In common with many people, my first proper garden was small. A typical back-of-terrace town plot, it was narrow, overlooked and filled with a mismatched assortment of plants, the legacy of numerous owners. Looking back, I’m not sure I vastly improved things.
Reading Noel Kingsbury’s latest book, New Small Garden, I began to wish I could go back and do things differently. Armed with the advice he dispenses – and quite a few years of experience – how much better I could have handled things.
I’m not usually completely convinced by garden ‘design’ books. Beautiful to look at, they can seem more aspirational than inspirational, akin to many show gardens that are too often beyond the reach and budget of the average gardener.
Of course, this book starts with an advantage in that it deals with the sort of small space most gardeners have; even the modest garden of my childhood would seem large by today’s standards. Most of the gardens featured are under 100 sq.m. (328 sq.ft.) and a few are mere balconies or rooftop plots.
Even so, there is still a danger of making the solutions irrelevant to the average person, a failing that Kingsbury highlights: “Too many books on small gardens feature lots of pictures of hard landscaping or designs at flower shows where no expense has been spared.”
In contrast, this book is grounded in reality. The pictures (with the exception of one or two) are of real gardens, so the designs have been drawn up to please clients rather than impress show judges and the gardens have been paid for by gardeners not corporate sponsors. The result is a series of ideas that are easy to copy.
These range from ways to ‘borrow’ the landscape beyond your plot and the use of false doors and mirrors to create a visual illusion of more space, to using green roofs and plants with two seasons of interest to make each inch work twice as hard.
Ideas are clearly illustrated with pictures that demonstrate the suggested solution and stop the book being a mere design textbook. As a writer I hate to admit it but there are times when a picture is far more effective than words; one example has the same garden photographed in different seasons showing how the planting emphasis changes.
The book is thorough in its approach: chapters cover everything from the need to consider function and aspect to planting for wildlife, containers for small spaces and adding a vertical dimension with plants. Case studies at the end of many of the chapters show how these ideas have been put into practice in a real life garden.
Some of the advice is aimed at the inexperienced with explanations on how to check your soil type, water containers and types of fruit. Yet, there is enough breadth to offer something of interest to those with more gardening years behind them. I will definitely be trying out the idea of photographing my borders in black-and-white to assess how well they are structured.
As well as hard landscaping and layout, the book also deals with what to plant and where. There’s advice on plants for every situation and soil type; ideas for designing with grasses, evergreens, or exotics; an explanation of how to layer with plants in a way that mimics nature.
“By learning how to combine them in this way, you will be able to make the most out of your small space,” advises Kingsbury.
The varied presentation of these ideas – conventional chapters, ‘masterclasses’ and case studies – keep the reader’s interest engaged with the photographs, highlighted quotes and smaller, inset sections of text breaking up the pages to make them visually appealing.
It’s been some time since I had the sort of small garden this book tackles but the advice is still relevant. Many of these ideas – be it plants for containers or how to get an all-year-round look – are just as important in a bigger plot. I just wish I’d had it all those years ago.
• New Small Garden by Noel Kingsbury is published by Frances Lincoln, priced at £20 RRP. Photographs by Maayke de Ridder. Buy now (If you buy through the link, I receive a small payment. The price you pay is not affected.)
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