Designing a Small Garden

Garden Design

Introduction

The most challenging and yet most rewarding when designed correctly; small gardens can be wonderful spaces but afford little room for error.

The design process is the same, but there are additional factors which will impact your design. We look at each of these, covering layout, features, planting, screening and the practicalities. We hope you enjoy reading our thoughts, and do feel free to get in touch if you have any comments.

This design includes Trovia porcelain laid down as stepping stones with gravel interspersed. By using products with similar colours, the resulting effect is a contemporary one.

Keep the layout simple

Getting started involves thinking about the overall layout of the garden. Circles and curves look fantastic, especially as part of a large landscape, but they can be so tricky to get right in terms of their interaction with other shapes. Overlapping circles can also pose the problem of creating awkward spaces.

Instead our recommendation would be to focus on a traditional layout using geometric patterns consisting of squares and rectangles. These will intersect with one another more neatly and minimise ‘dead’ space.

We’ve included an example to the right; this walled garden measured 19m x 12m, so whilst not the smallest of small gardens, the principle still applied. See how we’ve used just three different shapes to sub-divide the garden and then just connected these areas. This may feel too unnatural for you, but these lines can easily be softened with planting if that is your preference.

A word of caution: do double check all your measurements. Whereas the ‘odd’ 300mm mis-measurement can be reasonably easily amended in a large space, small gardens are much less forgiving.

Top tip: avoid trying to cover up an eyesore (unless this can be easily achieved by screening) and think instead about averting the gaze. For example, if the eye naturally looks out of the garden to a neighbouring property, then instead consider installing a sculpture or water feature in the centre of the garden.

What to include

Do include a dining table, but you may prefer to keep this on the small side; one to seat 4 people or your immediate family size only.

Consider also including a raised border with an approximate height of 500mm. Use block work to create a deeper wall enabling this to double up as seating should it be required. The second benefit of including this detail is that you’re introducing some height. The finished border will be nearer to eye level or even with plants above head height giving them more presence and power.

Do include large plants! This may sound counterintuitive, but actually a few large statement plants will create the effect of grandeur. On the other hand, many varieties of smaller plants will make the space feel busy and crowded. This principle can be applied to a small border also.

We are huge fans of a luscious green lawn, but rarely do we look to include one in a small garden. The problem with a lawn is that it requires a lawn mower, which means you need a shed. Does your garden really have room for a shed? If you can’t bear the thought of paving throughout then consider interspersing it with low growing plants as shown below.

It’s worth reading up on our previous blog, ‘How to design a garden’, to understand the power of combining different forms with colour. Whilst the aforementioned focuses on completing this with soft landscaping, it can be done to great effect with hard landscaping also.

Screening

This is likely to be a big factor for a small garden. Whether you’re trying to make the garden more private or reduce the sound of nearby traffic, screening will no doubt be a priority.

A popular option is to consider using pleached trees or a ‘hedge on legs’. The most common choice of planting for this is Carpinus betulus (Hornbeam), but Fagus sylvatica (Beech) and Tilia (Lime) are also used.

The benefits of using pleached trees in a small garden over a hedge is that due to the clear stem, the perception is of a greater amount of space available, whereas a hedge would literally bring the edge of the garden closer.

In terms of advantages over a traditional tree, this is mainly to do with the way the pleached trees are designed to eventually merge into one another, i.e. you have a constant screen as opposed to having space between each crown.

screening with pleached trees

What to plant

Scent is a fantastic element to introduce into any garden, but is likely to be much more important in an enclosed space. This is partly as it increases the interest, but also the more enclosed location and possibly warmer environment should make that scent really potent. Place these plants near your back door to ensure you are always able to get a sniff when passing.

We’d certainly be leaning towards architectural planting; Agapanthus, Phormiums, Echiums (if space) and Fatsias and Tree ferns for shadier gardens. We also place a much greater focus on form and evergreen presence. You cannot afford to have bare patches in a small space as the effect will be unforgiving; flowers (as beautiful as they can be) are fleeting. Make sure all your chosen plants have a generous flowering period of at least a month or have other things going for them. Pittosporum ‘Nanum’ is a fantastic textural evergreen shrub that should thrive in a warmer garden. Topiaried Laurus nobilis (bay) is another great choice for interest and height.

Also do consider using grasses. These may only be considered as ‘filler plants’, i.e. not necessarily the focal point, but they add rhythm and balance to the rest of the scheme. Plus they are highly tactile. If you can plant some in a raised border, just watch how many times you idly run you fingers through these as you pass by.

