Master Gardener Book Review

Truly Tiny Gardens by Thomasina Tarling is a treasure to get ahold of if you are interested in gardening in a small space – these small spaces can also be defined as a portion of a large yard, where you are defining different areas for different purposes and varying vistas. While Thomasina Tarling defines a “small garden” as one measuring twenty feet in any direction, you may know a small garden by necessity, if you are employing adaptive gardening techniques or if you are interested in trying something new, in a clearly defined area where you’ll experiment.


Printed twenty-five years ago, and reprinted several times since the initial run by Conran Octupus Press, London, this is proving to be a timeless book. I am particularly interested in Truly Tiny Gardens because of my interest in adaptive gardening, where we aim to make a garden space as easy-to-care for as possible and allow people of all ages and abilities to enjoy their work and effort in a manageable garden. While I work with people of different ability and skill levels, it’s also important to work in a way that results in gorgeous garden spaces to be proud of! This is the go-to book for terrific ideas about those gardens and to be in the hands of those gardeners!


“Elements of surprise and theatre” are essential elements in these tiny gardens. Thomasina Tarling shares ideas about creating theatre with selecting plants of varying heights, to keep the interest moving up and down and not just around the perimeter of the small space. The theatre concept is enhanced when a passageway is created in a garden, through a real portal, gate or entryway or through a suggestion of one, created by arching plants or plants in an ombre of color. She doesn’t just tell us about these concepts with easy-to-understand terms and with specific plant combinations, she includes over one hundred color photos and illustrations in the book.


From London, England, Tarling began her interest in the tiny gardens with her rooftop garden in the Chelsea neighborhood where she lived and was from a long line of avid gardeners. She worked in several prominent garden centers and nursery supply shops for several decades before forming her consulting business, “Gardening Angels” and cultivated a renown following through those consults, resulting in her first book, The Container Garden which was published as a part of a series by the Royal Horticultural Society.


The book has many important concepts that are applicable to gardens of any size and are as valid today as twenty-five years ago. She goes in detail about gravel pathways being imperative for drainage for the many containers and different sized terracotta pots that will be clustered closely together in a small area. No matter the size of a garden, where there’s poor drainage, we are enticing the unhealthy habitat for molds, mildews, certain pests and overall diminished root health as that stagnant water is wicked up through the base of the pots.


Tarling is also a proponent of using all the space in the tiny gardens, and here again, we read a concept that applies to gardens of any size, that may be butted up against a building’s wall or cement retaining wall, for example. What is her suggestion? It’s really exciting to read her take on paint! Paint it, whether you select a mural or contrasting colors or like-colors, painting the wall will give some of that theatre and some of the height variation a garden needs, especially the small sized gardens.


Trellis work and lighting can help give illusions of greater scales in the small gardens, and will add surprise and intrigue. While we now know much, much more about lighting in landscapes than we commonly knew when this book was written, lighting remains important and can be used effectively and ecologically. Be sure and learn more about the benefits of bats and moths, who are active at night, and keep lighting to a minimum and even on a timer so as not to “over do it.” Lightbulbs that are on dimmers are helpful and research yellow light bulbs, replacing your outdoor lights with the yellow bulbs so as not to lure moths or interfere with night migrations of many birds who loose celestial bearing when there’s light pollution from us unnecessarily.


This book will show you things you may not have thought of or seen in small gardens unless you are an avid garden tourist or read a lot about public and private garden designs. There are many uses of mirrors in gardens now, which were favorite garden elements of Thomasina Tarling in her early gardens and throughout the British tiny gardens we are growing so familiar with and replicating here in our cutting or cottage gardens.


This book has a chapter devoted to sunken gardens and one devoted to elevated gardens. Tarling has thought of it all, from so many angles and gardeners’ problematic situations being solved.


It’s the lavish collection of photos which first drew me to this book, and now, the “how to” sections of the book are maybe the most important to me. Tarling gives easy-to-read instructions on how to make a pathway if you are looking for the clean lines of a Japanese style garden, or how to make several different types of trellises if you are looking for training some night bloomers or edibles up the garden’s walls or rectilinear areas.


While you may think some of the information is not helpful because the climate and hardiness zones are not related to where we live in New England, think again. In discussing planting suggestions and plans, this author doesn’t just list plants to replicate the look she’s got in a photo or description of an area. Tarling goes into detail about the psychology of colors and textures and varying those characteristics in the plants she recommends in some of the chapters. That’s the key to my strong recommendation of this book. Thomasina Tarling has mastered not only gardening in tiny spaces, but in communicating what we each need to know to be successful as we choose a tiny area to transform to an outdoor oasis!


Feeding, watering, pruning and composting are all necessary topics, no matter what size the garden is. These are not overlooked in this book, either. There’s a perfect balance of philosophy, psychology and botany in the book. It will be your go-to as it’s been mine. Here’s to happy gardening in 2021, and get ready for all your garden needs. Whether you are looking to adapt for ease and simplicity or for ways your body is demanding you adapt now, Thomasina Tarling is inspiration and joyful!

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