Big Dreams, Small Garden: A Guide to Creating Something Extraordinary in Your Ordinary Space

Big Dreams, Small Garden: A Guide to Creating Something Extraordinary in Your Ordinary Space

by Marianne Willburn

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A practical guide to planting and tending the garden of your dreams, even when your space is limited—includes full-color photos!
Gardener, blogger, and newspaper columnist Marianne Willburn knows that the desire for a lush green oasis is far more common than the necessary space or conditions to create it. In this helpful guide, the author offers her expertise to anyone determined to start planting the garden they long for, even when circumstances are less than ideal.
In her friendly and humorous style, Willburn encourages readers to shake off feelings of inadequacy and defeat and embrace the land they have with love. Packed with inspirational full-color photos, this guide breaks down the process into reasonable steps—from brainstorming to practical considerations of space and time, gathering resources and materials, and finally building the skills to maintain plantings. The result is a warm, down-to-earth approach to home gardening that will serve anyone dreaming of a personal Eden.

Product Details

ISBN-13: 9781510709133
Publisher: Skyhorse Publishing
Publication date: 02/21/2017
Sold by: Barnes & Noble
Format: NOOK Book
Pages: 226
Sales rank: 193,275
File size: 51 MB
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About the Author

Marianne Willburn is a garden columnist and master gardener with more than twenty years of experience in the garden. She holds a BSc from University College London and has won several national awards for her popular column and blog, The Small Town Gardener. A California native, she now lives with her husband and two children in the scenic—and highly convenient—wine region of Northern Virginia.

Read an Excerpt



"In the depths of winter, I finally learned that within me there lay an invincible summer."

Albert Camus

"When are you guys going to get yourselves some property, anyway?"

The words came from a friend of mine, safely settled for ten years on her six-acre farm with bank barn, eighteenth-century stone house, and boxwood-lined herb garden just off the kitchen door. But on that May afternoon, we were sitting on my porch, sharing a beer, and surveying the small town garden around us from the comfort of well-loved wicker chairs.

The garden was outdoing itself that day. Scents, textures, and colors mingled heavily together and intoxicated the senses without any help from the beer. Larkspur shot purple rockets into the sky. Alchemilla spilled onto the gravel paths. Ajuga popped from between brick pavers, and the privet was frosted with tiny white flowers that hummed with bees. Each element gave every indication of being part of an ideal country garden ... Eden on earth.

Yet, had we risen from our seats, walked under the wisteria arbor, and unlatched the gate leading out onto the street, we would have been greeted by a very different scene: parked cars, rusting bikes, faded houses, and one or two barking dogs sharing space with dilapidated lawn furniture; the very scene my eyes took in the day we moved into the house ten years before.

Except on that day, I was standing on my own dilapidated porch surrounded by grass and cement, and there was no gate to unlatch.

My friend's words were meant in all kindness, the result of an afternoon's discussion of seed starting and canning techniques to process the glut of produce coming out of the vegetable garden in the back. In her mind, it didn't make sense that a couple like my husband and I, committed to an outdoor life, the home economy, and the pleasures of the garden should still be living in a small home on a tiny lot in the middle of town after ten years.

I smiled lazily and replied, "I need an undergardener before I take on even a tenth of an acre more," and refilled her glass from the bottle sitting between us. But as I sat back and continued to drink in the sights and smells of the surrounding garden, I couldn't help but remember how differently that question had affected me ten or so years previously.

And it was a question I heard all the time.

One would think that the forced, thin smile that such a query elicited from me in those days would have been enough to stop even the least tactful of friends and acquaintances. After all, most of them knew of the financial upheaval that a year's layoff had created in our lives. Quite frankly, we were lucky to have a roof over our heads, dilapidated porch or no. Our "new" old house needed much in the way of money and much in the way of time, and I was homeschooling my five-year-old with a toddler who had a fast pair of legs and a fascination for ancient electrical plugs. We'd lost our acre in the country, our lack of neighbors, our rural dreams, and our sense of adventure had been smothered in the bargain.

