Even if space in your back garden is at a premium, the smallest of gardens still deserve to look great. No longer is the small urban backyard just a neglected concrete square, people are beginning to make the best of what little space they have, whether it be a window box or a small courtyard garden.
The important thing to remember when designing a small outdoor space is that there are no hidden areas – everything is in front of you for all to see, which as a designer can be a pretty difficult thing to take on board and stick to.
Generally the key to good garden design is about trying to create a little mystery and intrigue, which is easier to create when you are working with a larger space. There is no room for error in a small modern urban or french style courtyard garden for example, even a wrongly placed container could create an awkward focal point that is not wanted.
The first thing you must think about is how you plan to use the space. With space at a premium, you may only be in a position to fit in a small bistro style table and a couple of chairs (as shown above in our photograph of our Ivy bistro set), or you could even decide that the space is unusable and that you’d be better off creating a space that simply looks good when viewed from the inside your home but has no practical function as such.
Often the most challenging thing about a small garden is how close it all is to the boundary, which all too often is a large ugly brick wall that encloses the space on all sides. However, we would always tell people that you should try and turn the negative into a positive by using the wall to your advantage. Paint them, cover them with climbers, make use of outdoor garden art or mirrors.
Green walls, which is basically a wall that is partially or completely covered with vegetation, are also pretty fashionable at the moment (although they’ve been around since 600BC and the Hanging Gardens of Babylon) and even though they are a little on the expensive side, they will give you that much needed extra growing space and take away the ‘ugliness’ aspect of the space.
There may not be room to have too much going on in a well designed small garden but is there anything over the fence that you can incorporate? Think about linking things that are outside of your garden walls. For example if a neighbour has a reddish leafed tree, plant some red plants to visually steal a link to the space beyond, thus making your garden appear bigger than it really is.
Keep any design simple, the more complicated, the fussier the look, then the less likely it is to work in a small space. Think minimal when selecting materials and planting scheme. Use paving that ties in with your house for continuity or you could even extend an internal flooring outside by using materials such as timber, slate or ceramic tiles and you’ll create the feeling of the two spaces looking as one and bridge that gap between outside and in.
Also, try not to be put off by ‘big’ accessories, have a little fun and introduce a large focal point sculpture, a table and chair set, make the space as exciting as you can. Just make sure you watch your plant choice, even the smallest tree can grow up to 5 meters high, 4 meters wide quicker than you’d think. Regular maintenance is key, and with a small garden it is essential you avoid an overgrown space.
Small space vegetable and herb gardening has also grown from strength to strength in recent years and there are now more products than ever before that help you to grow your own no matter how small your plot.
Gardening in small spaces is generally overlooked by many of the garden design books, although there are a few that specifically focus on the smaller garden such as the excellent Really Small Gardens by the RHS.
However, many garden design books often explain to us as that a good garden is created by following a list of principles or rules that are then illustrated on a grand scale with dramatic effect. Most of us do not have acres of land on which to carefully calculate the width versus length of our perennial borders to create a garden worthy of the Chelsea Flower Show.
Many of us don’t really have the time or the inclination to undertake the maintenance that such gardens would need too if we’re honest. Gardening in a small space has its limits, but it doesn’t need to be limiting as well. In a small garden, you can really pay attention to the fine details, create the perfect space for you. And you can easily keep on top of the maintenance, leaving time to actually sit back and enjoy your outdoor space when the wether permits.
In fact, many of the best small space gardens that I’ve seen are designed around just that. Created for entertaining, with comfortable sitting areas, rather then the need to simply grow colourful plants.
Limited outdoor space, however, does mean you’ll have to make choices. You won’t be able to grow every plant you see in the garden centre. You can’t shop on impulse and hope you’ll find room in your garden, everything needs to be planned carefully from planting scheme to colour to accessories. Colour should also be limited, to create that all important cohesion.
Less is more. Cooler colours will make the garden appear bigger. You can compensate for the limited colour pallette with a variety of textures and this will help to blend the plant material and allow the garden to flow. Every plant or feature will need to serve a purpose. There is no room for wasted space or underperforming plants. Plants should offer at least two seasons of interest.
And finally, if Lazy Susan could offer one final bit of small garden advice it would be to make use of containers… A well-placed and planted container can be the focal point in a small garden all year round.