Big ideas for small outdoor spaces


Chances are, you have a patio, balcony, or porch that is begging for a little springtime love. It’s not hard to turn small outdoor spaces (SOS) into little oases that feel both cozy and grand with fragrant vines, pollinator-magnetic flowers, and dramatic houseplants. To create a space that you’ll want to hang out in from breakfast to nightcaps, read on.


1. SUNLIGHT.  Use the compass app on your phone to determine what direction your SOS faces. In the Northern Hemisphere, south-facing spaces are consistently the brightest; west-facing means more intense afternoon light; east-facing means gentler morning light; and north-facing is the dimmest (except for in summer, when the sun angle bakes this exposure). Consider how much shade you get from trees and overhangs. Finally, spend a day timing how many hours of full sun your SOS gets so you can choose your plants accordingly.

2. BIG PLANTS. This might sound counterintuitive, but an SOS doesn’t mean you should gather an armful of tansies in teacups. Quite the opposite. Drag in a big plant in a big pot. A horde of small plants can make a small space look scattershot, whereas a floor tree gives the eye a soaring focal point. For an east-facing SOS, consider a Ficus elastica rubber tree (particularly in black, burgundy or a variegated pink and cream) or an enormous monstera, trained to a moss pole. For a south-facing SOS, try a Meyer lemon tree, a tall stately bird of paradise, or a hot-pink Cordyline Fruticosa ti plant. Good options for west-facing SOS are a Mexican fence-post cactus, a lumpy totem pole cactus, or a pencil tree euphorbia in classic green or coral-orange. North-facing SOS are ideal spots for a dracaena, parlor palm, or big fluffy Boston fern on a stand or in a tall planter.

3. WINDOW BOXES. Line them up! Window boxes can transform your SOS. They’re a space-saving way to line up plants that look good together and have similar light/water needs. Plant them with multiple species of hoyas, spring tulips and ranunculus, bright tropical bromeliads, herbs such as thyme, chives, and oregano, or native wildflowers. Window boxes can go on either side of your railing when mounted properly or you can just perch them on a stand or outdoor table.

4. GO VERTICAL. If you have strong beams overhead, use elephant hooks to hang something interesting like a staghorn fern (avoiding direct sun), string of pearls succulent, or golden pothos. Vertical gardening is easier when you use SkyPots, an innovative kit designed to hang and connect your own pots. Remember that the higher up your plant is, the faster it will dry out, and the closer a plant is to eye level, the more you’ll remember to water it. Plant a vine in a floor pot and train it to go vertical on a pole or trellis. Choose jasmine to scent the night air or thunbergia to boost your mood.

Small outdoor spaces come alive with plants
and details like a stained glass door | CHANTAL AIDA GORDON
Small outdoor spaces come alive with plants and details like a stained glass door | CHANTAL AIDA GORDON
Herbs grow nicely on a
windowsill | RYAN BENOIT
Herbs grow nicely on a windowsill | RYAN BENOIT
Window boxes can be a creative accent piece | RYAN BENOIT
Window boxes can be a creative accent piece | RYAN BENOIT

5. WATERPROOF DÉCOR. Think of how you like to decorate your indoor space and find the weather-resistant version of that. Look for bistro sets—perfect for morning coffee or happy hour—on the OfferUp app. An indoor-outdoor rug pulls your SOS together. In the evening, simple Edison string lights add a welcoming glow and show off the plants that are prospering in your care.

Chantal Aida Gordon is the co-author of the book, How to Window Box. She is also the co-founder of a gardening blog, The Horticult, and a gardening- and music-inspired T-shirt company, Heavy Petal.