How to create a small, but perfectly formed garden – part two.

I had such fun chatting about designing a small garden with Kirsty from @greenbank_interiors on Instagram a couple of weeks back. If you missed it you can catch it on her IGTV – here’s a link: How to create a small, but perfectly formed garden.

In the second part of this blog post I’m talking about design tips, planting and knowing your soil. If you didn’t get a chance to read part one, then perhaps do that first. Hopefully, both posts will help you when you come to design your own garden.

A sloped garden doesn’t have to be difficult to deal with. Use the height!

The use of the diagonal and the vertical.

In a small garden you want to achieve one of three things: either you want the space to feel larger, or you want to go with the fact that it is small and make it more of an intimate space, or finally, you want to be greedy and achieve both!

Using diagonals in a garden can be the easiest way to make a space feel larger. By placing pavers on the diagonal within a space you will expand the perceived area and draw the eye to the extremities of the space. Placing a pergola further up the garden again on the diagonal achieves unity because you have repeated a pattern. It also achieves balance as you have counteracted the diagonal on the ground with one higher than eye level, but on both counts you will have deceptively expanded the width of the space.

If you then place some screening in between the paved area and the pergola, in the form of a trellis covered in white roses, or three erect Italian pencil ferns, then you will have created intimacy at the far end of the garden, a private room to relax and unwind in. A meandering path around the pavers with a simple planting palette in the borders either side, leading to the pergola creates movement and a journey. The path makes you want to see what lies beyond the screening. The screening itself also makes the garden feel larger because you can’t see to the end of the space, so it could go on forever! You won’t know unless you journey up the path.

You may, however, just want to create an intimate space next to your house. This can be achieved by not using the diagonal and really embracing the space that you have. Sometimes, its better to not fight against what you have. I often do this with dark rooms inside a house. Most people want to make a dark space lighter, I always want to do the opposite. I believe painting light colours in a dark space makes the room feel cold. Better to really go with it and embrace the dark side, then it will be a cosy, warm and welcoming space. The same can often be said for very small gardens. It’s often better to accept what you have and just create a beautiful, welcoming space. Create one outside room, still using all the design principles I talk about in part one, but keeping it simple and cosy.

An easy fix for making the space cosy is to add colour to your fences. By painting all the surrounding fences a colour that you love, it will not only add your character to the space, but also make the boundaries more noticeable, delineating the space. However, if you painted you boundaries black or very dark green and then planted up against them, this would make the space feel larger as very dark colours disappear behind foliage, making the foliage pop and the garden feel like it goes on forever. So, it’s up to you, either is possible.

If you want a cosy space then perhaps create an oval seating area with planting around it up to your boundaries. The planting will act like living walls around your cosy oval intimate space. Add an outdoor sofa or armchairs, throws, cushions and a few well-placed lanterns and you’ve got an outdoor living room or snug.

Know Your Soil.

I made this mistake in my first garden. I didn’t do any research into the type of soil I had. I knew so little that I just presumed that if I planted something in the ground and watered it that it would flourish. Wrong! I spent a fortune on plants I loved only to find that they withered away and became either diseased or died. For example: if you plant allium bulbs in heavy waterlogged clay soil then the chances are they will rot away before they even have a chance to grow. Just as, if you plant something like a Delphinium in extremely sandy, nutrient free soil then it will just give up the ghost. Please don’t waste your money, do a little research first on your soil type, then once you know, you can do things to make the soil as good as it can be. If you’ve got that down, then choosing the right plants to suit that soil will be easier and you won’t be throwing good money after bad.

The easiest way to tell what type of soil you have is to roll it around in your hands.

  • Clay soil is as the name describes. If you imagine wet pottery clay then you get the idea. It is sticky when wet and is easily moulded into a shape. Roll it between both hands to see if it creates a sausage shape. The easier it moulds into a shape the heavier the clay soil is.
  • Sandy soil is gritty and if you splay your fingers it should fall through. It cannot be moulded like clay soil.
  • Pure silt soils are rare, especially in gardens. They have a slightly soapy, slippery texture, and do not clump easily.

If soil bubbles up when placed in a bowl of vinegar, then it contains free calcium carbonate (chalk) or limestone and is lime rich. The PH levels of your soil are also important in order to find out whether you have acid or alkaline soil. A PH soil testing kit is the easiest way to check this.

