THE MOST DELICIOUS garden I ever saw was postage-stamp-sized, as was the house. One of Washington DC’s tiny alley dwellings, just one room deep. A minuscule galley kitchen opened to a garden perhaps eight foot square, with just enough room for a café table and a pair of bistro chairs. It felt huge, however, thanks to mirrors hung on the high fence walls reflecting fabulously lush tropical foliage. There was wine, of course, and music drifting from the house. A turtle or two waltzed by.
A little whimsy never killed anyone.
There are tricks to creating such an atmosphere; feel free to liberally borrow—and add turtles, perhaps frogs.
1. Plant a pot—but make it a beauty. The Cheltenham Thistle Urn from MacKenzie-Childs makes me weep, but if $695 turns you green, try painting one yourself. Or repurpose something you already have. My upside-down Victorian umbrella stand does double duty, showing off an orchid (at the moment) by lofting it high above the border. Baby found a silver-plated punch bowl at the thrift shop and filled it with coleus and sweet potato vine. I just bet there’s a wedding gift in your closet that would make a spectacular planter.
2. Spray paint is your friend. Dead boxwood? No problem: Spray it green. Same goes for dead patches of grass before the dinner party. If you love briefly flowering plants such as astilbe, the kind that leave a dried brown frond once their brief season of bloom is over, pick a color, any color, and spray. It will last the season with no harm to the plant. For a dramatic accent, wouldn’t a cluster of six-foot-tall Chinese red bamboo poles look cool in that corner? Or gild an ornate junk picture frame and hang it from a tree, hopefully framing something pleasurable.
3. There’s no end to what you might drop among the petunias, or dangle from a tree branch. Scatter shiny Christmas balls. Try a pearlescent bowling ball in a shocking shade, say pink, in a sea of green. Have a Balinese umbrella handy? Cast some shade.
4. Fast-growing annual vines are a speedy solution to an eyesore, such as a telephone pole or sign post. Morning glory and moonflowers, with their honeyed scent and creamy flowers that open after sunset, are naturals. They can also be trained to dance along a fence line, or smother a railing. This year I’m using a lacy wrought-iron headboard—a found object—for my cherry red mandevilla. Washington residents toss out the most fabulous stuff.
4b. Major eyesores, such as trash cans, or husband detritus, require major screening. Amazon has assorted bamboo screens, and they ship so you don’t need to schlep. Also at Amazon? My favorite (totally accidental) find: a rain forest shower curtain that could distract from any mess or tiny garden space.
5. Elephant ears, banana plants, philodendron and parlor palms (Chamaedorea elegans) all do brilliantly in our tropical summers, growing huge and quickly filling space with intense drama. Plant some in the ground, others in pots, to create interesting levels. As a bonus, philodendron and palm leaves can be cut and put in vases (both will last for weeks), to bring a touch of the tropics indoors.
6. Flower holders. You know those pointy-bottomed green plastic things with the rubber caps that individual flower stems are sometimes presented in? They’re also great in the garden, like when you’re having a garden party and are in despair of blooms. Grab a big bunch of flowers at the market, break them apart, insert stems into the holders and tuck the holders in the foliage. Most florists will sell them to you, or you can buy a pack of 100 floral water tubes from Amazon for 10 bucks.
7. No list from me would be complete without . . . faux flowers. My upper window boxes are always punctuated with fake geraniums. I mean, why bother? Geraniums don’t do well when it gets July hot, anyway. I don’t have sun enough anymore for lilies, but when I did I always wired “silk” blooms to the stems when the flowers faded. They even fooled me. Note of caution: Make sure they look real, and do NOT overdo; you want this to be a private little titter, so keep it to a stem or two.
8. Mirror, mirror. He of the tiny garden that opened this piece had a giant mirror in the corner, doubling the size of the space, the density of the plantings and the squint of sunlight. Mine is a vaguely Moorish screen, turquoise-painted wood inset with large mirrored panels, that has the same space-enhancing, enlarging effect on my back porch.
9. Linen is a plant, I think. A brilliantly colored French tablecloth, treated to withstand water, can stand in for a dearth of flowers. Summer whites are classic cool. Hang curtains (somewhere)—very Daisy Buchanan if they can drift about as you laze on a lounger. Ikea’s tab-topped Matilda sheers are $19.99 a pair and easily hung—or just thumb tacked—anywhere. Continuing with the whites, you know what makes a great summer throw? A painter’s drop cloth. Drip the rosé? Just drop the cloth in the wash. And don’t forget pillows—you need heaps for wilting upon.
10. Light up the night! A crystal chandelier in the garden never grows old. I ripped out the wiring in a junk-shop find, strung it with crystals and beads, and use votive candles on it. Chinese lanterns are cheerful, and laser lights are a delight (if already bordering on the overdone), and candles are, of course, essential. One other thing I’ll try again this year is tossing about edible glitter and tucking fairy lights into the ground cover. It will be, I imagine, as if hundreds of lightning bugs have come to roost (or whatever it is they do.)
LittleBird Stephanie writes and writes and writes about gardens, real and imagined. To read earlier columns, type Green Acre into the Search box at the top of the page.