When it comes to creating an alluring garden or an enticing entertaining area, a small garden space can be beautiful
Whether you live in the city or the suburbs, it will come as no surprise that our outdoor spaces are dwindling. Gone are the days of vast backyards. Today, blocks are smaller, houses bigger, and the amount of garden space more limited. Also, more of us are living in townhouses where courtyards, rather than conventional gardens, are the norm, and apartments where balconies provide us with our only opportunity to enjoy an outdoor lifestyle or get a little green into our lives.
While lack of space is no barrier to creating a lush outlook, establishing an edible garden or achieving a pleasant outdoor lifestyle, there are many things you can do to make the most of small outdoor spaces. While it’s true that the more compact the space, the more creative you need to be and the more strategic your thinking, there are some “tricks of the trade” you can employ.
The colours you choose, the shapes you employ for your paths and garden beds, your planting palette and the manner in which you put your vertical planes to use all contribute to the creation of a space that looks bigger than it is and feels as airy and inviting as possible.
Curves and layers
“Small spaces are, in many ways, much more exciting than larger gardens — you really need to get the most out of every square metre,” says Georgia Harper of Georgia Harper Landscape Design. “In general, the idea is to blur the lines between inside and outside the garden to stop the gaze from moving too quickly around the area, and to create interest in dedicated spaces. Every site will have different challenges, but there are many things you can do to help almost any garden to maximise its impact and amenity.”
One good tip is to integrate curved shapes into the garden’s design. “By using curves, you are ‘slowing down’ the eye’s movement around the space — an effect of ‘flow’ rather than a hard line of stop. Curves can be introduced in many ways, including edging, walls, screens, paved paths … even drifts of foliage planting,” says Georgia.
“Layering is another useful tool. Layering planting helps to create a much richer environment. As a general rule, try and keep tall planting around the perimeter of a space — don’t block out light if you can help it. Layering of other elements, like low or retaining walls, can also enhance the feeling of space. Making the outer boundaries hard to determine is a great way to imply there is ‘more’ beyond the immediate space.
“And while it may sound odd, creating terraces can greatly enhance the feeling of a larger space. A simple step down can open up a space or create a dedicated ‘zone’, for example, for a dining area.”
Points of interest
Creating a small outdoor haven is not just about trying to make the space feel bigger. It involves gently integrating unique points of interest, awakening a sense of curiosity and creating connections.
“Curves and nooks in a garden naturally entice us to look around the corner, discover hidden pockets and immerse ourselves in the experience. These design elements help to create interesting spots within the overall space,” says Nicola Cameron of Pepo Botanic Designs.
“The options are plentiful when selecting punctuation points. Courtyards or little balconies are often used to create an area of focus. A small water feature tucked behind a sweep of planting or a perfectly positioned chair to sit and enjoy the ambience will also evoke a feeling of presence and place. As well as being aesthetically pleasing, cosy pockets peak our sense of curiosity and discovery. They create a sense of purpose and provide an excuse to venture through the garden and pause to enjoy our surrounds.
“Including a meaningful object will entice you to venture outside and immerse yourself in your surrounds, whether your garden is large or small. It might be an exquisite sculpture, a special table or a pot passed down through the generations that tells a particular story and brings a smile.” Adds Georgia, “The strategic placement of sculptures, furniture, screens and other features can again give a spacious feeling as it stops the eye from taking everything in at once. Just try to resist placing these in the middle of a space as this will have the effect of closing up the view.”
Spots for pots
Planters and pots aren’t just a useful design tool, drawing focus or adding colour and texture. They are a great way to introduce more greenery and flower power into smaller spaces. In some areas, such as courtyards, decks and balconies, they may be your only option.
Of course, as with any planting, choosing the right plant for the location is vital. If you try to grow a plant in the shade but it likes lots of sun, growth and flowering will be compromised while the stems will become leggy as they reach out in search of sunlight. How much water potted plants need will depend on their location and individual needs. To make life easier, if you have troughs or big planters, a drip irrigation system set on a timer can be a good idea.
And some tips for ensuring healthy potted plants? Firstly, don’t use garden soil. Buy a general or specialised potting mix. Succulents, for example, need fast-draining soil so a specialised mix would be of benefit. For larger pots and planters, a layer of mulch placed on top of the potting mix can slow moisture loss and help keep weeds at bay. In a small space where everything can be easily seen, mulch can also be used to add a little colour or simply look decorative.
