Small gardens are often seen as having little or no scope for design. This couldn’t be further from the truth. You can squeeze a lot into a small plot: be bold, be strong, ensure a lavish backbone of evergreens with spring colour to enliven spirits after the long winter gloom – and don’t forget to incorporate scent. But remember, in small gardens, less is often more: it’s better to do one thing well rather than a lot in a muddled fashion.
Large gardens have an element of safety, deploying swathes of green lawn which is economical to install and covers large areas of ground. A small garden has to work much harder and, per sq metre, can cost more. But it’s worth it: with thought and care, your little patch can be a true extension of your home and provide a haven for you, as well as the wildlife we share our urban spaces with.
Before you start, measure your space and draw it to scale. This may sound ‘designery’, but will help you to figure out the plants and materials you need, what furniture will and will not work and, more importantly, what will fit through the access you have, if you don’t want to run the expense of a crane or lifting equipment.
Next, think about how you want to use the garden: dining, lounging, outdoor cooking, entertaining, children’s play? And how much gardening you want to do when it’s finished: are you retired and able to spare the time, or do you work a full week? These factors will help you decide whether it’s worth installing the shiny, mirrored surfaces you love considering the effort it will take to keep them clean, or whether that hard-to-grow plant is worth the effort it demands.
As with all gardens, planting appropriately for your site is vital. Small gardens can be sun traps, with their own microclimates, or shaded. If you have the former, and feel adventurous, you could consider tropical species. Leafy, architectural plants look amazing when lit up at night and, since they are generally green all year, will make your garden look wonderful for longer.
A few of my favourite go-to plants for urban gardens are big and leafy (see below); These plants, as well as scented and glossy-leaved varieties, add drama. Scent is wonderful on a bright winter’s day or long summer night, and glossy leaves help to bounce light around making even a simple palette of green look bright and lively.
Plants only thrive when planted in ground that is well prepared. Soil preparation may seem rather dull compared to purchasing a bench or barbecue, but it is by far the most important aspect of any garden, regardless of its size. Pay attention to your soil, choose the right plants for the right place, irrigate if you can (you have already expended time, energy and money on your plants so make sure they are watered) and you will reap the benefits.
Attract wildlife with feeders. Alternatively, select plants that provide fruits or berries. If you can garden organically then all the better: let birds take care of the aphids, or plant a small thyme or camomile lawn – bees and insects will thank you.
Are there any absolute nos to designing a small garden? Not really: what works for one person might not work for another, so tailor your space to your requirements. That said, dark colours will make small spaces feel smaller; lots of small pots will feel cluttered; and too many different materials will be too dynamic rather than effortlessly eclectic. Finally, don’t forget to include comfortable seating, however small, so you can enjoy the fruits of your labour.
Compact gardens: dos and don’ts
Do… set a budget and try to stick to it. That said, have some contingency for the unexpected – say, 10%.
Consider lighting, for practical purposes and entertaining, adding an inviting look to the outdoors.
Evaluate your soil and pick plants that match the growing conditions.
Get to know your neighbours. Communication, and keeping on the right side of them, will ensure a happier outcome for all.
Don’t… create a water feature unless you have time to look after it. They are lovely but high maintenance and will turn to green gloop in the blink of an eye.
Use strange materials that are totally out of keeping with your property and the surrounding area.
Plant anything that will outgrow its space quickly, and overtake any underplanting.
Pave under trees. Roots will lift paving and decking (although decking can work under a tree with a light canopy); birds will make a mess below; and you will suffocate the tree.
• Urban Garden Design by Kate Gould is published on 9 May by Kyle Books, £20.