The Little Big Garden

Little Big GardenDownsizing a garden to a manageable area does not mean you give up on charm. In fact, small plots are often more creative in utilizing space. The garden of Suzanne O’Clair and David Shelley is one of those places. Though the property may be small, the garden is big on design and inspired elements.

Over the last 18 years, O’Clair and Shelley transformed a barren plot of land into a heavenly garden retreat. With their creative talents sprinkled generously across the property, the couple’s willingness to maintain and let the garden evolve has resulted in a remarkable use of space.

Little Big GardenWhen O’Clair downsized to a smaller home and garden, she went from an established half-acre property to a tiny plot of land measuring just over 3,000 square feet, made even less with a townhouse condominium sitting on most of it. Her goal was a place she could easily maintain when it came time to retire.

Little Big GardenInitially, the landscape came equipped with a surround-lawn, one beautiful maple tree and a concrete sidewalk. The skinny walkway shot past a row of sickly camellias and rhododendrons growing in a narrow bed next to the garage. Past the garage, the path formed a Y. One direction went to the garage door and the other continued up to the porch.

O’Clair asked a garden designer to step in and help her with the initial layout of the new garden. The pair tackled the problem of the townhouse built over the old Poulsbo High School football field, with a sorry mess of about an inch of deplorable topsoil covering a slick clay subbase.

First, the sidewalk came out. Then the stripped lawn was turned upside down and placed in the marked garden beds. O’Clair invested in a massive load of compost to improve the existing soil. She continues to add compost mulch nearly every year, and now the soil is loose and crumbling — a haven for earthworms that continuously till the soil.

Little Big GardenThe initial concept for an Italian-Mediterranean garden evolved over the years into an eclectic, “English-country meets Mediterranean” style.

The front garden, divided by a substantial arbor, became two rooms and made the small garden appear more significant. All visitors pass under the plant-laden arbor on the way to the front door. The structure functions to give vertical space for vines. Growing upwards is the key to producing more plants in a small garden.

Lily of the valley shrubs (Pieris japonica ‘Forest Flame’) flanked the deck and provided a private area with a living wall.

Little Big GardenO’Clair’s commitment to invest in functional structures and selecting many plants that look good every season means that no matter what time of year it is, the garden looks great. Initially, she began with the front yard, and over the years, she and her husband worked their way around to include a backyard oasis.

Outside the garden gate, sandwiched between hot pavement for cars to park on and a sidewalk, was a narrow patch of open ground. Often referred to as a hell strip, it is a dry, overheated place for weeds. O’Clair found a solution to the awkward space. She bought three matching containers and lined them up in the strip. Pavers were put down, and in between, she planted tough, drought-tolerant Mexican feather grass (Nassella tenuissima), Angelina stonecrop (Sedum ‘Angelina’) and other small sedums.

Little Big Garden“I never met a sedum I didn’t like,” O’Clair often says.

Inside the containers, she planted heat-loving English lavender (Lavandula angustifolia) and she replaces them every few years before they become gangly, woody shrubs.

On the other side of the sidewalk, a pink rose climbs the gate entrance. The only plant not removed when O’Clair moved in. Most of the plants selected for the area are drought-tolerant. Penstemons and sedums rule the fence line. She planted Penstemon ‘Garnet,’ a rosy-red beardtongue — one of the most extensive blooming varieties in the Penstemon genus.

Little Big GardenStepping inside the gate, you enter another realm. On the left side, a crescent-shaped garden surrounds a sizeable brown container stuffed to overflowing with attention-loving plants. The garden behind it is teeming with foliage and flowers. O’Clair packs them in, leaving little room for soil to show.

Little Big GardenShe keeps her weeding chores down by shading out the undesirables with the established flora. Clematis, hydrangeas and roses anchor the garden on one end, while edible plants take up the middle section. Blueberries (Vaccinium ‘Sunshine Blue’), an unknown variety fig tree and an espaliered pear tree rub elbows with ornamental plants. Cupressus macrocarpa ‘Wilma’ anchors the garden near the arbor.

Little Big GardenOn the other side of the garden room, next to the garage, sits an unusual metal bench designed in the spiral shape of a nautilus shell. O’Clair found the garden bench in Canada and made a special trip back across the border to retrieve it. Flanking both sides of the seat are gardens packed with plants that do well in the shade.

Anchoring the arbor side of the garden is a lace-cap hydrangea (Hydrangea ‘Twist-N-Shout’). On the other side, the small garden relies on foliage and texture for interest in the bed. O’Clair plants a long cylinder pot with exuberant annuals for a spot of color in summer.

With a small home and property, the couple is creative when it comes to utilizing every inch of space. When Shelley moved in, the garage became his woodworking shop where he designs and custom-builds guitars and ukuleles. In the backyard, Shelley used his talents to create and build a 15-foot wooden sailboat.

Little Big GardenOnce they launched the boat, the pair began the process of turning the back area into an entertaining space. O’Clair found two perfect-size sheds to fit into the small backyard. One of the buildings they affectionately call Chester is where they store seasonal items, garden tools and other essential things that would typically be stored in a garage.

The other shed becomes a multifunctional building during warm weather. The couple uses it for entertaining in the garden. When guests gather, the French doors swing open to become part of the party where refreshments are served. O’Clair also utilizes the shed to do her custom jewelry work or to write her “O’ Stars Above” astrology column (

Little Big GardenContinuity of materials is a necessary design element in a small garden, so after the sheds were installed, O’Clair and Shelley used the same pavers in the back. Three small garden beds, now filled with plants, surround the courtyard. With windows and doors that look out both sides of the house into the garden, it expands the living area.

On the backside of their condominium, a trellis is an extraordinary work of art correctly scaled to break up a blank, two-story wall in the back of their home. A copper art piece is the center of attention when the Avant-garde clematis vine (Clematis ‘Evipo033’) is quietly out of bloom. Tied to the lattice underneath the copper is an aralia ivy (Fatshedera lizei ‘Aurea Maculata’) with fabulous evergreen foliage.

Little Big GardenFlanking either side of the trellis are two large terra cotta pots, each housing a sky pencil holly (Ilex crenata ‘Sky Pencil’) as exclamation points to space.

In front of the lattice, Shelley custom-built a sturdy table to hold a large slab of Italian marble that O’Clair has held onto for many years. Two metal barstools pull up to the table.

About maintenance in the garden, Shelley remarked, “We don’t need mechanical tools here, which means no gas and no noise is needed to maintain our garden.”

With a mature garden packed tightly with flora, Suzanne O’Clair and David Shelley will have to wait for a plant to die before they can put in anything new. The alternative would be to remove any established plants to open up space for their next creative adventure in the little big garden. Talks are underway.