Gardens in small spaces

By Paul Hervey-Brookes

I always think its worth remembering that large gardens are always made up of smaller ‘room’ like elements and small spaces often have to work much harder and are ultimately, when designed well, better spaces to enjoy.  A space well designed space is far more engaging and comforting place to be so don’t be restricted by a small town garden its got lots of potential.

The first step of any design but essential where space is limited is to draw up a list of essentials, this could be activities, uses and even basics like ‘Do I want a washing line’  Next to this list draws up a wish what I would called a list of desires, this will be things like, having space for outdoor dining, evening lighting options or luxuries like wood oven heated spa pools, even here think a bit about things like if you would like a traditional feel or a more exotic holiday type sensation.

Once you have the lists its time to get practical the one thing you need to do to really appreciate the space yourself is spend time observing and detailing information about the space, a kind of survey, if it helps draw a little plan and start noting details such as where the sun rises and falls, is there a prevailing breeze, where to shades tend to linger.  Next listen to whats going on around you, spend time noting down in the plan where noises tends to come from, what views you do and don’t like and if there is anything like a large tree or neighbours bathroom window you don’t want to spend time looking at.

 From your notes you will now know if you have a sunny spot or a shady space, this will help you determine the types of plants you can grow easily and also help you make decisions from your wish list.  Shady gardens can be real oasis of lush green foliage and a sense of the exotic so don’t feel daunted this is a great challenge to create a jungle like escapism feel.  Don’t forget with cities and enclosed small spaces you are often in a microcosm which allows you to grow a wider variety of plants which would be too tender, ie die over winter elsewhere in the country. 

Regardless of the volume of sun or shade always choose plants with more than one point fo interest, good summer flower, and winter fruits or foliage make for a plant that rewards you year round and especially with small trees or shrubs with decorative shredding or peeling bark allow for more varied lighting options over winter especially which will keep the space interesting.  As a rule large leaved plants tend to absorb more carbon dioxide Don’t forget that trees especially ones with markings known as lenticels on the stem deal with urban pollution well meaning you can effectively filter air quality around your home.  Planting shrubs and tress which are dense and twiggy will also reduce noise pollution and with the origin of noises picked up on your survey you will be able to begin to determine planting beds and a layout should embryonically form.  Increased noise reduction can also be achieved with layered planting at different heights which disrupt the sounds waves as they travel and diffuse the noise.
If budget is an issue spend wisely, good quality paving, lighting and boundary treatments should be where the money goes first  - this will last the longest and really set the tone.  Buying smaller plants wont cause any harm to your garden and they will grow into it.  Smaller plants may be the only option where access is restrictive.  Remember if you don’t have a drive or are planning works to a roof style terrace your local authority or town council may well charge you for using the road for skips and disruptions caused by deliveries and other works.

Don’t be tempted to incorporate mirrors, theses are very bad for small birds and have none of the wildlife enhancing qualities of still or moving water.  The other neat trick which allows you to imagine the space is larger is to obscure the view, this could be a sunken area or taller planting allowing for two zones of activity within the space.  By making such a distinction the mind sees the garden as larger and this sense is reenforced by using different areas for different activities.  

Im many smaller spaces the trick I tend to use the most is a change or level or a secondary space tucked away, almost like a surprise these allow for you to perceive the space differently, with a predominately sunny garden making this second space a shady oasis will really help give that sense of a large garden.  Also consider borrowing views, we have looked at what you want to obscure but if within your field of vision there is neighbouring architectural interest or a beautiful tree in the distance then anchor it into your space and frame it as part of the whole - this will also add a sense of volume to the space.

Meet the author

Paul Hervey-Brookes

Paul had his own highly successful landscape design business, and has also designed a range of gardening gifts for Marks & Spencers.