Scotscape Living Wall System, London. Image sourced from Scotscape.co.uk

Using the Vertical

Making every inch count includes the walls. The more green space you can incorporate into your garden, the more wildlife you can attract and the cooler you can make your outdoor space. This is because plants release water vapour when they get hot, but actually we think there’s a psychological benefit of feeling ‘fresh’ when gazing out on to lush green planting rather than harsh man-made materials. Finally, those green walls will increase the opportunities for taking pollutants out of the garden as well as reducing noise pollution.

All this seems to make a compelling case, but there are of course a couple of drawbacks you’ll need to consider. Firstly, cost - of course. It’s about the only time in garden construction in which soft landscaping is likely to come in comparatively higher than hard landscaping. It’s all a matter of taste and there will be exceptions to this also.

The other factor to bear in mind is maintenance. Many of the living wall solutions come with an irrigation system. The plants will be in small pots, making them prone to drying out - hence it is worth ensuring this is included. Watering aside, there will be additional plant care, albeit relatively periodic, but again, a factor to consider as part of the overall design.

There are two means of embracing a green vertical solution. At the one extreme, you can embrace a myriad of different plants encouraging year round interest, flowers and scent all from one wall. These are typically called ‘Living Walls’ or Green walls, although some companies do offer plastic plants under the title of Green Walls, so watch out for what you’re buying - the plastic will obviously not have any impact on reducing the heat!

The Scotscape website shows some Fytotextile Living Wall System living walls in all their glory. This is a fantastic example of how planting has softened an otherwise harsh space. We love the way they have been designed in columns alternating with the wooden boards. This really would have had a huge impact on the tiny space which had few alternative opportunities for planting. The cooling effect would have been significant here also.

The other, more straightforward solution is climbers. Our FAVOURITE plant is Trachelospermum Jasminoides - it really is one of the least fussy of plants, being happy on light or heavy soil as well as fine in sun or part shade. It’s evergreen, has autumn colour and has pretty white flowers with a soft scent. These plants will romp away once established. Trachelospermum Jasminoides also makes a great choice as it is self clinging, meaning it doesn’t require tying in.

However, all climbers will need a little support to get started and for a minimalist touch, considering something like these wire frameworks from s31.

Other examples of climbers and the conditions they prefer are as follows:

  • Climbers for shade: Clematis alpina, Clematis koreana ‘Amber’ (Clematis do not like to get too dry), Hedera, Hydrangea seemanii, Parthenocissus and Schizophragma
  • Climbers with good scent: Clematis armandii, Clematis montana ‘Fragrant Spring’, Coronilla, Wisteria brachybotrys, Lonicera japonica ‘Halls Prolific’
  • Fast Growing Climbers: Clematis orientalis ‘Bill Mackenzie’, Lathyrus latifolius, Parthenocissus quinquefolia
  • Best Evergreen Climbers: Clematis ‘Avalanche’, Holboellia, Lonicera similis var. delavayi, Lonicera henryi, Stauntonia

Finally, do also bear in mind the option for espaliered fruit trees. Similar to pleached trees, they take up relatively minimal depth and have the added benefit of blossom and fruit! Pear, plum and apple trees are all available in trained form.

Embrace the perks

Yes, there are benefits to a small garden! Typically we might associate smaller gardens with inner cities where garden life can take on a new dimension thanks to the Urban Heat Island effect. We won’t go into the science here too much, but urban gardens, especially in larger cities such as London, can be up to 10 degrees celsius warmer than their more rural counterparts.

What does this mean? Well for starters, the planting options open up enormously. Exotic and tropical plants which simply wouldn’t survive a typical British Winter actually might thrive in a London garden. Think Mimosa, banana plants, Cannas, Abutilon, Lemon Verbena - all beautiful plants which rarely find lasting success in the UK.

The other advantage in our view is that a beautiful small garden can pack a much bigger punch than the same size plot set in a larger space. Details are easily missed when looking at an expansive landscape, but a well designed small garden should ooze style.

Designing a small garden

Remember to consider the access

Before you get too carried away, make sure you think through the logistics of building the garden. If the garden is small then we’re going to make an educated guess that access may also be limited. What does this actually mean? Well for starters, is there a way to access the garden without going through the house? If so, it would be worth measuring this; can someone carry a tree through the narrowest point? Will a micro-digger fit?

If there is no alternative access then it is probable that all waste will have to come through the house and all new materials back in the same way. If this is the case then it would be worth revisiting your design to ask yourself if some of the waste can be kept on site. Perhaps it might be possible to include a raised platform or adjust the levels in some way that would make it possible to re-use the old patio as hard core. This may sound insignificant, but for landscapers to carry waste through the house, this will add time (i.e. money) to the project.

Summary

We hope this has given you a good grounding for approaching your small garden. However if you’re feeling stumped then do get in touch.

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