Compact gardening – Part 4

Design implementation

Maulbronn Klostergarten

I hope it’s going good with your compact garden design so far! Today’s article will give you knowledge about how to work with shapes to be able to fit in more plants on a smaller space and how to work with layers (also called stacking). This helps you utilize the different functions we talked about last time. I will also talk about different growing containers and how you can use recycled materials to save both money and the environment.


When we have limited space we have to work a lot with shapes/positioning to fit in more plants on the ground surface. Straight rows on plane ground isn’t very efficient. There are very simple ways to optimize the space. Some of them include playing with simple geometry, others include creating more vertical space. Bring out pen, paper and a ruler to try out different concepts.

Have a look at the following illustration:
Fit in more on same space
As you can see, it is possible to fit in many more of one type of plant in a zig-zag pattern or on a bent line. Bent edges are perfect to use for ponds or along pathways. Using zig-zag gives you space between the plants to fit in something else that doesn’t compete with the plant you’re planning for (i.e. something higher, lower or with roots on another level).

Herb spirals are another example of a smart shape for fitting a lot of plants on a small space and at the same time create micro climates which fit each type of plant. Here you have both bent lines and vertical implementation combined. Plants that need more sun and dryer soil are positioned higher up and towards the sun. Plants that need more shade are placed further down and on the side facing away from the sun. On the lowest part you can even implement a small pond or wetland. As the spiral is irrigated or when it rains the excess water will run down towards the lower parts benefiting the plants that like more moisture.
Herb spiral
The drawing and photos are from working on a herb spiral which was designed and implemented on my land during the PDC (Permaculture Design Course) I took in Portugal in 2010.

Keyhole gardens allow you to create raised beds with bent lines and you avoid walking on the soil since you can reach it when standing on the path around it. The keyhole garden can be implemented with a container in the middle where you put vegetable or garden scraps to break down and create new soil. (Make sure to check your local regulations regarding compost since it is not allowed to compost food leftovers open air in all places due to the risk of attracting pests such as rats.) It is highly productive and low maintenance if you combine it with mulch between your plants. Send a cow has a great instruction for how you can build one yourself.

Swales I mentioned last time. Here you work on building up small “hills” which help retaining water on land where you need to avoid runoff. This is perfect to implement if you start with a flat lawn on a slight slope. The water will be forced to seep into the ground and will create an underground water reservoir. You also create a larger surface for cultivation since the swale gives you a vertical lift. Swales can also be used to create micro climates – dryer at the top and wetter at the bottom.
Circles around trees are another shape which use the same principle as a swale. Through building up a simple circle with the help of soil, straw or other organic material you force water to seep into the ground which helps the roots of the tree. You can also grow plants on top of this ridge, preferably on the drip line. That way you get direct irrigation from the tree but at the same time protection from the hot sun during sunny days.
Drip line
Copy patterns from nature. Look at a leaf. See the nerves that go from the center out to the edges? You can implement the same type of patterns when you design pathways in your garden to make it possible to reach growing beds without having to step on them. This pattern can also be used for setting up an irrigation system. Having a bigger central line which then separates into thinner pipes towards the sides helps you save water. Pages 5 and forward in this PDF can be useful for finding more examples of patterns in nature.


Make sure to combine plants of different height. Learn about how deep the roots of each plant go. Grow low plants such as spinach or arugula underneath higher flowers. Let beans climb on trees. Bushes fit neatly underneath trees. Carrots, beetroot and radishes mainly grow underground. Look again at your list of plants and categorize them based on total height and how deep the roots go. Then try to combine them so that you fit more plants on the same space. Once again, look at forests. There you will find that the different layers are used at a maximum. High trees have lower trees underneath, then bushes, higher grasses and flowers, lower grasses, moss and then several plants where the main part grows underground such as mycelium in mushrooms.

Other ways of working in layers on a small space is utilizing walls to grow plants on. There are grow mats where plants create a living wall. Build a tower of pots using a cane through the hole in the bottom to stack them on top of each other. Use hanging pots or trellises to let plants grow above you and help create more shade.

Also use the stacking functions to create protection when needed. Hedges and bushes block strong wind from damaging lower more sensitive plants. Bushes and trees give shade and so on.


Growing plants in limited spaces such as balconies, terraces or even indoors usually means that you have to use some form of container for soil and plants. Of course you can buy ready pots, boxes etc in shops, but there are many other options for suitable containers which you might already have at home, can get for free or buy second hand for a small amount of money.

When you choose containers for different plants you have to consider the following:

  • Make sure the container is deep and wide enough to fit the roots of the plant(s).
  • Make sure it is steady enough for your location (windy balconies etc).
  • Make sure the container doesn’t get too hot – avoid metal buckets in full sunshine since they will dry out quickly.
  • Use deeper containers on very sunny locations to avoid drying out too fast.

There are many containers in your every day life that you can recycle. Food packaging such as tin cans, milk cartons and plastic bottles work perfectly for smaller plants. Old buckets, sinks or bathtubs get new life with some plants in them. Old tires can be lined with plastic to create steady containers right on the ground. Old kitchen pans and glass bowls give a whimsical touch to your garden. Wine crates, baskets, plastic barrels – look around in your environment and you will fins tons of items that can be re-purposed as growing containers.

Remember to add drainage holes to the bottom to make sure that the plants don’t get “wet feet” after rain.

When growing in containers you have a lot of flexibility. With time you will notice what works and not, if plants are thriving or if they need another location. You can even move vessels during the season if you notice that something is getting too much or too little sun.

Your activities:

Question: Can you think of further methods or patterns that can be used to optimize the available space and fit in more plants on small spaces?
A good tip for gathering your ideas in one place is to get a Pinterest account. You will find a lot of inspiration there!
Task: Start sketching on a full design for your garden using the design methods described in the last articles. Try fitting in the plants you chose in the second article into your design.

Share your progress using #mycompactgarden!

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About Veronica (166 Articles)
Veronica is the founder of With one foot in the past and one in the future she takes inspiration from older aesthetics and ideas to apply them in updated form today. She is passionate about teaching timeless skills and believes that the world needs more polymaths.

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