Gardening: Big ideas for small spaces

A small garden
A small garden

Think your garden is too small to have the wow factor? Too cramped for carpets of colour or sizeable shrubs?

Think again, because most of us have small gardens, particularly people in urban areas, and designers have long been creating plant combinations for minute spaces, as well as larger plots.

Noel Kingsbury is one such designer, whose latest book, New Small Garden, aims to demystify the art of making the most of your modest outdoor space, focusing on plants rather than hugely expensive landscaping.

“Many plants require a horizontal area to grow well, but remember that you can also use the vertical space,” he advises.

“A small garden may, in fact, have a larger vertical surface area than ground space. How much do you have and what is it - a wall, fence or hedge? Vertical space can be adorned with climbing plants, or use it to add storage with cupboard-like structures.”

Many traditional gardens have stalwart shrubs that create both form and colour throughout the seasons, yet some gardeners with small spaces avoid them for fear they will outgrow their allotted space too quickly.

“Many shrubs grow too big for small gardens and it is easy to plant them too densely,” Kingsbury agrees.

“When planting new shrubs in your small garden, take care not to make the same mistake, and note their eventual sizes at the outset to ensure they are suitable.”

Good choices include the slow-growing Pittosporum tenuifolium ‘Irene Paterson’, which has attractive dense evergreen foliage and makes a good year-round feature; the compact Japanese azalea Rhododendron ‘Victorine Hefting’, which flowers in late spring and can be clipped to shape; and the hardy Fuchsia magellanica, valued for its profuse summer flowers, or used as a decorative hedging plant.

“An overwhelming majority of shrubs also have a shape most politely described as ‘ambiguous’, and will spread out in many directions over time, but the fact they are also extremely resilient means they can be kept smaller,” Kingsbury notes.

“Most are continually regenerating from the base and can be hacked back to rejuvenate them or maintain their size.

‘‘The lower branches can also be cut away to create a planting space below the canopy, and to make a feature of the stems, which would normally be hidden.

“The creation of these ‘understorey’ planting spaces is particularly useful for short, spring-flowering perennials and bulbs.”

He adds that compact sub-shrubs - rarely more than a metre in height with a dense, twiggy branching habit and very small leaves - such as Hebe albicans, lavender and silvery Artemisia pontica, are invaluable to gardeners.

“They are compact, mostly evergreen, tolerate difficult conditions and need little maintenance. Many sub-shrubs almost ‘flow’ around obstacles and into gaps. Their shapes are also pleasing, almost calming or cuddly, and it is tempting to use them for the bulk of the garden.”

Use them for ground cover, as edging for paths and the front of borders, and to contrast with other shapes, particularly ornamental grasses.

Herbaceous perennials are now the frequent mainstay of smaller gardens as they are generally compact and can grow cheek by jowl, he adds.