The best tips for designing a small garden

Limited outdoor space doesn't have to be restrictive. Here are some helpful tips from four well-designed small gardens.  


When your outdoor space is limited, it can be hard to think outside the box and come up with imaginative ideas to use the space you have effectively. In the small garden special, Gardens Illustrated chose four compact gardens that think big when it comes to small space. Here, each designer shares their small garden tips to give you some useful design ideas.  


Designing a small garden

Nicola Lesbirel's garden in north London has a strong structure but her planting is constantly evolving. Here are her top tips for making a small garden feel bigger.

1 Spend money on the best materials you can afford for hard landscaping and this will stand you in good stead. If your garden has good bones you can relax about the planting.
2 Don’t mix too many different materials. Create families of pots and group them so they are either the same size or the same glaze, such as terracotta or salt glaze.
3 Think carefully about where you are going to place key plants, such as specimen trees and shrubs. You can plant trees near to a house if the foundations are up to it.
4 The challenge is not how many plants to put in but what to leave out. As a general rule of thumb, I would use a larger quantity of a few species, rather than small numbers of lots of different plants – you need to create focal points where the eye can stop, breathe and relax. Nicola likes to use controlled larger shapes as a foil for planting that can then dance in front.
5 Don’t forget about the practicalities. Take time with your soil preparation – this really is worth the effort. Also plan for storage and practicalities, such as your water supply, before you start planning the planting. And choose furniture that can live permanently outdoors.


Dealing with shade

An award-winning garden in San Fransisco employs a host of clever devices to make a small and shady space appear light and large. Designer Scott Lewis gives five tips for planting up a shady garden.

1 Plan for texture. Combine deciduous plants with interesting winter form, broadleaf evergreens for a base foundation and perennials for seasonal interest. Conifers can
provide an unusual textural accent.
2 Consider the hard landscaping. This is an important part of the overall composition. Take time to choose the appropriate stone, gravel, concrete, wood or metal, and don’t just look at them in bright light – evaluate what materials look like in shade and when wet with rain.
3 Use a green and white palette. This simplest of colour schemes works especially well in shade. Combine different green leaf textures with a variety of white-flowering plants, and be sure to incorporate some variegated plants for additional interest.
4 Include some ferns. Ferns are dependable in shade and provide great texture, either as individual clumps or en masse. Some prefer dry shade; others are happy in damp conditions.
5 Use plants with small delicate flowers, such as those you might find in a natural woodland. These act as a contrasting tracery against the mass of textured foliage. Some, such as Sarcococca ruscifolia, offer the bonus of winter scent.


Interiors tips for small gardens

In east London, interior designer Abigail Ahern has broken all the gardening rules to create a quirky outdoor room that's as stylish as her interiors. Here are her tips on texture and colour.

1 Use a restrained colour palette. In interiors, I only ever use about two or three colours in a room. Here I have green foliage with pink and white flowers – nothing else. I love hydrangeas. I don’t use harsh colours in the garden – I use a muted, knocked-back, dark palette that looks really sophisticated and works with our climate.
2 I can never find outside lights that I like so I put inside lighting, such as a 1960s’ pendant light and a plastic John Lewis lamp, outside instead and rewire it. Often people don’t realise the power of lighting; it is transformative.
3 Use texture in planting, hard landscaping, furniture and accessories. For me, texture is a major component in interiors and it is just as important in an outside space. How a tree sways; how my bronze pots from Homebase catch in the sun; the featheriness of the mimosa; my old, zinc-topped, Indian table against smooth plastic chairs.
4 I like to put things into people’s vision. I haven’t put things along the perimeter but I have put them in the middle of the space. This is what I do in small spaces. The eye is so intrigued that it doesn’t clock the size of it but how cool it is. I like tricking the eye so you don’t know where to look. If you see everything in one go, it’s boring.
5 Tying the outside paving with the concrete inside makes the floors look as though
they merge into each other, and makes whatever space you’re looking into – whether it’s
the garden or the living room – look bigger.
6 Play around with scale. The minute you put something that’s big into a space that isn’t very big it immediately looks much grander.


Big ideas for small space

For a small city garden in Antwerp, designer Koen Aerts has distilled the essence of the gardens his clients love in the South of France, but added a sophisticated Belgian twist. Here are his tips for creating a feeling of space.

1 Stick to one or two bold elements, as this will make your garden seem larger than if you fill it with smaller items. For example, using large paving stones, of at least a metre square, will create a greater feeling of space than lots of smaller paving stones. Similarly, one big tree is better than several small shrubs and large containers holding dramatic plants work better than lots of small pots.
2 Hide what you don’t want to see. Details that don’t fit with your design will annoy you more in a small garden. Hide any technical equipment, such as wiring or irrigation channels, out of the way.
3 Edit your choices. You can’t fit everything into a small garden, so limit your plants and furniture to a single theme – such as an edible garden or water garden – that reflects your personality and home.
4 Try to link the garden to the house. By using some of the same materials, for example tiles or plant containers, in both house and garden you can create a sense of continuity between interior and outside spaces, making your garden feel like an outside room. Using outdoor cushions and lamps will also help link the two spaces. If you have a conservatory, this can become a useful halfway house, allowing you to combine interior furnishings with more tender plants, such as citrus, to connect with your garden.
5 Aim for a timeless design. Good structure and design should stand alone and not be subject to fashion. Remember design is not the same as decoration; it’s far easier to decorate a well-designed garden, than to fix a badly designed garden with decorative elements. 


Plans by Liam McAuley

Photograph by Rachel Warne

This article was taken from a longer feature in the August 2016 issue (237) of Gardens Illustrated








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