If you’ve followed me on Instagram for some time, then you will know that my current garden is anything but small. So how can I possibly talk with any authority on how to create a beautiful small garden? The first garden that I could call my own was very small. I had no gardening experience other than watching my mum and dad slaving away for years in the many gardens they tended to during my childhood.
In fact, I used to abhor gardening, it reminded me of boring outings with my parents to endless garden centres, of Friday evenings having to watch Gardener’s World on the BBC. Back then, the UK only had three television channels and there certainly wasn’t a second set to watch in another room. How times have changed!
In 1998 I happened to meet a very lovely young man known as Mr C. We had a whirlwind romance and moved in together within three months of meeting. We lived in Fulham, London, in a three-bed terraced property with a small garden. To say the garden was ugly would be an understatement. It was about five meters wide by ten meters deep and was laid to lawn with a concrete slab path running up the centre and leading to nowhere. That path offended every creative and artistic cell within my being and its days were numbered!
One afternoon, Mr C was going out with a friend. Just before he left he casually threw away a passing comment: “We might consider getting rid of that path at some point.” Well, I was like a moth to a flame, a gannet to a tasty morsel. I don’t think you could have counted ten seconds between Mr C shutting the front door behind him and me raising the first slab! And so began my discovery of the joys of gardening.
I soon realised that many of the rules of interior design could be incorporated into designing a garden too. The possibilities were endless. Instead of using paint, wallpaper and soft furnishings my palette would be made up of flowers, greenery and hard landscaping – painting with living things. Effectively, I saw it as another room to design and decorate.
So, let’s get down to it. Here are some of my top tips for creating your own small, but perfectly formed garden:
My four design principles:
These are: Unity, Balance, Interest and Movement.
A sense of unity can be achieved by your planting scheme or by hard landscaping, which repeats patterns throughout the garden. A limited colour palette such as cool blues and whites can instantly bring unity to a space, just as reclaimed railway sleepers used for curved raised beds, like the ones in our current garden, can be repeated along the length and breadth of the garden to create that sense of unity. Choosing a style can often be the best way to create unity. A Japanese garden will demand a certain planting style, repeating deep red Acers for example around a water pool or in a coastal garden you could unify everything by using pebble shingle as your main hard landscaping medium. Another simple way to create cohesive unity is to use a repeated shape: a circular lawn followed by a circular seating area.
This is one of our houses when we first bought it. This is the finished project.
Balance is so important as it brings a sense of order to a garden. One of the biggest mistakes most people make is to have a large expanse of lawn with very narrow borders at the edges. The grass dominates the space and the borders seem miserly and an afterthought. It’s so important to balance out the proportions. If you mainly have low-level planting, then this must be balanced with a tall structure, such as a pergola with climbers, so that planting isn’t all at one level. Topiary balls could be placed either side of a doorway, immediately creating balance. This could then be repeated somewhere else in the garden with round lollipop shaped standards, such as Bay trees, providing balance in shape and also in varying levels. Of course, this also helps with unity as you have repeated a pattern.
You must have something in your garden to attract the eye. Never underestimate the power of a focal point. Interest is key in creating a stylish garden that people want to stay in. A fountain, a sculpture, seating or even a bird bath can create a sense of drama and when cleverly positioned can draw a person closer and make them want to investigate. Architectural specimen plants and containers are another good way of creating interest. More than one focal point can create a sense of movement within a space, urging the visitor to follow a path to see the sights. Don’t go too mad though, I would suggest no more than three points of interest and if you have a view beyond your garden then that is the prize and you must draw the visitor to it.
Movement in a garden is determined by the shapes that you create to walk through. A large round or oval area suggests a place to stop and look or rest. This can be good for a seating area or perhaps the lawn. A narrow path bordered by tall planting suggests faster movement through the space, leading to the next point of interest. You need to lead the eye through your garden. If it is just an expanse of lawn and the entire garden can be seen from one view point then, first of all there is no need to investigate or venture further, but also it can make someone feel a bit lost in a garden for where to begin. Creating a journey is essential. Even in the smallest of spaces a journey can be achieved. The vertical elements of a garden divide or enclose spaces. Dividing a garden, however small, into rooms is a great technique that immediately provides movement and interest because you can’t see everything all at once. You need to venture further to see more. Couple that with repeated patterns, hard-landscaping and planting you will have gone a long way in achieving my four design principles and creating your very own perfectly formed garden.