I stared at that porch, and I stared at that neighborhood, and I did not feel grateful. I felt angry. A tight smile was about all I could manage in the face of what I perceived to be such injustice.

Yet, here I was, ten years later, sitting on that same porch, infused with a spirit of contentment. Still with dreams in tow — still excited by the next phase of life and the next open door. But softly and curiously content.

I might have created the garden, but it was the garden that created that sense of peace in me.

* * *

I didn't need any convincing to start working on a garden where there wasn't one, but I'm a gardener at heart, and the fact that you're reading these words probably means you're one too, even if you're struggling with overwhelming feelings of "Why bother?" and "How will I ever?" at the moment.

Gardeners are a strange group of people. Even without a garden to tend, we're nuts, we're enthusiastic, and we're very serious. If you're one of us, you know it, and chances are you've known it for a very long time.


• What is it that makes a twentysomething plant a median strip with tomato plants instead of hanging out with friends after work?

• What is it that makes a thirtysomething plan family holidays to coincide with open days at great gardens?

• What is it that makes a forty- or a fiftysomething pay good money to hike with a stranger in a foreign country searching for wildflowers when they should be flirting with a stranger in a foreign country and searching for sangria?

My husband has told me that the answer to the first two questions is "insanity," and the answer to the third is "middle age," but you and I both know better on this one. It is the infectious joy of gardening.

Don LaFond, a superb rock gardener and plant breeder in Michigan, has possibly the best description of gradually succumbing to this infection. "One day I was wandering around a rock garden with my wife, looking at trees and wondering why so many crazy people were clustered around a microscopic plant for twenty minutes," he remembers fondly, "and three years later, I was one of those crazy people."

Gardeners have a fundamental advantage when life drills a hole in the boat and reality starts to go soggy. There are simply more reasons to get out there and garden than there are reasons not to, and each and every one of them promotes mental and physical well-being. It's precisely what you need when you are frantically bailing water and looking for the shore.

Let's look at a few of my favorites:


Regardless of how deep (and how crazy) your passion takes you, you fundamentally understand that gardening connects us to the part of our environment that isn't plastic, doesn't come in neat packaging, and provides simple purpose when our modern lives seem ever more urbanized and complicated. We wear synthetic clothes and drink chemical reactions every day, but in the garden we are greeted with real scents, real beauty, real textures, and the miraculous cycle of real life playing out before us over days, weeks, months, and years.

It feels good to get outside after a day spent in a cubicle or office or at home washing endless loads of laundry. It feels good to stretch your limbs and remember muscles you had a passing acquaintance with back in high school. It's a reconnection with our place in Earth's fragile, beautiful ecosystem — and a reminder that the deadlines, sports practices, parent/teacher meetings, and horrible bosses are just a superficial layer, not a state of being.

My father worked three jobs while attending graduate school and supporting a family in the early seventies. My mother's sandwiches packed at 4:30 every morning might have kept him alive, but to this day he credits their small vegetable garden and a push mower with keeping him sane and healthy. "Getting out there, weeding, mowing, digging ... I needed that," he said wistfully, thinking back on those difficult years.

A reconnection with nature is something we all crave, whether gardener or not. Some of us take it in the form of a holiday, others in the form of a television documentary. But those of us who choose to get out there and experience it for ourselves on a daily basis know there is something more to it, even if we can't quite find the words to describe what "it" really is.

Food freedom

It is highly doubtful that the first humans to plant seeds ten thousand years ago were planting zinnia or poppies to grace the tabletops for late-night dinner parties. Gardening, first and foremost, was about nourishment, and continues to be about nourishment for many to this day. There are two things at work here: one, the freedom to feed your family with fresh, healthy vegetables; and two, the freedom to feed your family with fresh, healthy vegetables when money is tight.

If you consider yourself a foodie, meaning you are not only concerned with what you eat and how it's prepared, but where it came from and how it got to your kitchen, then you're probably amazed by the mainstreaming of monikers such as "organic" and "heirloom" in recent years, and just how much money those two words can squeeze out of consumer wallets.

