Trying to put all your garden needs and loves into one small space is no easy task. As a designer, I found that everyone’s wish lists remain pretty constant, regardless of the size of the backyard/block/allotment/yard we were looking at. Places to eat, cook and entertain, places for play and sanctuary, places to grow vegies and flowers, plus all the standard utilities of clothes drying and storage for bins, tools and bikes.
Townhouse backyards, villa gardens and courtyards demand restraint and a clever manipulation of space to create a place for entertaining, play and sanctuary. Balconies and older terrace houses have even tinier, narrow spaces, but everyone can make a garden to love and live in, no matter how small.
Designers love working on small gardens. Where space is limited, every inclusion has great value and feels more special, and the connection between the owners and the garden is wonderfully intimate. Whether it’s elegant simplicity or vibrant clutter that you like, there are some basic design principles (and a few tricks) to apply.
Small gardens need to be several different things at once. Outdoor dining is usually a priority, but there are always secondary needs for secluded and intimate spaces for one or two, maybe a place for children’s play, storage for bikes and bins, drying areas and a place to grow some herbs and vegetables. To accommodate multiple needs, you need to make sure that your garden inclusions can do double duty. Think about seats that lift up for storage, pergolas with hooks and wires for hanging clothes, garden beds with wide edges for seating and bins hidden behind vertical edible gardens or water features.
Many small gardens have a strongly rectilinear outline. By breaking up this boxy shape, you can make the garden’s dimensions less obvious, and the space seem larger than it really is. Although it can more expensive because of increased cutting costs, using diagonal lines in paving and garden beds, or designing in a sweeping curve, or playing around with interlocking diamonds or circles will change the way your eye reads the space. You can read more about using groundplane shapes in ‘Geometry lesson‘
It might seems counterintuitive, but avoiding large, open voids is the first step to creating a feeling of space. Your eye looks straight across an empty area, in both the horizontal and vertical plane. By shaping, dividing and layering your spaces with canopies, screens and plants, you keep the eye busy with things to look at. As long as there’s not too much variety in colour and form and texture, it will feel lush and spacious rather than cluttered. Think about how you would work with an inside room of similar dimensions – would you arrange all the furniture around the outside edge of the room with a big open space in the middle?
The first step to making a small space seem larger is to really work the vertical dimension. Canopies created by underpruned small trees and large shrubs, a pergola, shade sails or just a large umbrella give a sense of both height and pleasant containment. This is especially important if you have high side or house walls, as that height will make your ‘floor’ area seem smaller. It’s also the best way to give yourself some privacy from overlooking windows. Set a pergola high enough for a covering vine to cascade down or to hang fancy lights.
Expand your horizons
Weave the illusion of depth and width into your garden space. Push back walls by painting them darker, subdued colours. Disguise the furthest boundaries by covering them up with screening shrubs planted in overlapping layers (not a single line) and using fine textured (smaller leaves) and grey-leafed plants to add to that feeling of distance. Take the eye right into every corner with sculpture, pretty plants or a wandering path. If you have a central open area for entertaining, keep your furniture to one side so your background is still a strong part of the picture.
Divide and hide
Even small gardens can benefit from being divided into separate spaces. Delineate a different zone by using another flooring, such as decking instead of pavers, by screening, or with low walls of built materials or plants. Using barriers that obscure part of the garden gives a great sense of something beyond. Archways, moongates, trellis, slatted or laser-cut screens, arbors and gazebos are fantastic in small gardens as they divide areas, frame views and accent the vertical, as well as being a layering focal point.
Framing the view
Small gardens are on show from house windows so don’t get carried away with just how the design functions for you outside. Stand inside to design your view out as well, as it will make a ‘living picture’ for your room, and needs to co-ordinate with your inside colours. If you want to include a strong focal point with a large sculpture or vivid colour, be aware of how it can dominate your inside room.
Colour and texture
Be restrained about using contrast in a small space. Don’t get me wrong – I think contrast is essential in any garden. Gardens of beige hardscaping and green-on-green foliage may be to some people’s taste but I think they’re really boring. You just need to settle on one type of contrast – colour or texture or form – and not try to fit all of them into the one space.
