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Small garden design: how to maximise a small space

Martyn Cox / 19 March 2018

From choosing everything from shrubs to the right garden furniture, Martyn Cox shows you eight ideas to maximise your small garden.

Small garden
Plant in layers by positioning plants in graduating height, from highest to shortest

Not everyone is lucky enough to have a large garden, but even those with a pocket-sized plot can create a garden that will make a big impact. Whether you’re starting from scratch or want to revamp a tired space, here’s how to make the most of what you’ve got.

1. Get the small garden design right

The key to getting the best out of a small garden is to plan its layout with care.

All too often, tiny plots lack any structure or are too complex, resulting in a garden that looks smaller than it actually is. Get the design right and you’ll have a small garden that feels bigger, looks good and is usable.

As small gardens are very much an extension to our homes, they need to be treated as an extra room. When planning a design, consider how the garden will look from inside, as you will spend a lot of time looking out on it, especially in winter.

Keep the layout as simple as possible. Bold, geometric shapes tend to work much better in small, rectangular spaces than curves. For example, a series of diamond shapes will create the illusion of the garden being wider than it is. Make sure you incorporate ways of providing privacy, especially around seating areas.

Plant lovers often feel inclined to squeeze as many different species as possible into the space, but it’s important to show some restraint when shopping. If the garden is overpopulated with plants, it will actually feel much smaller and there will be less physical space for enjoying life outdoors.

Visit our Home and Garden section for gardening guides, home improvement tips and much more.

2. Plant in layers

In order to take advantage of every planting opportunity and to create a garden that is easy on eye, it’s important to plant in layers, thinking about how the garden looks both horizontally and vertically. In order to do this, you need to position plants in graduating height, from highest to shortest.

The starting point when planting up any garden is the perimeter. Walls, fences, hedges or other forms of boundary will make the perfect backdrop if you use them to support a selection of climbers or wall shrubs. Next, add tall trees and shrubs, making sure you add them in small groups, rather than in serried rows.

In front of these, add medium-sized shrubs and taller perennials, followed by more compact plants and ground-covering species, and underplant with bulbs. Sketch out a planting plan on paper before buying plants. Think carefully about how different plants work together, considering their colour, texture and form.

3. Pick the right plants

Owners of large gardens have the luxury of choosing plants that might only look great for a few weeks, but when space is tight, every plant really has to earn its keep by providing more than one season of interest. That doesn’t mean you have to stick to evergreen trees or shrubs, although a smattering of them will ensure colour all year round.

A small tree is essential for vertical interest. Crab apples (Malus) are among the best as they boast spring flowers, summer shade, autumn colour and long-lasting fruit in many shades. Cercis Canadensis ‘Forest Pansy’ is a cracking tree with pink flowers on bare stems in early spring, followed by heart-shaped purple leaves that take on orange tints in autumn.

Shrubs will help to form a permanent backbone. Heavenly bamboo (Nandina domestica ‘Firepower’) has striking foliage, white summer flowers and glossy red berries that last until the end of winter, while Daphne odora ‘Aureomarginata’ has showy yellow-edged leaves and scented blooms in late winter.

Avoid perennials that have mammoth leaves. Not only will they be completely out of scale with the amount of available space, but they will dominate other plants and require regular pruning to keep them within bounds.

Read our guide to ornamental trees for small gardens.

4. Put vertical space to good use

Walls and fences stand out like a sore thumb when left bare, so make the most of this vertical space with climbers and wall shrubs. Apart from giving you the opportunity to squeeze in more plants, they will help to break up stark surfaces, and soften the hard lines of the structure.

Self-clinging climbers or plants with a tight habit of growth are ideal as they are easier to look after and take up less space. Evergreen star jasmine (Trachelospermum jasminoides) is great in a sunny spot with its scented white flowers, while trumpet vines (Campsis) boast vibrant, funnel-shaped flowers from mid summer until October.