If you are what I like to call a "seasoned foodie," that is, a person who was paying attention to these same things twenty-plus years ago when it wasn't cool, then you're probably smirking at the circus going on right now and fuming that it's getting more expensive to attend.

Just because we don't have the budget to pay four dollars and ninety-nine cents for a pound of tomatoes and pick up a head of butter lettuce at four dollars a pop doesn't mean we don't deeply value the freshest and healthiest of ingredients. It just means Junior needs a new pair of shoes and the car needs tires.

This is where our gardens come in.

There is nothing quite so satisfying as eating something you grew through the work of your own hands, particularly when you know it's being sold down the road for ten times the price.

"Let them eat cake!" said the ill-fated Marie Antoinette to a starving 99 percent more than two hundred years ago. I have to confess to a guilty pleasure in telling the Antoinettes of this world, "Let them eat overpriced niche market vegetables!" I'm enjoying the same thing for much less chez moi.


Gardening is exercise, pure and simple. Regular hard work outside will strengthen and tone muscles, burn fat, and, speaking as one who has hauled twenty-five hundred bricks out of a landfill, can significantly increase endurance. However, as sweat and dirt are not the tidiest of bedfellows, and garden fashion is not as likely to get you noticed as a pair of yoga pants and a sports bra, gardening is not usually seen as the hippest way of keeping fit.

If you are turned off by the pairing of sweat and soil, I'm afraid I must ask you to please put down this book, get a gym membership for your fashionable fitness needs, and marry an heir or heiress to support your expensive habit. With limited funds, you don't have the option to hire someone to do most of the heavy work; but the good news is, your body is likely to reflect that socioeconomic reality every time you stand naked in front of the mirror.

Apart from a brisk walk every morning, gardening really is my choice of exercise. I have never been particularly excited about indoor/outdoor carpet and wiping someone else's sweat off a weight bench. Lifting, bending, hauling, stretching, pulling, pushing, and, yes, sometimes even therapeutic moaning, all contribute to a healthier me, and what could be better than feeling fit AND creating a beautiful space at the same time?


Do you ever have a disagreement with someone you live with and just need to be left alone in peace and quiet? What happens if that disagreement is with a difficult neighborhood ... every day? While I don't condone Garboesque solitude, or intentionally drawing away from making relationships with neighbors that might ultimately enrich our lives, I also feel strongly that creating a private, special space outside can have a healing effect upon us, especially when we're feeling vulnerable.

At first, our neighbors were very suspicious when we built a fence around our little property and assumed it was an attempt to "remove" ourselves from the neighborhood. Though they were mistaken in this assumption, there were, however, very real physical concerns that we addressed by building that fence. For one, an aggressive dog on a long chain next door and my fearless toddler did not a match in heaven make. For another, having neighborhood kids ride their bikes over my front flower beds as a shortcut home was giving me the reputation of being a screaming banshee.

After losing our rural home with very few neighbors and a whole lot of outside elbow room, it was a shock to be rubbing those elbows with so many others. I didn't particularly want to witness a domestic argument going on a few doors down or hear a middle school child swear like a sailor. And I certainly didn't want to eat al fresco spaghetti bolognese on my porch at night only to watch my neighbor across the street eat hers. It became clear that boundaries were needed.

However, it was more than just dogs and badly behaved children. Building a fence gave me a boundary against which to plant and create a restful place with a beginning and an end. Ironically, creating this separation boundary gave us the ability to invite others into that space, to benefit from that sense of peace and tranquility, and allow them to separate from the hustle and bustle of their lives.

One of the very best compliments I ever heard about my garden came from a neighbor, and eventual dear friend, who brought her four-year-old daughter over to play with my children one day. As they approached the gate, I heard my friend say softly, "Wait." All was quiet for a moment, and then I heard her whisper, "One, two, three. Okay ... open the door to Narnia."

That's worth building a garden for.

Pride of place

Gardening not only creates a sense of pride for the gardener, but for his or her neighborhood, apartment or condo complex, or development. It truly is a win–win situation. This pride can be infectious, inspiring others to take more time with their properties, and, as a result, create a more beautiful, unified community from the inside out.

