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The Upside to Downsizing

Green thumbs find fulfillment in smaller garden spaces.

By Kimberly Rapanut | Photography by Garrett Cook

Whether your desire for a smaller home is the result of preference or necessity, scaling down doesn’t have to mean that you must sacrifice what you enjoy most about gardening.

After finding themselves empty nesters, Amy Carlile, co-owner of a Phoenix-based garden store, and her husband made the decision to move from their home in the city’s Encanto district to a downtown high-rise. Although shifting from a traditional front and backyard layout to a petite balcony can present unique challenges and learning opportunities, Carlile says the process allowed her to rediscover her love of gardening and awakened a new type of creativity.

“It’s like starting over again,” she says. “Down-sizing has afforded me the ability to narrow my focus and be thoughtful about how I use my space. I have more energy to put into these areas, and I can concentrate on the gardening that I love. I appreciate that I no longer have to deal with the responsibility that comes with maintaining a large property.”

For Paradise Valley homeowner Kathy Van Arsdale, the opportunity to transition from a multiacre yard to a considerably smaller property came at just the right time. Shifts in preferences and lifestyles led her and her husband to move from a sizable property to a smaller lot with two courtyards and a narrow backyard.

An avid vegetable gardener, Van Arsdale says her new compact, low-maintenance yard gives her just enough room to do what she enjoys without feeling overwhelmed. Although she no

In the small front yard of Kathy Van Arsdale’s Paradise Valley home, an ironwood tree and rows of artichoke agaves (Agave parryi v. truncata) add low-maintenance visual interest to a raised garden bed.

longer plants favorites such as Brussels sprouts or broccoli due to space restrictions, she notes that she doesn’t feel as if she’s sacrificed much since minimizing. “The limited square footage makes me really consider what is most important to me to include,” she says. “I have a couple of raised beds in which I’ve planted my favorite herbs and vegetables. I’m not filling space just for the sake of doing so.”

In the entry courtyard, star jasmine entwines around a trellis, filling the area with sweet fragrance in the spring. Faux turf between limestone pavers adds an additional touch of green without the need for upkeep.

Carlile’s business partner, Lynn Town, advises green thumbs who are reducing their outdoor footprint to create a checklist of needs and priorities while paying close attention to location and size of the new garden space, be it a patio, terrace, courtyard or small patch of earth. Taking into account whether you like to entertain outdoors, use your balcony for dining or relaxing, or maintain a personal nursery are all important factors to consider when trimming down.

For very limited square footage, do not under-estimate how many plants can thrive when potted. Lettuce, tomatoes, herbs and leafy greens are just a few examples of vegetables that grow well in smaller pots and containers in our arid climate, Town says. Succulents, cacti and hearty bloomers, such as nasturtiums, geraniums and marigolds, can also make for beautiful additions to compact environments.

If you’d like something with a vibe that’s distinctly Southwestern, try drought-tolerant plants such as lady’s-slipper or golden barrel cactus, both of which are virtually maintenance-free in-ground or in pots.

For courtyards or similarly limited spaces, landscape designer Bennett McGregor recommends bearing in mind the gardener’s axiom: right plant, right space. “With smaller areas, it’s important to understand that there is no wiggle room,” he says. “Be mindful of how quickly plants can grow and the size they will reach upon maturity.”

That cute little shrub may be perfectly proportioned when you plant it, but when fully grown it may quickly overpower a compact environment. When in doubt, consult your local nursery or a landscape professional before making any long-term decisions.

Whether moving into a suburban town home or city apartment, retirement getaway or penthouse pied-a-terre, for gardeners of all levels of expertise, scaling down can be surprisingly freeing.

Raised beds allow homeowners to enjoy herb and vegetable gardening within a tight space. “I have just enough room for all of my favorites without having to manage a full garden,” Kathy says.

Adjacent to the rear patio, the narrow backyard includes artificial turf on which the Van Arsdales’ grandchildren can play. Potted geraniums add cheerful pops of color and can be replaced with other blooming plants seasonally.


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