Landscaping – 12 tips for making the most of a small garden

For those of us fortunate to have our own outdoor space, converting this into something that is pleasant to sit out in and admire our own patch of nature can be a compelling project. A fairly common need today is to achieve a sense of seclusion, calm and intimacy and to create views from both the house and the garden that please the eye.

The great joy of gardening is that it offers us almost complete liberty to create our own idyll, literally on our doorstep. However, without a controlled plan of approach, a garden can easily grow into chaos rather than your own personal statement. The details of the finest informal-looking gardens have usually been carefully thought through, right down to the last crocus bulb.

It’s true to say that a degree of vision is required in creating an attractive garden of any size, but particularly so when you are working with a small area. Ideally, we’d like to be able to envisage the end result before we begin any hard landscaping or planting. With small gardens, the need for forethought becomes even more important because you are usually shaping a view which is close at hand, so any early mistakes become tricky to rectify later.

Individual needs vary widely of course. You may live in a modern house and want the garden to be open-plan, low maintenance and mainly laid to lawn. Or you may want to create densely planted and scented patterns of trees, shrubs and ground cover (and have enough time to devote to it!).

Here are a few hints and tips that will help guide you through the process of planning your garden.

Assemble the key features

Start off with a sheet of graph paper (or if you’re feeling brave, use a drawing programme on your PC or find a garden design app on your mobile) to set out a precise site plan. You should first mark up your garden boundaries and any existing features you want to retain – walls, entrances, terracing or pathways. You can plot out the position of the mature trees and the extent of the foliage of any well-established plants. Trees and shrubs that conflict with the new plan for the garden can sometimes be retained with judicious pruning.

Once this site plan is complete, it should never be marked up but retained as the overall master sheet. Any changes or additions to the plan should be made either on a transparent overlay of tracing paper (if you’re sticking to the analogue approach!) or on separate file copies if on the PC or mobile. You can then add the location for the permanent features such as the changes of level, pathways, seats, water features and trellis screens. Finally, you can consider the more versatile elements such as pergolas, movable pots and main planting areas.

Know your surroundings

The boundaries of the garden and the walls of the house are usually the most important features in the garden. In a well-planned small garden, the walls themselves can compensate for a lack of planting space on the ground. Here, you can create the impression that the house walls themselves have been built deliberately as part of a beautifully integrated scheme. By looking at the house wall visible from the garden you may also wish to make some visual changes such as adding trellising for climbing plants, adding shutters to ‘spread’ windows or by modifying the style of doors and windows.

Unattractive garden perimeter walls or fences can be hidden completely behind a solid evergreen mass of planting. Good covering plants include species of cotoneaster, ivy, pyracantha or ceanothus. Even better is to plant free-standing evergreen shrubs or trees such as holly, Cupressus or yew in front of a creeper-clad wall or fence to help blend the boundary.

Well-established walls of mellow stone, brick or even rendered surfaces, on the other hand, can blend beautifully with plants, especially if there are interesting wall mouldings, changes in levels or added features such as basins, barbeques and fountains are added. A good quality wall enhanced by the freckle of flowers or subtle foliage will create a splendid, confined space in which the feeling of secret calm is an ample substitute for wider vistas.

If the neighbouring views are undesirable, simply raising the wall or fence by up to a meter may suffice. Do bear in mind though the possible danger of making a very small garden feel claustrophobic by building a solid wall too high, notwithstanding planning constraints. An alternative option is to fix stout wooden support columns to the walls to provide attachment for trellising. Even whilst still bare, the pattern of the trellis itself will do much to convey privacy and plants such as the evergreen honeysuckle or ivy will scramble up the trellis.

But before deciding to increase the height of the perimeter wall, it pays to carefully examine the existing environment to see if the offending view can be more attractively masked by small trees or large shrubs placed in the line of sight. Hedges are another means of preserving a garden’s sense of intimacy, especially if they are evergreen, tall and dense. Closely planted pyracantha, escallonia and Olearia make for attractive hedging plants.

Pavings and Paths

Most small gardens need some form of a dry terrace to link the planted areas of the garden and the doors leading out to it. An area of just 6sqm is sufficient for seating 8 people and an additional area of 5sqm should provide sufficient space for a barbeque and room for it to be attended. Do consider an irregular shape as an interesting alternative to a simple rectangle.

