, and about signature style.

A. Well, actually, I was on a Garden Conservancy tour in Berkeley a couple of years ago, and the first part of the tour had two gardens. And the first one was Keeyla Meadows’s garden [detail above], and she’s an artist and a sculptor and also a landscape designer. And when I walked into that small backyard, it absolutely bowled me over with color. It was wall-to-wall color, and she’s old-school; it’s not just foliage. It was all about the flowers and colorful mosaics.

And in the sunny part of the garden, it was all hot pinks and bright reds and neon colors. And then you’d go around the corner, and she would create this little grotto, and all of a sudden, it was greens and purples. So it’s really the most fearless color garden that I’ve ever seen, and in fact, it inspired my own style because I like a lot of color, and she showed me that I could go even further than I was. So that was a fantastic experience.

And then we went maybe just a mile down the road to a garden very similar in scale and the same cultural conditions, and that was also an artist’s garden, Marcia Donahue…

Q. Which I haven’t been to in years, but she’s someone I admire greatly.  

A. It’s an amazing space, and I would just say that both of these gardeners open up their gardens to the public on a regular basis, so if you’re in the area, it’s worth visiting. Her garden really had no flowers in it.

Q. Yes.

A. She had created this kind of crazy towering jungle with bamboo and other plants, and it was almost like entering this secret jungle space. And she also used it as a canvas for her art, and the longer you were in the garden, the more that you saw these beautiful Hindu rosary beads draped over things, and bowling-ball art. And her space was very quiet and contemplative versus Keeyla’s, which was very energizing and exciting. In fact, I spent so much time in those two gardens that I only had time to see one more garden before the end of the tour.

So spaces like that, they’re artists and these are very high-concept gardens with a lot of maintenance, I think more than any of us would want on our own, but so inspirational. And it just really demonstrates that even in a small space, you can create an extremely unique experience.

Q. Yes. And probably, and I mean, having just read your new book, “The Less Is More Garden,” I presume that in these two examples, as well as the clients that you go to advise and help implement something in their small spaces or any spaces, it starts with sort of your same tenets of good design, and thinking through what you want and why you want it and when you want it and so forth, and who you are, right?

A. Mm-hmm.

Q. So let’s just kind of backtrack to some of those … What are the questions? Like say we’re walking through a garden with a new prospective client. What are trying to ask them, and say to them, and coax out to get the information you need to guide the exercise?

A. Well, one of the things that I find is that when I meet with a new client in their garden, there is a tendency to focus on the practical. And so they want to jump right in with, “Well, Susan, we pictured having a gazebo over here, and we thought we could have a hot tub over here.” And I don’t like that.

Q. [Laughter.]

A. I don’t send out a questionnaire in advance. I kind of feel like we’re asked to answer surveys all the time any more. I feel like I can’t get a bottle of shampoo without being asked about my experience.

But I do, once I get there, like to drill down. And what I try to do is move people away from what they want in their garden and instead start with what I call “the three W’s.” And those W’s are: what will you be doing in the garden, when will you be outside, and who will be with you? So in essence, we want to start with your lifestyle, your experiences. How are you going to use this space? Don’t tell me what you want, tell me what you want to do. And then together we’ll figure out what that means.

Q. Yes. You talk around there, in the same point in the book where I picked up on the three W’s, about ideas like “like less space, more enjoyment.” Sort of just almost mantras, like philosophies that you also have.

A. Yes. And it’s basically taking a negative and making it a positive, because there are so many fantastic things about a small garden. You’re right up close to all of the action all of the time. You never miss anything. And you can really spend a lot less time in your garden and still have something that comes out really beautifully.

And again, the idea of the three W’s as well, I use that with all of my clients, regardless of the size of their garden. But in a small garden, you do have to work a little bit harder to create what you want because you just don’t have an unlimited canvas, and so those ideas become even more important.

And in fact, I think of those three W’s, the most important one is: what do you want to do in the garden? You had said at the beginning, if I came out to your gigantic space, but imagine you have a smaller space, and to help you get started, I would start to ask you those questions. What is it that you like to do when you’re outside?

An example that I give in the book, because this actually comes up fairly often, is someone will tell me that they like to cook outside. And so if I get that question, then I’ll ask them a series of questions back, like how often do you like to cook outside? And do you do it year-round or just some of the time? Is it just you and the family, or do you entertain?

