Tips for small gardens

small gardens

Small gardens may be easier to maintain than rolling acres but they are far more challenging to design. Hidden away in the heart of Cheltenham is a walled garden packed with interest and some great ideas for dealing with a small space.

Faced with a town centre garden that is little more than a courtyard, few of us would start by planting trees.

Yet, that’s just what Ro Swait did when she took on her Cheltenham garden.

Rather than planting in scale with a plot that is just 40ft at its widest point, she went big with Cornus ‘Norman Hadden’ and a katsura tree.

small gardens
The garden has lots of pots to give height

“You need to think big,” she explains. “and not be afraid to. The most important thing is structure, which you can then build on.”

It was all very different when Ro moved in 11 years ago. Then, the L-shaped, south west-facing plot was wall-to-wall paving, burning hot in summer and devoid of anything green.

“I nearly wept,” admits Ro, who works as a gardener with her daughter, Tam.

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Salvias add late season colour

One of her most successful alterations was extending out from the house using metal girders and glass to create a covered area.

“It keeps everything sheltered and means I can have really tender plants and keep them outdoors. It makes them tougher too.”

They include aeoniums, aloe and echeveria that are displayed on shelving against the house wall and in pots clustered on tables. Other containers have sempervivums, grasses and small shrubs.

Kalanchoe, more commonly seen as a houseplant, is thriving in its outdoor setting.

“I have some indoors as well but the one outside is doing much better.”

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The trees are pruned to keep them small

Further into the garden, the cornus and katsura now give all-important shade. They are cut back each winter to stop them getting too big and are gradually being trained to arch over the garden. Likewise, a Judas tree and Morello cherry are also kept small.

And they are not the only large scale plants as Ro has also planted holly, pittosporum, yew, eucalyptus and even a Magnolia grandiflora.

These provide winter interest and form a backdrop to seasonal colour that ranges from Martagon lilies, sedum and actaea to jasmine, campsis and echinacea.

Much of the planting is in raised beds and ground-level borders, created by lifting most of the original paving. The rest is in pots that frequently contain more than one plant.

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The elegant blooms of Actea simplex stand out against painted walls

“Things have to double up,” Ro says with a smile.

She also makes the most of the borders, keeping the ‘skirts’ of shrubs high to create space to plant underneath, while the walls, which have been painted to give them more interest, are used for climbers.

The high walls and closely planted borders mean that Ro is rarely troubled by weeds but the restricted space does mean she thinks carefully before buying something new.

“You have to really want the plant,” she says.

7 ideas for small gardens

small gardens

Make storage space double up as a plant display area. These shelves hold bamboo poles and labels as well as plants.

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Even small gardens can have fruit and veg. Here a tomato is grown in a pot.

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Plant in layers and lift the skirts of shrubs to give space for bulbs and low-growing things.

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Play with levels either with raised beds or by putting pots on tables or plinths.

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Add a seat – small gardens are better suited to sitting in than walking around.

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• Use containers to change the display, either with seasonal bedding or bulbs, or by simply moving them around to create a new look.

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• Think big: fewer but bigger plants will be more effective than lots of small things.

Read my review of New Small Garden by Noel Kingsbury here

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Review: New Small Garden by Noel Kingsbury

new small garden

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.”

new small garden
Designing on the diagonal helps to make a garden seem bigger.

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.

new small garden
Plants can disguise boundaries

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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