When choosing materials for pavings and paths, it is important to use ones that harmonise with the general environment. Quarried stone is the most luxurious but beware of cheap stone substitutes, as these may flake within a few years. The effect of weather on stone should also be considered, as some stones can look drab when wet whilst others glow when dry and flush to a warmer colour when wet. Whatever material is chosen, it should be laid on a well-compacted base or hard-core topped with sand so they are unlikely to subside.

In most small gardens, a good general rule is to use fairly neutral paving, leaving the plants to command the most attention. There’s also a huge variety of gravels which can help soften the appearance of the whole garden and which plants can grow through to merge with the planet areas.

Use of Wood

Wood is a very useful natural material to enhance small gardens, from surfacing terraces as decking to use as shredded tree bark to top paths and planted areas. Placing cut horizontal sections of tree trunks can create steps over soft ground and lawns or can provide visual variety when clustered together. All structural wood should be thoroughly treated with preservatives to prevent decay due to fungal and insect attack. You can allow the insects, bacteria and fungi to feast on a ‘loggery’, a collection of small logs, wood offcuts, twigs and leaves set in a discrete, moist, shaded part of the garden. This will help attract birds and hedgehogs to your garden.

Lawns

You’ll probably find it much more rewarding to pack a small area with beautiful and interesting plants than to create a single, monoculture lawn. In a small garden, a lawn tends to be heavily used, continually suffering from treading and compacting which usually produces a scarred patchy effect.

If you would really like to retain a lawn as a soft green backdrop for your garden, do consider an artificial lawn surface. These are available in a range of styles and looks, are easy to lay and then you never need to mow or treat them! The key to laying a good artificial lawn surface is the preparation of the ground onto which it will lay. Levelling the soil underneath, laying a protective semipermeable membrane and sand topping will help provide a smooth, soft substrate onto which to lay the artificial lawn. You will then have an attractive, low-maintenance and hard-wearing surface that will provide year-round pleasure.

Water

Water can introduce an excitingly different visual experience into a garden. When allowed to fall or cascade, the sound of a gentle splash of water can add a pleasing and therapeutic element. The reflective surface of water attracts the eye, making it possible to create beckoning vistas which create the illusion of a larger garden.

A water feature also makes it possible to bring plants of a different character into the garden – no land plant offers quite the same enchanting qualities as a water lily trembling of a surface, rippled by the steady passage of fish. This can be accomplished by building a small pond to a variety of depths that provide sufficient root space for many attractive aquatic plants.

The soothing effects of water can be introduced into even the smallest gardens by making mini-ponds. A pond as small as a deep wash basin will provide sufficient water to allow a water lily to thrive or a pair of goldfish to swim. The black plastic pond lining can be masked by sinking it into the ground, by adding a brick or stone surround or by filling the gaps with soil to make planting space for trailing or mound-forming plants.

As with any water feature, an important caveat is that you must be prepared to do a good deal of light maintenance work. This is particularly important if you have small, still, ponds which will become stagnant unless they are kept clean.

Pergolas and Trellises

As well as making the best use of perimeter walls and the ground to support plants, planning a small garden should also consider opportunities to intensify the effect of planting by using the air space above the garden. Trellis screens or pergolas up and over which plants can climb make gardens appear larger and by partially screening areas allow just enough intriguing glimpses of spaces beyond.

When the climbers on a pergola are well-grown, forming an almost solid roof of foliage and making the sides into a broken screen passing through into a different section of the garden, this can create an enchanting experience. Under the pergola, the environment momentarily changes, the quality of the light is different, the air is stiller and more fragrant and even sounds are subtly baffled. On emerging into the open garden again, it seems to offer a new set of stimuli.

Pergolas are particularly useful in softening the transition between the garden and the terracing around the house.

Ornamental Features

The two main factors in choosing ornamental features for your small garden are style and scale. Items such as planters, urns, fountains or sculptures can provide an effective key to the whole garden, but only if the quality is put before quantity and proportion before pretentiousness. Too many majestic urns and planting troughs of the kind seen in great gardens merely look ridiculous in the average garden.

Suggest selecting a few good pieces of fairly simple design which conform with the other elements in the garden. Stone or simulated stone reproductions of 18th-century vases, urns and troughs will beautifully embellish gardens with stone walls of paving and terracotta versions always blend in well especially when backed by foliage.

To save space, small, wall-mounted fountains worked into an overall design, should be selected rather than free-standing versions. Should you wish to add a sculpture, a single modest white piece of either classical mythology, renaissance or Victorian style would suffice to draw the eye to a particular spot.

