DoHow to....Outdoor Living

How to…design a small garden

index_21_2954280409I would love to have a big garden. Somewhere to lounge outside, surrounded by trees and flowers where the boys can play football and I can drink wine/tea/fizzy elderflower (oh yes, I’m a wild one) whilst basking in the sun. Unfortunately, this dream isn’t quite reality, just yet. But, no need to reach for the world’s smallest violin, I am lucky enough to have a small, urban garden which was transformed from basically a dodgy old side return and patch of patio into something really quite gorgeous by the lovely and very talented Dani Nash of Pollinate Garden Designs. Dani is basically your garden design dream come true. She knows her onions (or to be more accurate alliums), listens to exactly what you want as you explain it very badly and comes back with ideas that are really quite wonderful. An expert on gardens of any size, Dani is just the person to talk to if, like me, your garden is teeny-postage-stamp-tiny. If you have been inspired by the Chelsea Flower Show (on until Saturday), then here’s some tips on how to turn your little outside corner into a patch of heaven.


“Big isn’t always beautiful,” says Dani. “A tiny outdoor area can easily be transformed into a stunning and useful garden if you follow a few basic principles…

1.  Go green! If you look out of your window onto a bare balcony or a concrete patio, or even a set of empty brick flower beds, go out right now and get yourself a green plant! Shove it in the ground or leave it in its pot and it will immediately improve your sense of well being and happiness if you can see it from a window. Even better if you can find something with a flower or two on it, so you’ll be helping out the odd passing bee or butterfly.

2.    Simple goals – don’t overcomplicate things. Work out one or two ways that you’d like to use the space i.e. for growing herbs, for having a few drinks with friends, for attracting butterflies etc.  Then stick to that mission. Don’t become distracted by trying to cram a dining table in the space if eating outside isn’t one of your goals.

Yellow planting board

3.   Use strict rules for plants and materials.  For plants this might be a colour rule (eg just yellow and orange flowers) or a theme (eg coastal, jungle, edible etc).  Then be strict with yourself about hard materials – don’t try to include gravel, bark mulch, paving, cobbles and brick… you only need two or three otherwise a small space can look cluttered and confused.  By sticking to this rule you can tie different areas together and even create a nice calming sense of repetition and continuity throughout the garden.

Blue planting board

4. Whilst sticking to your goals and rules, introduce some contrast and variation. So if one of your rules is to have purple and blue flowers then contrast the shapes of the flower heads – or if a rule is just to have green, non flowering plants, contrast the shapes of the green leaves.


5. If you can, think about introducing levels into the garden. Contrasting heights draw the eye to different points and can instantly make a garden feel larger and more interesting.  This could be as simple as building raised flowerbeds such as here (for a modern, bespoke way of doing this) or if you have the space, build a small platform for a table and chair as this can be really nice to walk towards or just see from a window.  You can achieve levels with planting too – don’t be scared of trees, there are lots of varieties that suit little gardens like Japenese acers (Acer palmatum Beni Maiko), silver birch (Betula utilis ‘Snow Queen’) and even a weeping pear tree (Pyrus salicifolia ‘Pendula’)


6. If you’re into water features and a bit of sculpture then anything reflective can be very effective at creating the illusion of extra space.  A black liner in a shallow pool creates a mirrored surface if the water is still, however a trickling water feature can mask the sound of nearby traffic or noisy neighbours.  Big mirrors can confuse birds and stun or kill them if they fly into them, so steer clear of those.

7. Scent is really important in a small space. Avoid mixing too many smells as it will be too overwhelming. My favourites are the rare, but amazing Evening Scented Jasmine (Cestrum nocturnum), Winter Flowering Daphne (Daphne odora ‘Aureomarginata’) and a good old lavender (Lavandula angustifolia ‘Melissa Lilac’). Try to position scented plants near to the door or a pathway so you can release their scent when you brush past them.

Finally, when choosing plants bear in mind the ‘getting dressed’ approach to minimise maintenance and ensure you have green to look at all year round.  Think about how you dress yourself in the morning…. You have the underlying structure of the outfit – your lingerie – this would be any hard materials as well as the evergreens and more definitive shapes like trees or hedges.  Be brave with these and spend a good chunk of budget on them – they will be all you see in the winter (unlike your lingerie thankfully).

You would then choose your pretty outfit based on a colour scheme or one feature item – this would be your choice of perennial flowers (perennial means they ‘go to sleep’ during winter but come back the following spring).  These could make up the majority of the garden so choose plants you really love the look of and plant them in odd numbered groups (for some reason groups of 3s, 5s or 7s look better than 2s or 4s…).

Finally you would select your jewellery and shoes to finish the outfit – this would be the more flamboyant annual flowers that you would need to change every year (because they die), and any other frills like sculpture, mirrors, water features and light furniture .

And ta dah your garden is ready!

Or ignore all of this and just cram in everything that you love! There’s a risk of creating a mad old lady’s garden…. But there’s also a chance that you might just make something really unique, characterful and beautiful.  Whatever you do – do something colourful.


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