Once you know all this information then your armed with the knowledge to choose the right plants for your soil. That leads me on to my next tip.

Right Place Right Plant.

Find out about the plants that you like. For example, there is no point planting exotic plants that die in a frost if you have nowhere to put them in the winter for protection. Just as, there is no point planting something in the shade if it likes full sunshine. What direction does your garden face? Is it a shady garden? Does the sun stream in all day long? Once you’ve worked this out then buying plants is so much easier. Almost all garden centres and nurseries place information labels on their plants. They will tell you what type of soil the plant likes, how much sunlight it needs and how to care for it. If you put the right plant in the right place and care for it then it will thrive, simple as that.

This can be annoying though, because if you like whimsical cottage garden plants for example, but you live by the sea, then the English country garden look isn’t going to work as there is too much salt and breeze. So you may find that you need to adapt your style and taste to suit your garden and surroundings.

Knowing your soil and aspect sounds a bit dull doesn’t it, but if you don’t get these right then however beautiful your design is, the garden won’t be a success and you’ll have wasted a lot of time and money.


This is my favourite part of the design process as it’s just like decorating a room with glorious paint colours. The plants are your medium and you can do whatever you want, there are endless combinations! Where do you start though? Well, what’s your favourite colour? What flowers and plants float your boat and which ones leave you cold? Make a wish list. Now, you may find that some of the things you love you can’t have because of the reasons I said earlier, such as soil type or aspect, but at least you have a starting point.

One of my best tips ever for designing a border is to visit which has one of the best search facilities and filters on the internet. They are an online plant nursery, so you can buy your plants from there too if you wish. Once armed with your soil type, your aspect and the colours you like, visit the website and search using the filters. So, for example, you could search for white blooms, a shady site and sandy soil. The search engine will then provide you with loads of good examples of plants that suit your needs. It will also give you a ready-made flower border design. It’ll even tell you where to plant everything and how! This isn’t an advert by the way, I just think it’s a great website. You can then, either go off to you local nursery with your planting list or buy direct from Crocus. Genius! The border designs on the website have done all the hard work for you, but if you do fancy designing a border yourself, then here are some tips:

  1. Choose a colour scheme – let’s go with white and purple.
  2. Plant in odd numbers, trust me, it just works! I like to plant in swathes. The technique was made famous by the late garden designer Gertrude Jekyll. By planting in swathes of , three, five, seven, nine plants of the same species you create a tapestry of colour and interest. Flowers work much better en masse. Often people make the mistake of buying one bloom that they like at a garden centre and then when they plant it amongst their other plants it gets lost.
  3. Layer your planting. There’s a great book called The Layered Garden, one of my favourite gardening books of all time. It talks about creating borders that have year-round interest, layer upon layer of seasonal blooms. Plant snowdrops and tulips for late winter and spring. Follow that with Purple Sensation and Allium Nigra bulbs and White alpine Phlox and Aubretia for May. Erigeron, Lychnis Coronaria Alba, silver Artemisia and Gaura for June and July and August, followed by annual blooms like white Cosmos. Then comes white and purple Asters and tall white phlox to take you into the autumn. This way you will have all year round colour, it just takes a little planning. Make sure you have a few evergreen plants thrown in for good measure, this will create structure, so that even in the dead of winter there is something to look at. I don’t cut back my plants till the spring as I like to see the frost on the dead stems.
  4. Plant in three dimensional triangles. Imagine triangular mountain peaks when planting, starting with low planting and gradually rising to a tall plant at the peak. You can have quite a few planting triangles within one border. Make sure you keep your tallest plants at the back of the border though, so your tallest planting triangles at the back and the smaller ones further forward. The triangles create height, texture and interest to a border.
Plant in vertical triangles to create undulating interest.

So, there you have it. I think that’s probably enough for you to be getting on with. I hope you found it helpful. Any questions, please feel free to ask me. Jp xx


  1. Penny Albertella
    July 4, 2020 / 8:00 am

    Fabulous second half!

    • JP Clark
      July 22, 2020 / 12:01 pm

      Thank you Penny xx

    • JP Clark
      February 14, 2023 / 11:39 am

      My absolute pleasure.

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