Q. Right. Big difference, right?

A. It’s a huge difference because what makes the three W’s so powerful is the more you drill down in the detail, the more you’re going to personalize the space. So if they say, “We grill all the time, all week long,” then I’ll make sure that the barbecue area is close to the kitchen door. And as you know, design is also about allocating your budget in a smart way.

Q. It is.

A. So I know that we’ll put more money against that. Yes. And if they barbecue year-round, I’ll make sure there’s protection from the elements. And if they like to entertain, I’ll make sure that it’s a social area and that they can grill while they’re still hanging out with their guests.

And I love that idea of signature style, and I love it that you picked up that, that that was one of your big takeaways from the book.

And from a style standpoint, I would take it even a step further and say, “Let’s show off the fact that you’re an outdoor cook and you’re a chef.” And maybe we’ll put a container with a citrus or fruit tree here. And maybe we’ll have a little raised bed close by that’s got a lot of exotic cooking herbs. And so that’s just a way … Now your garden is useful, and it’s practical, but it’s also personal, and that’s what you want.

Q. So one of the things that I especially picked up on, besides the signature style thing, in the book was that some of these spaces, as some you just described, are tricky because they’re rectangular, or sometimes they’re narrow and a long rectangle. They’re tough spaces in a way, and you don’t want them to just be these rigid, uptight things when you’re done with them.

You want some sensuality and some life to it. And so I loved two examples. One was that you broke up these rectangular spaces either by thinking sort of curvaceously or by thinking diagonally. Can you tell me a little bit about those two ideas, like how they work?

A. Well, the first idea, the first style that you’re talking about—did you say “curvaceously?” Was that the word that you used? [Laughter.] [Photo of curved beds and stone wall, above.]

Q. Yes, I did. I didn’t know what the word should’ve been. I’m sorry, is that…

A. I love that. You need a word, and it’s not there, I think you just need to invent it.

Q. Yes.

A. Perfect. And I would say the word that I would use is, I would call that an organic design style. And that’s probably what most people gravitate towards. And curves like that are a really great way to break up a narrow space because, again, now you’ve got curves that are counterbalancing those straight lines.

And I think one of the reasons that so many of us do gravitate towards that style is because that’s more what it’s like in nature. In nature, things flow in curves. Water flows in curves; it doesn’t go in a straight line. Trees and shrubs don’t plant themselves in a straight line. And so that’s one of the most obvious and easy ways to make your space feel like an outdoor space and really distinct from an indoor one.

The second style that you’re talking about, that kind of diagonal design is more unusual but really exciting and a fantastic way to organize a long, narrow space because those jags and those angles also work very effectively to counterbalance the edges. And with a small garden, there are a lot of tricks of perception that you can introduce that even though you can’t physically make the garden bigger, you can make it feel bigger. And if it feels more spacious, then it’s going to be more attractive to be in.

So when you cut your garden or even a part of it if you’ve got a larger garden with a diagonal line like that, you actually create a longer … oh, gosh. There’s a … Make up a word for me, Margaret. [Laughter.]

Q. Oops.

A. A longer field of vision, so you sort of extend the sense of the garden’s spaciousness. It’s particularly effective if you have a big backyard but you have maybe a narrow side yard, it’s a great little design style for a small side yard. I love it there.

Q. It’s a very dynamic … That diagonal kind of feeling breaking up this otherwise very rigid, sort of rectangular space is very powerful [above]. There’s a lot of energy in it.

A. Well, and I think it’s unexpected as well, and so that’s always an exciting thing to find in a garden.

Q. Yes. So let’s just dial back to like … So you’re there, and you’re with a new prospective client, and you’re trying to take clues, so you ask them about things like … Someone says, “I like to cook outside,” and you dig into that. So what are some of the other things—observations you’re making, clues you’re trying to get.

Do you talk to people, do you say, “What colors do you like?” I mean, do you ask such literal questions? Or how does it work? What else should we be thinking at as we go and look at our own gardens even and help ourselves this spring, you know?

A. Color is definitely a big part of the garden-design process and working with the client. And I have to say it’s an intimidating aspect for clients.

Q. [Laughter.]

A. It’s funny, and it’s hard to get advice. These days, there’s so much online. People feel that they can do a lot of things themselves and research things themselves. And if you want to really decide how to use color in your garden, if it’s the inside of your house, there’s a million websites that are going to help you with color and interior design, but that’s not really true for color in the garden, and so it can be difficult.

