Small Space, Big Solutions: Levels Heighten Interest

Small Space, Big Solutions: Levels Heighten Interest

What a difference a few feet can make! By adding levels that descend gradually from the back door down into the welcoming sunken garden, this cleverly-designed landscape by Minneapolis, MN-based Phillips Garden takes on a feeling of privacy, intimacy, and the sense of a journey.

Then, fill those levels with a mixture of evergreens, conifers, and shade-loving perennials (ferns, lenten rose, coral bells, toad lily, ajuga, and much more) and wrap the entire thing in slatted redwood fencing for a clean, modern-yet-textured courtyard and gardens that evoke a sense of a serene forest.

So cool, refreshing, and welcoming…but, something else, too. The use of materials typically seen in a modern garden—COR-TEN steel walls, non-beveled concrete pavers, horizontal fencing, clean-lined furnishings—mixed with woodland plants makes this a not-so-easy to define style. How interesting is that!


The Details: 

Look to levels to be your best friend when designing a space that’s on the smaller side and which is intended to be viewed from the house above as well as up close. Three levels comprise this space from the house to the sunken patio. Each level is a place to stop and admire the garden.

Granite stairs softened by meandering ground covers lead to raised beds filled with shade-loving perennials that would feel well at home on the forest floor. Weeping spruce and the serviceberry trees will eventually create a light canopy over the sunken patio for a even greater feeling of intimacy.



Seat walls rimming the patio are made from COR-TEN steel, a corrosion-resistant material that left uncoated develops a patina. It was chosen to create a clean surface with warm tones that complement the redwood color of the fencing.


  • Choose materials that tie the landscape features to existing structures. The redwood fencing and grey-hued concrete pavers are a nod to the house’s exterior features.
  • Soil preparation is key to healthy plants. Save a bit of the budget for this part of the installation. Here,18″ of poor soil had to be excavated and removed from what is now the raised beds, replaced by new garden soil.
  • We say it often, but here it is practice: plant in groups of three or other odd numbers. Groups of three weeping white spruce in the corners create a strong vertical element that’s in scale with surrounding trees.

Design: Phillips Garden, Minneapolis, MN

Images: Courtesy of Phillips Garden

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