Interview with Garden Designer and Horticulturist Emma Lam from A Small Green Space

Today we had the pleasure of interviewing Emma Lam a Garden Designer and Horticulturist who owns A Small Green Space, which is a full-service urban landscape design/build/maintenance firm in the New York City Metro area.  

Emma’s training includes KLC School of Designs’ Garden Design course and a Certificate of Horticulture from the Brooklyn Botanic Garden.


Tell me about A Small Green Space?

I started A Small Green Space nine year ago in my hometown of Jersey City, NJ. We are a full service landscape Design/ Build and Maintenance company.  We service the NJ/ NYC Metro area and focus on designing Residential Urban Spaces. Hence our name “A Small Green Space”... no suburban yards for us!


How do you find the balance between style and functionality in a small space? 

Its often difficult. When we do our initial consultation with our clients we ask for their “wish list”. And a lot of times, people want and need their spaces to meet a variety of requirements: a play space; a comfortable entertaining space; space to BBQ and eat outside; an area for the dog to run around in etc. Meeting all of these needs at once can be tricky when you only have 500 square feet to work with. Therefore we rely on convertibility. A bench becomes a table; a artificial lawn doubles as a patio; a planter contains not only colorful flowers but also edibles; the space under the stairs to the deck becomes a playhouse; the roof of the shed becomes a green roof etc.  As for the “style” part of your question, it is imperative for us to find attractive and useful outdoor accents. If you have only one love-seat in a space, it better be good looking! And preferably it is light weight enough to move out of the way when you need to set up a folding table for your 4 years old’s Birthday party. If you have an umbrella, and many roof decks and balconies are uninhabitable without them, it better look good; be easy to use; and do it’s job well!

Is there a way to include  all of the elements that you would find in a large outdoor space in the design of a small one? 

Yes, but on a different scale. You can not expect to have a formal Versailles style garden, but you can have accents of  lavender and dwarf topiary boxwoods. You won’t necessarily have room for a swimming pool but you may be able to incorporate a cocktail pool.  The key is to know your scale and work within it. As I mentioned earlier a small space can be multi-functional but this requires lots of creative thinking, detailed planning and knowledgable execution. 


How do you start your designs, is it based off of function or does it start around an  element?

It starts with our clients. Before we start working together, I meet with each of our clients in their spaces and run through a design brief with them. I ask lots of questions like: how do you envision using the space? Do you have any plants you like or don’t like? If you entertain outdoors how many people do you usually invite etc.

Sometimes a client will show me an “object” that they want their space designed around. One client wanted to incorporate some old city cobblestones they had acquired when the streets of their youth were ripped up by the city. Another showed me a Japanese lantern that had been handed down in her husbands' family for generations. It’s wonderful to be shown an article that is important to a person. And it’s such an honor to be trusted with our clients stories and the mission to include them in our Designs.

In your experience, what are unseen design issues that people should be aware of when working on their own outdoor spaces? 

Jumping to “install” without having a clear vision/ plan first. It is so easy to get excited and say “I have an outdoor space in the city! I’m going to put in a patio”! But how big is that patio? How big is your table that will go on the patio? How many people will sit at that table? Do you have enough area for grass? Plantings?


You don’t have to hire a professional Designer to create a plan, but at least scratch something out on paper. Look on the internet or in books for images you like. Ask yourself questions about what you really want, need and what you can afford to spend. And then have fun!

One tip I give clients with a brand new space is to take a chair, (even a folding chair will do), and move it out into the space. Then sit in it for a few minutes. Even if there is NOTHING else in the space, sit for while. Over the next week, move the chair around. See how it feels to sit in different areas: Are your neighbors viewing you from one corner? Is the sun to strong at the back of the space? Do you have to walk across the lawn to get to the chair? See how the chair looks from inside: Does it look inviting? Is it a focal point?

In conclusion-  I think people should spend a little time getting to know their spaces before they jump in and change them.

What trends do you foresee coming in outdoor design? 

In urban outdoor design I think that small scale Green Roofs and Green Walls are going to become very popular. We installed a green roof on a shed this season. It is not only the view from our neighbors bedroom windows and roof deck but also from the upper floors of their neighbors spaces. And in the few short months since we installed it, it has flourished! We also installed a green wall on a free standing 5’ x 6' wall that we built to “define” a tiny lounge area within a small space. We LOVED doing the green wall and can’t wait to install more!

Overall, Urban outdoor design is very popular. I not only work designing urban spaces, but I also live in the NYC Metro area. So I can attest that 15 years ago, a lot of urban back yards were overgrown, forgotten “storage” areas. When I started in the business it was me and push mower in the back of my Subaru. We now employee: two full time gardeners; 3 part time gardeners; 4 builders; 2 office assistants; a bookkeeper and Design Assistant. A lot of people want outdoor “living” rooms these days and they are looking for Designers to help create them. 


What  does a cantilever umbrella add to design vs a regular patio umbrella? 

Well first of all they are beautiful! Umbrella’s are often a huge (and necessary) focal point in a small space. And unfortunately standard yard umbrellas are very unattractive. Sadly they are not very useful, unless you are sitting directly underneath them when the sun is directly over-head. And finally they are often dangerous in a city space. We work on a lot of roof decks and balconies and almost all of them experience EXTREMELY high winds. Before meeting us, one of our clients had an umbrella fly off of their 19 floor roof deck down to the street below! Thank goodness no-one was hurt, but after that they wanted to be sure that their shade solution (which was extremely necessary due to the intense sun on the roof deck) was secure.

The cantilever umbrella is beautiful and sturdy. The base is solid and can be weighted for extra security. And because the angle of the large umbrella can be adjusted, it gives ample shade wherever and whenever is needed. 

What should someone look for when they are searching for outdoor furniture? 

For small spaces they should look for appropriately sized furniture, that is weather hardy for their specific environment and is light weight enough to be moved around the space somewhat easily. They should also make sure to measure their spaces. Both the space the furniture is to “sit” on and also the access ways to get to the space (doorways, stairways and elevators etc.). This will ensure that they can get the pieces into their space and have room enough for them once there!


If someone wanted consulting on an outdoor design, how does that process work?

First they reach out to us and set up an initial consultation in their space. At the consultation we will run through the design brief mentioned above and also explain our Design service in more detail.


After all your years of experience in this industry, what should people focus on? 

Making a space they will love and not a space that they think they should have. If you are in a city, remember that your outdoor space is another room. It’s an opportunity to have an outdoor “living” room… so go ahead and live in it!

To Learn More About Emma and Her Services, Click Below