Gardens

James DeSantis of Backyard Envy shares his top tips for making a small garden feel bigger

The celebrity garden designer reveals ingenious space-saving tricks that will elevate our exterior spaces – whatever the size

Backyard Envy’s James DeSantis small garden tips
(Image credit: Dane Tashima)

As one-third of the Manscapers, exterior designer James DeSantis has created gardens for Calvin Klein, Sies Marjan, and Diane von Furstenberg – but now he is here to shape our gardens too. 

See: Small garden ideas – clever ways to maximize a tiny outdoor space

James, along with Garrett Magee and Melissa Brasier – the Manscapers team – has gained a reputation across the US for their stunning boutique garden designs, which they showcase worldwide through their Bravo series Backyard Envy. James has a star-studded clientele and widely-admired series under his belt, so H&G was naturally excited to test his expertise – and he did not disappoint. 

How to make a small garden feel bigger – according to the Manscapers

Backyard Envy’s James DeSantis small garden tips

(Image credit: Courtesy of Bravo)

Nobody knows how to maximize space quite like the Manscapers, as the team has transformed tiny city gardens amongst cityscapes in New York and Los Angeles. But what is James’s top tip for making a small garden feel bigger, and how can we make it work in our own gardens? Here, James explains.

1. Custom-buy your plants & outdoor furniture

Backyard Envy’s James DeSantis small garden tips

(Image credit: Dane Tashima)

The easiest way to make a garden look and feel bigger is to custom-buy plants and furniture so every inch of your garden appears curated and has a purpose.

‘We work in New York and Los Angeles, where some gardens are tiny. We focus on maximizing the space – based on what you will use it for, instead of just creating a look,’ James shares. 

‘One of the ways to do that is to have things that are custom made. If you are building something on a rooftop, you can custom-make the planner boxes to line the perimeter of your roof. This is better than buying big, bulky planner boxes or pots that are a certain size because they will overtake the space too much,’ James adds. 

Backyard Envy’s James DeSantis small garden tips

(Image credit: Dane Tashima)

The designer also recommends customizing furniture, so the pieces have more than one purpose.

‘Build custom furniture that doubles as a seating area – like a banquette for a dining table that is also comfortable enough to be a loungey sofa. So, you can get multiple uses out of things,’ James shares. 

2. Create an indoor/outdoor flow between your spaces

Backyard Envy’s James DeSantis small garden tips

(Image credit: Dane Tashima)

 James says creating a seamless movement between our indoor and outdoor spaces is vital, too.

‘We don’t look at ourselves as landscape architects but more as exterior designers. We develop and build the space around what the client will use it for, so we often mirror what is going on inside, on the outside,’ James begins.

‘If you have a small apartment with a living room and a dining room, we will mirror these spaces on the outside. If you have a big sliding glass door, it looks like you are doubling that space. Your living room becomes two living rooms,’ he adds. 

Backyard Envy’s James DeSantis small garden tips

(Image credit: Dane Tashima)

James then offers his suggestions for creating a flow between our interior and exterior spaces – wherever you are. 

‘We always say, if you have a small patio outside your window, terrace, or door, then buy interior plants that are big, like a giant parlor palm, and put it in a small planter. Then in the winter, you can bring it back inside,’ he says. 

‘Also, bring some of your interior textiles outside, bring out some pillows and some blankets and throws. Decorate your coffee table with things that you cherish from your interior and take it outside. It’s a great way to use your space,’ James adds. 

3. How to create a luxe country feel in a small garden

Backyard Envy’s James DeSantis small garden tips

(Image credit: Dane Tashima)

 We may be able to make our garden look and feel bigger, but how do we make it feel more luxe? For that quintessential country ambiance, James suggests we look to our planting.

He shares: ‘In the city, you’re limited space-wise, so it’s hard to get that luxe, country feel when you have a small patio. The way we would do that would be in the planting. We would build large planter boxes that are high up and then plant tall grass and wildflowers that will help shade some of the surroundings, so you feel enveloped in plants.’

See: Patio ideas – for living outdoors, stylishly

For more tips from James and the rest of the Manscapers, catch up with Backyard Envy and look out for their upcoming book Take it Outside

Megan Slack
Megan Slack

Megan is a News Writer across Future Plc's Homes titles. She has a background in national newspapers in the UK and has experience in fashion and travel journalism, which she previously practised whilst living in Paris and New York City. Her adoration for these fashion capitals means she particularly enjoys writing about upcoming styles and trends for Homes & Gardens. Megan also loves discovering vintage pieces in her spare time, meaning her decor is largely influenced by the beauty of the jazz age.