That said, those with an artist’s eye seem able to break the rules and get away with it! Harmonising colours work well with one contrast, such as different shades of blue against rich orange and terracotta, or pinks and purples with lots of green foliage. If you prefer to keep to a more monochromatic colour palette, create contrast from textures instead, such as different flooring of smooth pavers, timber decking, slick stainless steel and rough pebbles, or from form with lots of different pot shapes or topiaries.
Plants (and more plants)
Every garden needs plants. Whether you prefer a sparser, more architectural look, your own urban jungle, or a home farm, as your plants will be very much on show you need to give them optimum growing conditions, regular maintenance, and be absolutely ruthless about removing those that don’t perform. Your high-end finishes and designer style will be ruined by diseased foliage or poorly and unpruned shrubs. Make beds as deep as possible so you’ve got room to fit in more than one layer of plants, as a failure in a single line of plants is much more obvious. Spend time improving your soil and install a drip-watering system. If you’ve got high side walls, you may need to choose from those rare plant beasts that can grow well in both summer sun and winter shade.
Pots and containers
Small gardens often rely on growing plants in pots. Groups of pots can look fab together but if you’re not the arty type, collect either pots of all one colour but varied shape and size or pots of different colours but the same shape. What you grow in them works better as a collection if you follow similar rules. I’ve seen a higgledy-piggledy collection of pots planted with the same type of clipped buxus ball and the effect was brilliant.
Light and shadow
Using alternating patches of sunlight and pools of shade is another way of creating layers of interest. Movable awnings and umbrellas and deciduous vines and trees mean you can change the pattern of shadows to suit each season. The long shadow of a bare crepe (crape) myrtle across light coloured paving is one of nature’s most beautiful winter sights. Reflect light into dark areas using light coloured, polished, metallic or mirrored surfaces but make sure there is a balancing amount of shadow for some hidden mystery. Use subtle lighting for a similar effect at night, with a few pools of stronger light, some areas less brightly lit and others in deep shadow. Backlit plants or laser-cut screens on a boundary give an impression of depth.
There are lots of designers who think that using mirrors in a small garden is so ‘last Thursday’. I disagree – used cleverly, mirrors really do create an impression of an extra garden space. It’s all in the placement and surrounds! A mirror needs to be placed or slightly angled so that it’s hard for you to stand directly in front of it and see yourself, as I’m guessing you’d then figure out – what ho! it’s a mirror. It needs to reflect something generic, like foliage ‘various’ rather than a specific object – unless it’s something really groovy you want to see the back of as well. Avoid it being hit by direct sunlight, unless you want to use the mirror to reflect extra light somewhere. You can either surround your mirror with draping foliage so its existence is disguised, or frame it like it’s a window through to somewhere else.
Delight the senses
Add extra dimension to a small space by exciting other senses. Fragrant flowers, aromatic foliage, scented candles and incense attract attention. Add the soothing tinkle of gentle wind chimes or the many different sounds created by rushing, splashing, trickling or bubbling water. (Though be aware that the sound will be amplified by high walls surrounding a small garden). Encourage garden visitors to feel a wide variety of textures, including smooth polished stone, woven reeds, flaky bark and velvety leaves.
Work the vertical
A flat garden will look smaller than one which has a level change. Incorporate a raised small deck, garden beds or a pond, or alternatively dig down to make a fire pit or reflection pool. Use walls for planting with espaliered shrubs, fruit trees or decorative climbers or go all out and install a vertical garden of colourful succulents or cascading ferns. If you’ve got high walls surrounding your garden, use one of them as a mini art gallery, covering it with outdoor paintings, photographs, banners and plaques.
Small gardens need the very best of materials and a high-quality finish. So much of the garden is on permanent show from the house, it needs to be able to stand up to close scrutiny. Get the best you can afford and make sure you or your contractor pay close attention to the details that set a good job apart, such as neat, close-fitting timber joins, and paving which is smooth and evenly spaced. Be diligent about your maintenance, especially the plants – when you don’t have many, each is so much more on show.