When I talk to clients about the colors that they like, it’s interesting because I often already have a hint before we get to that point just from the time we’ve spent together because colors are very powerful. Colors can really drive the emotional feel of a garden. And in fact, the example that we talked about at the beginning, the difference between Keeyla’s garden and Marcia’s garden is a really good example of that.

So usually by the time they’ve told me what they want to do in the garden, I’ve got a little bit of a sense of that.

But beyond that, there’s an opportunity to sort of create your own color story in the garden, and that gets back to what you said about creating a personal style. And so even though I don’t do a questionnaire, I will probe a little bit, and it’s what I know I would encourage anyone listening who’s doing this on their own to do as well, is sometimes you can get rid of that intimidation factor by kind of coming up with an overall strategy or an overall organizing principle. And there’s a couple that I have found work for clients.

And one is to come up with sort of a theme. It doesn’t need to be a color palette, but a theme that helps you decide how you’re going to relate to your garden. And a very common one that comes up, because people want their garden to be an oasis, is their inspiration is a favorite vacation spot.

Q. Oh.

A. And so here on the West Coast, a lot of people love to go to Hawaii regularly, they love to go to Mexico regularly, and so they want that garden to feel like that vacation experience. And so I’ll use those colors and that feeling in the garden in terms of what introduce.

But it doesn’t even have to be … If you’re looking at a place, if you’re using geography for inspiration, it doesn’t even have to be a place that you’ve been. It can be a place that you want to go. Maybe you want to live in the South of France, or you want to live in Italy. So pulling those colors out and making them your own is, again, it’s a great way to personalize a space and to ensure that you’re going to spend time in it.

Q. Now, you said earlier when you gave one of the examples, you said how you loved going to that garden because so much color and it sort of spoke to you because of your own interests, your love of color. I have what I call always a “high color tolerance,” you know?

A. Mm-hmm.

Q. And I’m obsessed with … I came at this all from being a plant sort of collector, like a plant person. I know nothing about garden design, but I liked plants, and I started getting more and more and more, and then I had to put them somewhere. You know what I mean?

A. I know exactly what you mean.

Q. I did it all backwards as many of, I’m sure, your prospective clients did. [Laughter.] You found them in the state I was in where I had a lot of plants and no organization. But gold foliage I love in particular, so for me, for instance, if you and I had met X-number of years ago, and you would’ve probably noted that, that I had a lot of these crazy gold things, but they weren’t being used to advantage. Do you know what I mean?

A. Mm-hmm.

Q. Because they scream, right?

A. Mm-hmm.

Q. Gold screams. So I needed help. I needed someone to come sort of talk to me about how gold, for instance, works versus, say, purple-y or maroon, wine-colored foliage. Do you know what I mean?

A. I do know what you mean, yes.

Q. Because colors have different … They serve different roles, don’t they?

A. Yes. Actually, gold and chartreuse in the garden are really powerful colors, because they’re particularly good in shadier areas [above]. They sort of act as that missing sunshine, and they’re great contrast plants.

The trick, to your point, is when you recognize that you have a color or a shape that you love so much that you get carried away is to force yourself to step back and edit that a little bit. It’s interesting, for you it’s gold, for me it’s not a color, I love spiky, sharp things in the garden, and sometimes I realize, O.K., this is starting to look a little dangerous in here…

Q. Oops. [Laughter.]

A. …I need to dial this back a little bit. Just a little bit. So it’s just a little bit about editing and making sure that you’re not too crazy. But the flip side of that is that that’s another way to develop your color story.

Someone like you, what I call a plantsman’s garden, someone who starts with the plants, that it’s about the love of plants, I don’t try to change that. I say, “O.K., if that’s what you love, let’s let your love of gold guide the rest of your palette. And instead of trying to bring in a lot of new colors, why don’t we kind of echo those plants?” And as we bring in furniture and features and other things, more gold is O.K. if gold is the only story compared to green and maybe a little bit of red.

Q. Yes, so that it became more as if it were planned and it was the message, as opposed to, “Oh, my gosh, I’ve got a gold thing over there, and then there’s another one over there, but it’s too busy and crazy.” It was a little, yes, unifying. Yes.

A. Exactly. And so it’s like you have this sort of monochromatic garden except it’s still really vibrant and full. And in fact, in the book, it’s such a beautiful photo [above]. I did not take it. Doreen Wynja took the photo, and it’s right when you open up the book, the facing page, whatever that’s called. And it’s your kind of garden.