For those of us who found ourselves somewhere we didn't expect to be as a result of something we didn't expect to happen, this reason for gardening our space may ring a little hollow. I can hear the indignant cries even as I type these words.

"Pride? In our place?!?"

"I don't belong here!"

"This isn't my choice!"

"This isn't my community!"

I can't tell you the amount of times I have walked through an average neighborhood or been in a dodgy end of town and been stopped in my tracks by the simple beauty of a grouping of well-planted pots or window boxes. Just for a second, the person who created that little tableau inserted joy into my day and reminded me that you never know when it's going to come along.

Leading by example is the best way of converting others, particularly when you share many of the same concerns and obstacles they have. And, as one more adventurous soul joins the merry band of brother gardeners, we all benefit as a community.

Acceptance and understanding

Envy is a destructive emotion. If you let it, it can somehow insert itself into every conversation and every thought — even your best ones. If you find yourself mentally adding the words "nice for some" to the end of a long story about someone else's vacation, new home, or good fortune, chances are you're struggling with this dark emotion and not winning.

Years ago, a coworker of mine was complaining about the torn curtains literally rotting in the front room of her rented flat. Having spent years sewing cheap treatments for windows to brighten up rented apartments, I exclaimed, "Replace them!"

"Why should I?" she said indignantly, "I don't own the flat."

"But you live there." I challenged her. "You've lived there for ten years. It's your home."

"Nevertheless," she stated, ending the discussion. She passed the wine and changed the subject.

Let's think about this for a minute shall we? Would you rather stare at ugly, rotting curtains every day and grow ever more resentful over the larger picture of where you are and where you may or may not be going, or replace them with something that makes you smile, even if it's as simple as a quilt from Goodwill held up with a few clothespins?

When you open your door and go outside, what "rotting curtains" do you see? There are problem areas in a garden, and then there are problem gardens, period. Poor drainage, terrible views, a neighbor with a security light fixation, barking dogs, chain-link fences, no fences, steep hills, deep gullies, dry shade, rocky soil, and a hundred other issues that can, and often do, stop us from enjoying the place where life has placed us for a year, five years, or two decades.

But we must claim our living spaces, whatever they are, because they are just that — our living spaces. We nest here. We raise our kids, live our heartbreaks, and experience some of our greatest joys here. For gardeners, would-be gardeners, and if-only-I-had-the-perfect-place gardeners, we cheat ourselves if we keep waiting.


Excerpted from "Big Dreams, Small Garden"
by .
Copyright © 2017 Marianne Willburn.
Excerpted by permission of Skyhorse Publishing.
All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
Excerpts are provided by Dial-A-Book Inc. solely for the personal use of visitors to this web site.

Table of Contents

Prologue ix

Introduction xi

Section 1 Visualize 1

Chapter 1 Why Create Eden? 3

Chapter 2 Recognizing and Accepting Limitations 17

Chapter 3 Accessing Your Creativity 31

Chapter 4 Planning Your Garden 43

Section 2 Achieve 59

Chapter 5 Tackling Garden Design 61

Chapter 6 Recognizing Resources 79

Chapter 7 Managing Your Garden Projects 93

Chapter 8 Building Skills 105

Section 3 Maintain 121

Chapter 9 Striking a Balance 123

Chapter 10 Making It Easier 135

Chapter 11 Enlisting the Troops 147

Section 4 Enjoy 161

Chapter 12 Living in the Eden You Have Created 163

Chapter 13 Reaching Out and Getting Better 173

Chapter 14 Cultivating a Spirit of Contentment 183

Epilogue 195

Works Cited 196

Recommended Books 197

Acknowledgments 198

Worksheets 200

What People are Saying About This

From the Publisher

"There is something in this book for everyone, from my daughters needing some hand-holding to people like myself, who can always learn from [Marianne's] expertise, as well as the advice of 'the pros.'" —Allan M. Armitage, professor emeritus of horticulture, University of Georgia

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