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Steamboat Magazine

Illusions of Grandeur

04/13/2015 07:11PM ● By Christina Freeman

Illustration by Nora Sherwood

By Suzi Mitchell

The basic design for any small garden starts with four key components; privacy, visual interest, flexibility and maintenance. Deciphering the goal for an outdoor space is critical to forming an overall plan. Regardless of size, consider the following questions: is the yard open or fenced in? Will trees and plants be used to offer privacy? How much time will be dedicated to maintenance?  Do you want outdoor dining and social space? Are there children or pets in the household that need a dedicated outside play area? Do you plan to grow fruits or vegetables?

 Once needs have been discussed, the creative phase can begin. In a small space, landscape designer Christine Pietras uses shapes and alternative angles like vertical planting of vines and columnar trees to create an illusion of greater size.  Extending a visual boundary using neighboring gardens can also be an advantage. A portable fire pit or water feature gives a focal point at the end of a pathway, while maintaining flexibility. Raised beds and pots add dimensional interest; while planting borders with texture in the back gives the impression the garden is receded. 

Christine and her husband, Kyle, put theory into practice in their own Brooklyn backyard, where disused horse troughs have been resurrected to house  vegetable gardens, ornamental grasses fill their borders, and kids hang out in a handmade play structure complete with climbing wall.

Illustration by Nora Sherwood

 Suggestions for the Steamboat Garden 

Trees: The narrow and columnar Swedish aspen adds dramatic color in the fall.

Vines: Little space is needed to achieve high-impact greenery by growing vertically. Consider Virginia creeper, which won’t overpower and offers seasonal interest with reddish orange hues in fall. Or opt for a conversation piece with hops, adding scent and harvesting opportunities.

Shrubs: Create an illusion of length by planting in long straight lines. Choose dwarf or compact variety shrubs. Spirea, potentia and alpine currant all work well.

Plants: Give the impression of a receded garden by planting colorful annuals in the forefront with textured grasses in the back.

The raised bed: Give a nod to Steamboat’s ranching heritage with herb and vegetable raised beds using horse troughs. Easy and affordable to find used, fill with perennials including mint, chives and oregano. Go leafy with lettuces such as bib or red leaf and add spinach, Swiss chard and kale. For climate happy root vegetables try beets, radish, carrots and onions.

Portable structure: A solar water feature adds ambience to the end of a Colorado buff stone pathway.

Kid space: Encourage digging anything but plants, with a covered sandbox.


Kyle and Christine Pietras, founders of KP Landscapes, have had their green fingers in many of the gardens around the Yampa Valley. Until recently, only large-scale projects kept them busy, but like homes, trends are seeing a shift to smaller spaces. Kyle Pietras concentrates on the hardscape (think patios, trees and irrigation), complemented by Christine’s creative flair in plant and shrub planning.