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.
Other good choices include Alchemilla mollis, hardy geraniums and Rudbeckias, while long-lived static perennials which form clumps more slowly, include astilbes, euphorbia and Sedum spectabile.
Design tricks include dividing up your space to form physically different areas. If your garden isn’t big enough to do that, consider including a couple more places to stop, such as a bench or seat, which allow you to see the garden from different angles and viewpoints.
Detail – it could be a profusion of plants grouped together in containers, mosaic tiles which act as a perfect foil for particular plantings, or even just a stand-alone architectural plant – can make all the difference.
Narrow paths through planting encourage the visitor to stop and look at plant combinations, while small surprises such as sculptural objects offer a good way to make people stop and look.
However small your garden, there are plants and features you can include to make it a great outside space throughout the seasons.
New Small Garden: Contemporary principles, planting and practice by Noel Kingsbury is published by Frances Lincoln, priced £20. Available now
Best of the bunch – Autumn cyclamen (Cyclamen hederifolium)
These gorgeous pint-sized plants have intricately patterned, ivy-shaped leaves in shades of grey-green. They appear after the pink flowers, which emerge from late summer to autumn, and provide a foil for other winter-flowering bulbs. Autumn cyclamen also provide a burst of colour in autumn pots, but make sure you don’t over-water them or they will rot. In the ground, they should be grown in light shade in well-drained soil, rich in organic matter. Plant tubers in late summer, but leave clumps undisturbed.
Good enough to eat – container-grown olives
In this country, we need to bring our olives inside in winter, as to flower and fruit well they need temperatures between 7.5C (46F) and 10C (50F). They are often wind-pollinated, so growing more than one cultivar improves pollination. If you are starting from scratch, use small pots with loam-based compost and added grit, with loads of crocks in the bottom. Olives need free-draining soil but they also need to be watered liberally and fed with a liquid fertiliser every month during the growing season. Never allow the compost to dry out. They should be pruned in spring or early summer and new shoots thinned each year to keep the plant compact.
What to do this week
Plant new border perennials and water in well
Prune deciduous autumn-flowering shrubs over three years old as they finish flowering
Boost autumn green crops with a light dressing of general fertiliser
Lift, divide and re-set large clumps of Lilium regale
Fix greasebands around the stems of apple and pear trees to prevent crawling insects reaching fruit-bearing branches. Place a second band higher up the trunk
Check over strawberries and remove any new runners that may have formed
As temperatures fall, reduce the amount of damping down in the glasshouse or frame
Prune rambling roses
Sow winter salad leaves
Order sweet pea seeds now for planting in autumn