Seating

As few of us feel comfortable sitting in the middle of open space, fixed seating usually needs to be sited either along walls or within shading created by planting. And as a seat should encourage people to sit and talk it needs to be a sufficiently large object to accommodate two. This means that in winter when all the leaves of the deciduous plants have vanished it will become a rather outstanding feature. Accordingly, a modest seat with simple lines in muted tones, plain wood, dull greens and browns is usually best.

Seats formed an integral part of boundary walls in the same stone or brick also work well and some of the most satisfactory seats are the simplest, such as large railways sleepers or stone blocks fixed against a wall. Try to position any seating to offer the most pleasing and attractive view of the garden. For portable seating, avoid using plastic seats which inevitably introduce an undesirable synthetic element to the garden.

Lighting

The golden rule to successfully illuminate gardens is to use white light and always direct it up to the foliage and away from the house and paths in the garden. Unless you are using solar-powered lights with spikes to set into the ground, do give some thought to wiring the garden before any serious planting begins.

Individual spotlights have the advantage of being able to be moved to different spots in the garden to highlight plants as they come into flower. Spotlights with clamps can be attached to tree branches to create more uplighting opportunities for the tree canopy.

Planting

In a small garden, mixed planting with small trees and shrubs mingled with herbaceous plants is more appealing than the typical herbaceous borders of larger gardens. The usual rules of planting apply, with larger plants being stationed behind the smaller ones, the sun-lovers placed to obtain as much light as possible and shade-lovers located where the overhead canopy or the shadow of the larger plants are likely to be the densest.

For perimeter walls, the broader-leaved evergreen climbers provide good cover. If varieties with more finely divided leaves are chosen, they are those whose habit is to produce very dense foliage. In both cases, climbers with non-variegated leaves of low tone – mid green or darker –  are most suitable since dark walls are less obvious and less visually limiting than those of a brighter hue. Plants with light-coloured or variegated foliage set just inside the boundaries can be used to produce interesting effects of contrast.

As with inanimate objects in the garden, the scale of plants must be carefully considered and if small trees are planted, the shrubs elsewhere should conform in size. The herbaceous areas should be densely packed with high-quality plants to encourage and maximise year-round interest.  Many of the larger members of the alpine group and smaller border plants should be considered and their flowers considered in relation to their foliage characteristics. With the inevitable competition for light in a small, densely-planted garden suggests choosing plants that thrive in the shade.

Other Options

Planning a small garden does offer up a wide range of options, with many variables that may determine your approach.

First, there are the requirements of the site. Seaside gardens, for example, may need special treatment – perhaps some kind of screening feature to protect against the salt-laden wind, and a selection of robust plants tolerant of poor coastal soil. On the other hand, some seaside sites in temperate zones are washed by warm ocean currents, giving you the chance to grow sub-tropical plants that would not be feasible inland.

Another factor is the microclimate – the set of local conditions in a garden, including soil type, aspect and structure. Walls of stone or brick retain heat and thus make a good backing from tender plants. The amount of sunlight received is determined partly by the slope of the land. Walls and trees cast longer midday shadows in winter when the sun is not so high in the sky. Such considerations may seem peripheral, but they can be all-important when it comes to choosing the planting.

Then there’s the question of personal need. The garden has certain functions to perform, just like the room of a house, but these functions will vary from household to household. Will the garden be used for parties or just gentle relaxation? Is a kitchen garden needed, with space for herbs and vegetables?

If young children will want to use your garden as a play area, even with careful parental supervision, a pool is not a good idea so best to turn into another feature. Another precaution is to avoid anything with poisonous berries or seeds, such as yew or laburnum.

If special access needs are required to enter and navigate the garden, perhaps for elderly and infirm residents or guests, try to minimise the number and depth of any steps and include handrails or similar to hold onto for balance. Raised beds, retained behind a wall, will help take the bending and stretching out of routine maintenance.

How FABRICO can help

FABRICO’s one-stop-shop approach to helping our customers achieve the home of their dreams includes a free garden planning design service. We can offer advice and suggestions on how best to plan your garden landscape as part of your overall layout and help create your perfect outdoor space.

We are always pleased to discuss your plans and give you the benefit of our time and expertise. Feel free to contact us either through our website (click here to contact us) or email us enquiries@fabrico.uk.

We hope you’ve found our short guide useful. Our teams at FABRICO have successfully completed hundreds of similar projects. If you would like to know more, feel free to have a browse through our facebook page or click here to contact us.

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