Columns, In the Garden

Making Outdoor Spaces Work

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photo by Bonnie Kirn Donahue
For spaces that are too small to have a full garden, consider adding a pot or container with colorful flowers or vegetables to your outdoor space.

NORTHFIELD – As warmer weather approaches, it is a great time to consider how to use the outdoor spaces. Whether renting or owning, using public land or private, there are things to think about to help make these outdoor spaces work better.

Ideally, the landscape should match needs, lifestyle, time and resources.

For a small space, like an entry porch or balcony, think about what to do in that space, and try to reflect that in the design.

Would adding a chair make the area feel more welcoming? A chair would have the dual purpose of something to sit on when the weather is nice, while also providing a focal point. Having two chairs invites conversation and offers a place to gather.

For spaces that are too small to have a full garden, consider adding a pot or container to an outdoor space. One or more containers can be used to grow or hold different arrangements depending on the season.

 In summer, they could hold annuals that support pollinators like sweet alyssum (Lobularia maritima) or zinnias (Zinnia spp.). In the winter, they could hold evergreen boughs or willow branches. Depending on the sun exposure, the planting container could also be used for growing food like tomatoes, peppers, ground cherries or herbs.

 For larger spaces, an objective look at the landscape will determine the time and energy needed to accomplish a goal. Perhaps not every garden bed needs to be weeded and mulched perfectly.

photo by Bonnie Kirn Donahue 
Although some homeowners may prefer manicured lawns (right), others may prefer to turn lawn areas not used for walking, playing sports or other activities into gardens.

Prioritize the areas that mean the most and manage the other areas less intensively. Getting comfortable with the presence of weeds can be a really freeing experience.

Related to this, if there is a large lawn that needs hours mowing every week, it might be a good opportunity to think about how much it is actually used. Areas that are not used for walking, playing sports or other activities can be transitioned to gardens or meadow.

Meadows are just as beautiful and require far less maintenance. They can be mowed one time every one to three years to keep woody plants from establishing. Meadows also provide important habitat for insects and food for pollinators.

If access to the outdoors is a public landscape, like a park or community garden, there are numerous gardens across the state to enjoy. Look for respite at these gardens or even consider getting involved with one.

The University of Vermont Extension Master Gardener program, local garden clubs and community non-profits are great ways to get involved. More information on becoming an Extension Master Gardener and general gardening information can be found at

Before the growing season gets going, take the opportunity to think about what you really need and want out of your outdoor spaces. Small additions or simplifying your approach just might give you more time to enjoy your time outdoors.


Bonnie Kirn Donahue is a UVM Extension Master Gardener and landscape architect from Northfield.

Bonnie Kirm Donahue

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