Q. Yes, exactly.

A. I bet that’s why you wanted to talk about this book.

Q. Yes.

A. Because it’s very lush and the only color in it that isn’t green is this gold-chartreuse, and it’s the most lush photo that you’ve ever seen. You just want to be in that garden all the time.

Q. Yes, it was wonderful. I just wanted to ask about some other ways people can be thinking about expressing signature style, like containers, or adding color. Any of the other things that you find that help people to express themselves that are sort of the add-ons besides the sort of layout of the garden that we talked about a little bit.

A. Well, again, that’s where a small garden is really a boon compared to a larger space, because it doesn’t take very much, and it’s all right there where you can enjoy it. What I encourage people to do when they have a smaller garden is two things: Take advantage of the fact that your patio is typically right next to a garden, you don’t have a big expanse of lawn around us, and to use that as an opportunity to bring in things that are highly interactive. Like a water feature really close to where you’re sitting is so much more appealing than something out in the landscape where you can’t really reach it.

And the other thing that I encourage people to do, because you don’t have as much planting space, is to think un-traditionally. Don’t think, “Here’s the patio, and so this is where my containers go. And here’s the planting bed, and so this is where my plants go.” Mix it up. Put containers out in the landscape. Use them as a way to connect those two spaces and also to bring the objects and the things that you love, again, closer to where you’re going to enjoy them.

Q. Yes. There are so many ideas in this book, “The Less Is More Garden.” I could just ask you and ask you and ask you, of course, because I’m already thinking about the season to come. How am I going to-

A. Exactly. This is planning time.

Q. Yes, it is. It is, it is. What is the first question—just one last thing I’ll ask you—what is the most common question you’re asked on that first visit? Is it that they tell you what they want, the hot tub here and the whatever? Or is there that they call you because they really can’t figure out (blank)? What’s the thing that we’re all lost about? Just so I feel better because I’m probably worried about it, too.

A. I think that people ask this question in different ways, but the Number 1 thing is people say, “My garden doesn’t hang together.” It’s some version of, “I have these things that all work fine, but I don’t feel like they go together. I don’t feel like I really have a garden.”

And it makes sense that that would be where someone would say, “O.K., I need a fresh set of eyes to come in,” because you look at your own space for so long, and you know it’s not quite right, but you can’t figure out what it is. And so I’d say that’s the number one question.

And that’s where, even if it’s not a designer, if that’s your question, bringing in any set of fresh eyes is really important. And I have to tell you, I actually have a new home that I moved into two years ago, and designers are obsessed with asking every designer who comes over to their house what they should do. So we all need that.

Q. O.K., I feel better now, Susan.

A. We all need that.

more from susan morrison

enter to win a copy of ‘the less is more garden’

I’LL BUY A COPY of Susan Morrison’s “The Less Is More Garden: Big Ideas for Designing Your Small Yard,” for one lucky reader. All you have to do to enter is answer this question in the comments box at the very bottom of the page, after the last reader comment:

What’s the garden-design challenge that you are facing most of all, that you could use an extra set of eyes to help you resolve?

No answer, or feeling shy? Just say something like “count me in” and I will, but an answer is even better. I’ll draw a random winner after entries close at midnight Tuesday, February 20, 2018. Good luck to all; U.S. and Canada only.


prefer the podcast version of the show?

MY WEEKLY public-radio show, rated a “top-5 garden podcast” by “The Guardian” newspaper in the UK, began its seventh year in March 2016. In 2016, the show won three silver medals for excellence from the Garden Writers Association. It’s produced at Robin Hood Radio, the smallest NPR station in the nation. Listen locally in the Hudson Valley (NY)-Berkshires (MA)-Litchfield Hills (CT) Mondays at 8:30 AM Eastern, rerun at 8:30 Saturdays. Or play the Feb. 5, 2018 show using the player near the top of this transcript. You can subscribe to all future editions on iTunes or Stitcher (and browse my archive of podcasts here).

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  1. Nancy Chute says:

    i need help finding screening of my neighbor’s backyard activities under a shady canopy of their trees over my property. Fencing is not an option, alas.

  2. Trish says:

    I have a small rectangular front yard that I have gardened >20 years. It’s all about covering every square inch with textured foliage, in particular, foliage which looks good year round. If it flowers all the better, but foliage (trees, shrubs, perennials ) and natives are my driving elements. I squeeze in pathways. As you can imagine, there is no design principle so it does not hang together. But it gives me and my neighbors pleasure which = successful garden.

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