On balconies, the weight of a pot can be a consideration unless the balcony is appropriately engineered, so heavy natural stone or concrete pots could be out of the equation. Although, of course, in a high-wind area like a balcony, pots have to be heavy enough to remain stable.
Virtue of the vertical
“If you are a plant enthusiast who has run out of room for plants, have you thought about using your vertical spaces? When garden beds are overflowing with plants and no more floor space can be taken up with pots and planters, a vertical garden, sometimes called a green wall, can come in very handy. They are also a great idea for those smaller spaces where traditional garden beds aren’t possible,” says Glenice Buck of Glenice Buck Designs.
“By softening the bare walls which surround your home with a vertical garden, you will be rewarded with a multitude of benefits, including visual appeal. What isn’t to love about having more greenery in your life? A planted-out vertical garden is like having an original artwork mounted on a bare wall. There is also an environmental benefit. The plants in a vertical garden take in toxins and pollutants. In turn, they produce more oxygen and improve air quality.
“Just remember, when choosing plants, you need to consider the same factors as you would when planting out a garden bed or pot. The aspect of the wall or the amount of light the wall will get plays a key role in plant selection.”
“Utilising height draws the eye upwards and makes an area feel much larger … and this is where vertical gardens can play a role,” adds Nicola. “These can take a variety of forms and growing plants on a suspended panel helps to create the impression of elevation and abundance. A vined trellis and towering trees also coax the gaze higher and have the additional benefit of blocking out neighbours.”
Experiment with espalier
By using espalier to clad your walls with plants, you can bring greenery, fragrance — even fruit — into your small garden or courtyard. Espalier is a technique that involves training plants to grow in a flat plane along wires attached to a wall or framework. By tying the plant stems horizontally, it impels more lateral growth. This means the plant can be contained in a more compact space. The other advantage is that the retained warmth from the supporting wall can promote an extended growing season.
Bare walls that can’t be painted or changed are transformed when clothed in green. Pale-coloured walls that reflect valuable light into a small space but which can also be too glary are toned down by a part-covering of plants. Dark walls which retain too much heat are cooled down by being shaded during the hottest part of the day. Also, a well-trained and maintained espalier becomes a living sculpture in your garden.
Even trees can be trained against a garden wall, keeping valuable space free for other plants or furniture, and allowing in plenty of winter sunlight. They won’t provide shade, but their presence will help cool the air in summer.
Shrubs and small trees which have long, whip-like growth are easiest to espalier. If you want to literally enjoy the fruits of your labour, suitable fruit trees include apple, citrus, pear, fig and olive. Look for smaller-growing varieties, and even those with more than one fruit variety grafted on. For a faster result, and a floral flourish, you can train climbers such as star jasmine, clematis, mandevilla or rose onto wires set in decorative patterns, or to cover the whole wall.
Make it work for you
Maximising a small garden space isn’t just about the plants, colours and design tricks used. At its most fundamental level, it’s about ensuring you know what you need your garden to do for you and then setting about creating a layout that delivers that. This typically means planning multi-functional spaces.
“Small outdoor spaces often need to work hard. One modestly sized area may have to perform a multitude of functions, and thoughtful design is essential to creating a harmonious result,” says Nicola. “A rear inner-city courtyard might need to double as a car spot, for example. Perhaps a narrow side garden has to harbour a clothesline, as well as taps and a ladder.
“Some people require a living room arrangement and others need a dining spot with storage — all in the one area. Ensuring the space can accommodate different serviceable areas is crucial and needs to be carefully considered at the start of the planning phase.”
Start the design process by critically assessing the space you have and being realistic about what can be included and what can’t. Consider sightlines from the house, whether the garden is overlooked by neighbours, how much sun the garden gets, how much maintenance you’re prepared to do … all the things you would factor in when designing a larger garden. The difference is that in a small garden, every centimetre counts and the elements you include will be on show, so you need to get it right.
Calling on the help of a professional designer or landscaper can be a sound investment. They can come up with space-saving ideas you might not think of and ensure the design is everything your family needs it to be.