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Garden Design

Simplicity fixes a small garden space

Anthony Tesselaar

Anthony Tesselaar

June 5, 2017

If you have a small garden space – I’m talking about a courtyard, light well or tiny patio  – and nothing you grow out there seems to look right, I think I know why. And I also know how to fix it: with some honesty.

Firstly, face up to the fact that your outdoor garden space is small. Many gardeners ignore this and instead try to cram too much into the space, which ends up looking like you’re minding everyone’s potted plants while they’re away on holiday. It’s easily done. When something doesn’t come together in the garden, what to we all do? Take a trip to the garden centre and bring home something bewitchingly gorgeous to add to the mix in the hope that its good-looks will fix things. A recent addition may offer a distraction, but it’s no long-term solution.

Instead, accept that your space is limited. Clear it and start afresh. This time, tackle the project as if it were a very large flower arrangement with three elements – a small tree, something of medium height and a ground cover. Cover the remainder of the space with paving or gravel. This may sound incredibly limiting and restrictive, but it works by simplifying Mother Nature’s messages to us. The seasons will be showcased by the tree’s blossom, leaf colour and bare branches. Ditto with the accompanying planting. Which is why choosing great plants is important.

Design World Architects

Here (above) you can see the three elements working together: a tree, a scattering of ferns and a ground cover of moss. The retaining wall of rock is a master stroke – all by World Architects.


The tree must be small and offer changing beauty – the extraordinarily beautiful magnolias bred by the Jury family of New Zealand immediately come to mind. Black Tulip, Burgundy Star, Felix and Vulcan are all great candidates for centre stage.


Take a look also at the many ornamental flowering cherries, crab apples and pears. Then add in your mid height plant and ground cover using the tree as a guide to colour. Mid height plant options could be the clumping purple fountain grass Pennisetum rubrum, which would look fabulous with the magnolias, finished off with a creeping understory of purple Tradescantia. Spread some white gravel and you’ll be very happy with the result.

And one final tip, resist the urge to add a garden feature unless it’s a single rock, large enough to sit on. Small spaces aren’t very forgiving when it comes to garden ornaments – a kitch result is never far away.

Design Apollo Architects


This minimalist offering (above) from Apollo Architects & Associates sets the season-changing maple tree against the surfaces of the gravel and the wall behind. Note the way the wall catches the tree’s shadow.

[This post is brought to you by Anthony Tesselaar Plants]


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6 years ago

A very interesting article: Simplicity never become obsolete. But sometimes the line between simplicity and ‘sadness’ is very thin and I think that Japanese garden designers have a lot to teach about how to make a space simple but interesting and beautiful thanks to different textures and materials, and attention to any small detail.