Those with fences in shadier plots need to choose climbers suitable for low light conditions. Japanese hydrangea vine Schizophragma hydrangeoides ‘Moonlight’ is a deciduous, self-clinging climber with silver-marbled foliage and large, flattened heads of white flowers, while climbing hydrangea Pileostegia viburnoides is an evergreen with long, leathery leaves and clusters of creamy flowers from late summer.

Many gardeners shy away from painting walls and fences, but doing so will transform your space instantly. A splash of exterior paint provides colour 365 days a year and forms the perfect backdrop for plants. It also plays a visual trick, making a small garden seem much larger.

Visit our plants section for growing guides and planting ideas.

5. Clever storage solutions

To make the most of a small garden, give freestanding wooden sheds a wide berth. A slimline, wall-mounted shed is a much better idea: it doesn’t need as much floor space and is perfect for a redundant corner.

Another option is to build bench seating that doubles up as storage around a patio or entertaining space. The seating can be made from brick or timber, with a seat that lifts up on a hinge to reveal a space for tucking away equipment.

A clever way to reduce the need for too much storage is to buy multi-headed gardening tools rather than an armoury of different ones, and to choose mowers and other bits of kits with foldable or removable handles.

6. Smart use of furniture

As a rule, circular pieces of furniture are best for small gardens, as chairs can be easily arranged around the outer edge without any awkward corners getting in the way. For example, a simple bistro-style table plus chairs is perfect for a patio or courtyard.

Consider the construction of the furniture. Wooden items need to be put away over winter or covered with a waterproof sheet, and require regular treatment with varnish or stains. On the other hand, cast-iron or cast-aluminium pieces can be left outside all year round and are easy to clean. If you can, select foldable tables as these will free up more space when not in use and are much easier to store. Folding, or stackable chairs, will also help to optimise your space.

7. Use pots

Plants in pots are essential in a small garden, allowing you to create temporary or permanent displays. They can be employed as focal points, to flank a flight of stairs, to add sculptural interest or to create both a visual and physical barrier.

Crisp pieces of topiary, grasses, flowering shrubs, foliage specimens or architectural plants, such as cordylines, phormiums and bamboos, will provide interest all year round. Another option is to ring the changes during the year with mixed displays of seasonal flowers.

Choosing containers is as important as deciding what to grow in them. Terracotta works well in a traditional space, and sleek metal pots are ideal for a contemporary garden. Limestone, terrazzo and other types of stone suit many types of garden, while plastic or glazed pots will add a splash of colour to a modern patio.

Display containers thoughtfully for maximum impact. A group of different-sized pots arranged in graduating height can make an eye-catching feature, while a row placed alongside a path, wall or flight of steps, will add movement by leading the eye from one place to another.

8. Make room for a small water feature

Even if your garden is tiny, there’s still room to create a compact water feature that will make a big impact.

No matter its size, a water feature adds movement to a static space, while the gurgle or gentle splash from a fountain will provide relaxing background sounds and mask unwanted noise. Of course, it also provides gardeners with the opportunity to grow a range of beautiful aquatic plants.

There are plenty of options. A small pond, sunken pool, bog garden or narrow rill are perfect. Even those with just a simple patio could squeeze in a bubble fountain, container pond or wall fountain. A freestanding water feature will add interest and doubles up as a birdbath.

Ideally, site water features in a partially shaded, sheltered position. This will reduce evaporation in summer and minimise the growth of algae, which flourishes in full sun. If you intend stocking a pond with fish, avoid putting it in full shade as oxygen levels will be low.

Find out more about choosing and buying a garden water feature.

Martyn Cox is the author of 101 Ideas for Small Gardens.

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The opinions expressed are those of the author and are not held by Saga unless specifically stated. The material is for general information only and does not constitute investment, tax, legal, medical or other form of advice. You should not rely on this information to make (or refrain from making) any decisions. Always obtain independent, professional advice for your own particular situation.