Sustainable Gardening in Small Spaces

By on April 12, 2016

Food for birds, pollinators … and yourself.

Gardening in small spaces can be a challenge. Every inch of space counts and there are limits to the types of plants you can use. However, with the right plant choices even the smallest yard or patio can turn into a mini oasis that may even yield tasty edibles for you and your family. 

But let’s not forget the birds, butterflies and other pollinators that share our yards and are important for the environment. Adding native plants, those that evolved locally before European settlement, can attract birds and butterflies to your yard, resulting in a truly sustainable garden that benefits us as well as local wildlife.

We asked the folks at Credit Valley Conservation (CVC) about sustainable gardening in small spaces. CVC is a community-based environmental agency committed to showing residents how to garden more sustainably by selecting the right native plants for their yards. Since local wildlife evolved along with native plants over millennia, they have come to depend on each other to survive. With CVC’s help, we’ve pulled together a list of native plants perfect for small gardens. 

Wild bergamot

Wild bergamot

Not all small yards have room for shrubs. Wildflowers have a smaller footprint and some native varieties have edible properties. The edible flowers and leaves of wild bergamot (Monarda fistulosa) make an excellent tea, reminiscent of bergamot (the flavour in Earl Grey tea). 

This tall, mauve flower looks great in a sunny location at the back of a garden, but can spread easily. Keep it tame in a small garden by removing unwanted plants as they appear and dividing a growing clump in spring if it has started to spread. Pair it with milkweed, which provides sustenance for beautiful monarch butterflies.

For the smallest yards, include some native violets in your garden or in a container in front of a window. Common blue violet (Viola sororia) and yellow violet (Viola pubescens) add early spring colour and return each year to surprise and delight. If you can bear to remove a few of these beauties from the garden, impress guests by throwing some raw flowers and leaves into a salad, or release your inner pastry chef and candy a few to adorn a cake.

Wild strawberries add colour and flavour

Wild strawberries add colour and flavour

Tiny wild strawberries are among of the most delicious late spring delicacies. They can be used as a groundcover, even in small areas. Combine with other groundcovers or low growing flowers such as nodding wild onion, blue-eyed grass or butterfly milkweed. The early spring flowers attract butterflies. 

Black-Eyed Susans offer food for birds, attracting them to your garden

Black-Eyed Susans offer food for birds, attracting them to your garden

Blue vervain and black-eyed Susans do not provide food for humans, but goldfinches, cardinals and sparrows will all visit your yard to eat the seeds of their beautiful flowers. They add colour to a patio or balcony and can be grown in containers. 

Smooth rose (Rosa blanda) and Carolina rose (Rosa carolina) shrubs feature striking pink roses through June and July, perfect for a sunny border along a fence or driveway. The rosehips can be used to make a tea that is high in vitamin C, or left to feed birds such as cedar waxwings. Both varieties send out suckers that you can clip back to control growth. 

Raspberry – Who knew the beloved raspberry is a native plant? There are many cultivars out there, but the native plant Rubus idaeus is widely available at native plant nurseries. Birds such as indigo bunting, white-throated sparrow and brown thrasher, love to eat raspberries. Purple flowering raspberry (Rubus odoratus) has larger, attractive flowers and still produces abundant fruit for the birds, although less palatable for human tastes. 

For early spring blooms, serviceberry shrubs reveal an array of delicate white flowers just before their leaves emerge. There are several serviceberry shrubs that produce delicious berries, also known as Saskatoon berries or June berries. Locally native smooth serviceberry (Amelanchier laevis) will grow in most soils and has some of the best tasting berries. Serviceberry also supports a large variety of birds such as cedar waxwings, thrushes (including American robins), catbirds and Baltimore orioles. The delicate white flowers provide nectar and pollen for early spring pollinators such as bumblebees. 

Meadowsweet is a small flowering shrub perfect for moist locations. Its cone-shaped clusters of white flowers often last from June into early August, leaving behind attractive seed-heads that provide food for American goldfinches, black-capped chickadees and sparrows.  Meadowsweet is host for the shimmery blue Spring azure butterfly. Historically, a tea tasting similar to green tea was made from the leaves.

The beautiful New Jersey tea shrub works in sandier soils and provides nectar for pollinators. The leaves of are said to make a refreshing tea. Butterflies such as spring and summer azures commonly visit this shrub and hummingbirds are attracted to the abundant white clusters of flowers. At a maximum height of one meter, New Jersey tea is an excellent choice for a small garden.

Vegetable Garden Helpers
To help pollinate a small vegetable garden or other plants in your yard, these native plants are known to attract bumblebees, butterflies and other pollinators to your yard. This can help increase yields of many of your favourite crops. To ensure you always have one or two plants in bloom, select at least two plants from each seasonal category. Plant several species in clumps or swaths to make them easier for pollinators to find. 

Early Season: wild geranium, wild strawberry, wild columbine, false solomon’s-seal, wild lupine

Mid-season: milkweed, lance-leaved coreopsis, wild bergamot, purple coneflower, culver’s root, New Jersey tea (shrub)

Late Season: boneset, asters, dense blazing-star, shrubby cinquefoil (shrub)

Herb garden pollinator must haves: mint, lavender and chives

Herb garden pollinator must haves: mint, lavender and chives

Herbs Pollinators Love
Planting herbs such as mint, lavender, chives and parsley will also attract pollinators. These can be planted in your garden, or in planters to take up less space or keep aggressive plants, such as mint, under control. For a dash of colour, combine with something like the native violas and keep them on the edge of your deck, or even on your front porch. 

To learn more about locally native plants, CVC recently published four fantastic plant lists available free online or only $2.00 each for hard copies. Use these lists to help you select native plants that are right for your yard or garden. Visit to learn more. To find local nurseries that offer  a variety of native plants, visit

1) CVC native plant lists






7) Tallamy, Doug. Bringing Nature Home: How You Can Sustain Wildlife with Native Plants.Timber Press. 2007. 

About Charleen Wyman

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