Gardens Illustrated
George Cullis garden
© Katharine Peachey

How to use colour and layers in small gardens

Published: April 27, 2022 at 10:52 am
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Landscape architect George Cullis has transformed a dark, enclosed London courtyard into a green oasis using a limited colour palette. Here's how he makes colour work in a small garden

Using colour and layers in a small garden

Using a limited colour palette is an excellent way of ensuring cohesion in a small garden. In his small courtyard garden in London, George opted for a predominantly green and soft grey scheme, albeit with a huge amount of variation in the greens, which stretch from lime to apple and viridian.


About 70 per cent of the plants – Magnolia grandiflora ‘Praecox’, Malus ‘Evereste’ and repeated plantings of Aralia cordata ‘Sun King’ for example – were chosen for structure and, of these, around 40 per cent are evergreen, ensuring there is interest year round, vital in a garden as small as this.

Throughout the garden, George has planted in layers. Low-growing plants including Hakonechloa macra and European wild ginger (Asarum europaeum) spill over the edges of the planting beds, softening the overall effect. A mid layer of astrantias and Sesleria autumnalis and taller plants, such as Onoclea sensibilis and Pittosporum tenuifolium, leads the eye upwards to the tree and the climbers. Where there are flowers, George uses them in large splashes, rather than as a lot of smaller pin pricks. “In that way you get a nice sense of rhythm in the space,” he says.

By restricting the hard landscaping materials to soft greys and off whites, George has increased the sense of unity still further. “Simple can often be very effective,” he says. “Make the ground plane interesting so it encourages the eye to travel through the space and to its edges. In this design, I’ve used a beautiful stone, beautifully laid, complemented by the verticals of the tree and climbers to draw the eye up.” He also recommends unifying your boundaries by painting or cladding them in the same materials, and installing good quality wires so that climbers – which will help the garden feel less enclosed – can establish and thrive.


Head to our small gardens hub for more small garden ideas. Read more about this courtyard garden here.


Natasha is a writer and editor who contributes regularly to publications including Gardens Illustrated, Elle Decoration and Country Life, among others. She also writes and produces illustrated maps and guides for garden lovers via her company, Finch Publishing.


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