What is your garden for?
This is so important to know as it will determine the design. Do you have children and do they like to kick a ball about? If that’s the case, then a formal space with beautiful pavers and topiary balls is not going to work for you. Make a list of your family’s needs and wishes, such as:
- Grass lawn
- Play Area
- Intimate quiet spaces
- Lots of colour
- Structure and formal clean lines
- A shed
- Veg patch
- A wild garden
- Easy maintenance
Once you’ve got your list then you can start to narrow it down. It will be very difficult to incorporate all your needs and wishes. When you have your final list then you can start to look at garden styles that suit your needs. Your needs may very possibly determine the style you go for too. If a child’s play area close to the house is at the top of your list, then it’s highly likely that you won’t be having a formal symmetrical garden with York paving and perfectly clipped Box Balls. However, if you don’t mind the play area at the far end of the garden, then it may be possible to incorporate your chosen formal style by dividing the spaces with vertical structures and planting. You may not quite achieve unity within the whole garden, but you will have made everyone happy and that’s a form of unity in itself.
For our first garden in London we knew we wanted a summer house and that it would take up quite a lot of space. We also knew we wanted an entertainment area next to the house as we often had friends around. So, that was two areas taken up already. That left an area in the middle. Mr C wanted a pond and I wanted herbaceous borders with cottage garden planting. I set about drawing the design. You don’t need to be an artist or a designer for that matter. The drawing is just for your benefit to illustrate what’s in your mind. Mr C and I often do a drawing each to see how different the pictures in our head are. Usually, there is a lot of common ground and you never know, you may even give each other ideas that you like and hadn’t thought of.
Research the style you’ve chosen
Back when we did our first garden the internet was only on something called Dial-up – all you lovely younger folk won’t know what that was, but let’s just say it was extraordinarily slow and you could hear the internet whirling into action at a snails pace on the telephone line! Research took days. Luckily, things are much improved for most now and there is a veritable cornucopia of resources available to you. Pinterest has to be one of the best for research. Just type in anything you like and a million images will appear as if by magic! There are many accounts that actually have gardens designs there for the taking.
My account: jpslifeandloves has quite a few boards specifically for gardens. Feel free to pop over and take a look. Instagram, of course, is another great resource. The explore page is invaluable. Most of the time though, I simply check out google and click on images to find what I need.
Don’t forget the value of books too. Here’s a few of my favourites:
The Garden Designer – Robin Williams for the RHS.
The Small Garden Handbook – Andrew Wilson for the RHS.
The Small Garden – C.E. Lucas Phillips.
Small Garden Design – Paul Bangay
How to be a Gardener – Alan Tichmarsh
The Layered Garden – David L. Culp
Use all your surfaces!
When you design a room you don’t just think about the floor surface, you use the walls and even sometimes the ceiling! You hang artwork, shelving, create gallery walls. You think about colour and texture, layering and contrast. The same goes for your garden. Don’t just design horizontally, think vertically! All of your boundary walls can be used to create beauty. Fences can be painted any colour you like, hang outdoor artwork – why not? Think about hanging baskets, living walls, trellising, screens, arbors, archways, pergolas and raised beds clad in crisp white render if that floats your boat.
Your garden doesn’t have to be on one level either, there is no reason why you cant add in a stepped up area to create a different zone. It’s a really great way to create different rooms within your garden. The kids may have a play zone, but that’s no reason why you can’t have one of your own. Raise it up to separate it and mark your territory!
Part two will be published next week. I’ll be talking about planting, border design, hard landscaping and some top tips to take some of the hassle out of the design process. Thanks for reading and if you want to get going on your research for your garden then check out my channels: