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.
“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.
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.”
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.
“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
• Make storage space double up as a plant display area. These shelves hold bamboo poles and labels as well as plants.
• Even small gardens can have fruit and veg. Here a tomato is grown in a pot.
• Plant in layers and lift the skirts of shrubs to give space for bulbs and low-growing things.
• Play with levels either with raised beds or by putting pots on tables or plinths.
• Add a seat – small gardens are better suited to sitting in than walking around.
• Use containers to change the display, either with seasonal bedding or bulbs, or by simply moving them around to create a new look.
• 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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