Building a Teeny Garden Retreat from Scratch

Building a Teeny Garden Retreat from Scratch


The Garden That Sarah Built

photography: Joe Keller of Keller & Keller

Sarah Sloane bought this tiny 700 sq ft cottage on Narragansett Bay in Rhode Island as a studio where, as a professional illustrator, she could write and illustrate her books as well as call it home.

The neighborhood, founded as a working man’s summer colony in the late 1800’s became Sarah’s inspiration for more than her illustrations but for the garden she wanted to created on this 4,000 sq. ft. postage stamp sized piece of property.

Drawing upon her experience as an organic garden designer and from childhood memories, Sarah began constructing the garden of her dreams by first connecting the cottage living space to the outdoors by adding French doors and a pergola covered deck.  The next challenge, however, was she was going to build the entire garden all by herself.

Laying the Framework

Four and a half tons of New England field stone was dumped in her driveway and she began laying the foundation of the garden with pathways and ponds.

Sarah’s vision involved paths, ponds and a balanced, sustainable garden all on a budget.  Materials were bought on sale and flowers were cultivated from cuttings from friends.   She started laying out the framework of the garden with the stone, defined the paths and constructed the fish ponds.


Sarah created different pathways to create depth and age to the garden.  Clockwise from left; a herringbone Brickcrete path with thyme square insets;  a slate railroad tie path,  wood chips lined with a log border and a irregular stone and thyme path.

“My love of winding garden paths came from my grandmother’s gardens,” she said, referring to the twisting pathways she created.  “There were always new surprises around every turn.”  “Walkways are the story tellers of the garden,” she states.  She takes time to meander regularly through hers to sit on the stone bench built into the pond’s raised bed or to find her way to the bench under an old oak tree where she reads with her cat, Zooey, and her Cairn Terrier, Posie, on balmy afternoons.


The higher half moon pond, where Zooey and Posie compete with fish for the food sprinkled on the water, is connected by a waterfall over stone steps

 “My sister and I were allowed to sit on the edge of a pond once and trail our fingers in the water and feed the goldfish,” she says.  She made that memory the focal point of the garden and a ponds. They were created to be maintenance-free with a natural biological filter design which circulates from the top round pond that empties into the reflecting pond below.

The garden has two ponds, the long, rectangular koi pond and a round raised fish pond in the back. 

The plantings she chose are indigenous to the area and weather well over the harsh coastal winters. She has filled the beds with boxwood, bluestar and moonglow junipers, nepata, astilbe, salvia, sassafras and roses to name a few. The ground covers of ajuga, thyme, vinca, corsican mint, (which smells like the liquor, creme de menthe), and veronica repens, (which replicates a lawn but does not have to be mowed) fill in the other areas.

Sarah created this hidden refuge in a short time but was able to give it the feeling of a garden that had evolved slowly. The sanctuary became her calling card for clients but more than that, she spent many a day designing, writing and illustrating while she enjoying the fruits of her labor.

A higher half moon ponds connects to the stone steps of a waterfall which empties into the naturally irrigated frog pond with water lilies.  

“The journey to my own garden has been circuitous," says Sarah who began her first organic garden when she was sixteen. 

Sarah found tall stalks of bamboo, some with Chinese characters inscribed in them, to create the garden fence by using a weaving technique she learned when she repaired fishing trawler nets in Oregon and Alaska in her youth.


Sarah’s fun notes

★ Salvaged short bamboo poles are topped with grapevine balls on the bed’s edges to use as a hose guide.

★ Keeping maintenance to a minimal, Sarah lets her garden get a little woolly for the country garden feel.

★ Antique finds or junk from the basement make great garden decorations or furniture.

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