Small Gardens

 In Garden Design, News

Small But Beautiful

Many of us buying a property these days count our fortunes if we have a small outdoor space. At best it will be a small courtyard. Most of us live in dense urban areas where lack of privacy, shade by surrounding buildings, pollution and noise create a harsh environment to live in. More reason to have your own outdoor space to escape to and relax in. Outdoor living spaces are becoming more precious as the concrete jungle around us increases.

The biggest issue with small gardens is limited space and access through the house. This does not mean it cannot be transformed into a beautiful and practical space. Look upon it as an investment as you would your indoor space if you were renovating it. Planning and organising are essential. Really consider every element of the garden as it must work hard and earn its place.

Keep the design simple and uncluttered. First and fore most think about how you want to use the space. Are you going to entertain friends and family, will you bbq, do you need space to work or do you simply want to use the garden to sit and relax in. Think also about the look you want and keep this cohesive with your property. If your house is modern, keep your garden the same. If your garden is a period property, then you may want to look at features and material from the same era. Connect the garden with home by using colours of your interiors. This can be through soft furnishings, the planting colour palette or even

A small garden yet it provides a journey by placing a level change and introducing a couple of steps, a place to sit and entertain a barbeque and lush planting. The best trick is the two aubergine screens at the very back. By keeping a space between them it makes you think the garden is bigger as there is something beyond those screens

small garden

Credit: John Davies Landscape

The better way to use a smaller space is not by packing in lots of smaller elements in but by having fewer, bigger ones so they make a statement. For many of us the garden is a place to sit, relax and entertain. Think about the flooring material indoors. Expanding the same material or colour into the garden creates an illusion of bigger space. Avoid using small format slabs or tiles. Use bigger ones.

Create a journey through the garden.

This makes the space feel bigger. This can be done with pathway and a level change. Level changes can be difficult in limited space and sometimes can become a trip hazard. Highlight the level change by using a different material on the next section. Lighting is key at this point in the garden as changes in level can be hard to see at night.

Whilst lawns provide instant greenery in a garden, are they really practical in a small garden? My thought is not. I definitely do not advocate using artificial lawns as this is just adding plastic into a garden and is not good for wildlife. Keep to hardstanding but permeable materials and bring the garden to life by softening the hardscape with real plants.

Credit: John Davies Landscape

This is beautiful calm, contemplative space. Outdoor noise disguised by the sound of the water feature. A journey created through level changes. The eye taken off the awkward space by the position of planting areas and tall plants. This also helps to bring the eye down into the garden so the focus is taken off the buildings to the rear.

If you are being overlooked think about screening. Pleach trees provide height and greenery without restricting light. They are also pleasing to look at from both sides so you will not annoy your neighbours. Screens can be constructed out of timber. Western Red Cedar slatted trellis or fencing is currently very popular. Not only does it provide a contemporary look, but it works well even within a period property.

Raised borders can help elevate planting. These can be constructed in brick, rendered walls, sleepers or cladding. Another option is using containers that are either bought or bespoke. Be aware that raised borders and containers can restrict the growth of plants and the soil in them can dry out so irrigation is advisable dependent on plant choices.

Credit: House & Garden Magazine

Clever use of a mirror can make a small garden feel bigger. Do not clutter the space up with small pots and plants. Invest In large containers and mature plants. Less is more. It will Make the space feel larger and grander.

Keep colours light in a small garden

If you have a long narrow garden, there are ways of making the space feel bigger. You can create compartments along the length of the garden thereby losing the feel of a long narrow space. This can be done through staggered hedges or screens and making the planting scheme loser and wilder as you go further down the garden. Another option is to exaggerate the width by emphasizing the horizontal design lines. Lay decking or stone planks across the garden, create wide steps or construct a water rill stretching from one side to the other.

Keep colours light in a small garden. It will help to make the space feel less enclosed. Disguising boundary lines with climbers or wall shrubs will also create an illusion of the garden being bigger. A great trick can be to put a console table against a wall and position a paned mirror above the wall. Place containerised plants on the console which reflect in the mirror. Straight away you have a feeling of the space extending. If you have an odd shaped garden, don’t just follow the boundary lines. This is one of the biggest mistakes that people make. My advice is to create practical functional spaces that work and fill the odd shapes and angles with planting. This will make your garden user friendly and it will take the emphasis away from the odd shape.


This small garden has been cleverly designed. Placing the trees close to the patio provides immediate privacy from the building at the rear. It also creates a feeling of walking through a forest and arriving at clearing. A playful trick to make a small space feel bigger.

Be mindful. What you do in your garden can impact your neighbour’s property. Take into account neighbouring trees that cast shadows when in leaf as this will impact seating areas and your planting scheme. Borrow the neighbouring tree to make them inclusive in your design (designers call this the borrowed landscape). Using a limited planting palette will create impact. Select the right type of plants for the pH of your soil. Consider the mature sizes of plants as you don’t want them to outgrow the space.

When choosing trees look for interesting bark, sculptural branch structure and beautiful foliage shape. If you like a naturalistic look a multi-stem tree works really well. Choose something with an open branch structure that will allow light to penetrate below. The garden is still alive in winter so think about the view out from the house. What will you see? You don’t want a garden where all the plants have gone to sleep. Add some evergreen shrubs not only to give structure within the planting scheme but also winter interest.

The sound of water can be soothing

The sound of water can be soothing but also helps disguise noise. Water features do not have to be large. A small gurgling water feature can be very relaxing. It can be raised by using a glazed ceramic pot or a modern cube water feature can be readily bought off the shelf.

Lighting in a garden is a must. This must not be brash. You don’t want Blackpool illuminations in your garden which will annoy the neighbours. Garden lighting should be warm, cosy and create an ambience. Use lights to shine up through specimen trees. Position lights to cast interesting shadows. Install just a few lights in the planting borders to give enough of a glow. Patios and pathways can have lights inserted in them. Interesting wall texture and brickwork can also be lit up from the base. If you have installed a piece of artwork such a sculpture or a filigree metal screen, light these up and show them off.


Think about using the vertical space. Plants do not have to be grown on the ground. A living wall can add drama and lushness to a small space. It also helps to free up the floor space that you have.

Keep furniture light. I prefer furniture that can be moved around and is stackable. In a small garden this gives you the option to then reposition furniture or open up a space if you need to. If you are having built-in furniture, then try and make it dual purpose so that you can use it as storage. Whilst on the subject of storage we all need a small space for garden equipment.

If you are going to install a shed, you can either make it a feature by painting it or hide it behind a trellis which can be covered with climbers. A garden studio constructed in Western Red Cedar or Shou Sugi Ban timber can look very impressive, provide an additional room and a small section of this with a disguised doorway can be turned into the garden storage shed. Note that permanent structure may require planning permission so bet to check with your local planning office.

If you like to dress the garden with pots don’t make the mistake of using lots of small odd pots. This makes a small garden look cluttered. Remember less is more. Choose two or three large pots. They will make much more impact. Place them through the garden to make the eye travel.

We are not all creative so if you find this process daunting, my advice would be to engage a garden designer to help you. It is money well spent and they will certainly prevent you from making costly mistakes.

Credit: Photographer Paul Debois and Gardener’s World Magazine

In this small courtyard garden creating raised planting borders helped to elevate the height of the plants thereby giving more privacy. Inbuilt benches are used for storage.

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