How to Design a Garden if…it’s really small

As part of our How to Design a Garden Series – this week it’s really small gardens.

My Garden is Really Small

Garden sizes are shrinking, which is a real shame, the upward pressure on house building has led to a fall in not only the size of homes, but also the gardens. The average minimum garden size for a 3 person dwelling can be as little as 50 sq m – which is only about 1.5 times larger than a good sized sitting room.

Making the best use of the available space is essential and to achieve that, the design process needs to start at the end and it works backwards.

Firstly, you need a place to sit:

How do you begin to design a really small garden? Well there is not a lot of space, so the garden is mainly going to be used for sitting in. Before any designing of the garden takes place, you need to work out how much space is really needed for a table and chairs. Shoehorning a couple of chairs and a bistro table into the space left in the corner will feel cramped and uninviting.

These are really cool chairs

Chairs take up more room that you might think. The overall size required for the table and chairs must include the area used when everyone has been seated around the table.

The average space for a bistro table and chairs is approximately 3m sq and for a 4 seater table you will need between 5 1/2 and 6m sq.

So if the garden is really small – where you sit and how you get to it may take up nearly half the available garden space. Hence why it is the first part of the garden to ‘design in’.

The space we need doesn’t shrink just because the garden does!

Then decide where to put the table and how to get there:

Humans in general are disposed to a bit of sunbathing. Where the patio is put then is determined by which part of the garden is sunniest, however you also need to consider when during the day you are most likely to be able to sit outside.

Once that is decided, the second question is how do you get to the patio?

This path will get a disproportionate amount of use so it must be hardwearing – it must also be comfortable to walk down. Ideally make a path the same width as a doorway and try to keep it free from overhanging or protruding flora!

To have grass…or not?

In really small gardens, any grass is going to struggle, not because of shade or lack of water (although these are important factors) but also because the small area of lawn gets a disproportionately large amount of foot traffic.

Grass can only grow so fast, if much of the lawn is constantly trodden on, it simply cannot grow quickly enough before it is walked on again and quickly looks threadbare.

In this type of garden, decide if a lawn is worth the effort to keep it looking green and lush. If the answer is no, then use an alternative. It could be a contrasting paving or artificial grass (sorry garden purists!) decking or even shingle (although this is horrid to walk on in bare feet!).

so we would change it to this and plant it with tall, but soft plants

Less is More:

Small garden designs are best when kept clean and simple. If there is too much going on in a small space, it becomes visually cluttered and will look even smaller.

Use only one or two hard landscaping materials and keep to simple lines. Limit the range of colours in the garden to green plus 2 more. These can be complimentary colours or contrasting colours.

In our example garden, we have chosen to extend the existing patio and use an artificial turf for the lawn area. This then has created space for 2 large garden borders.

What then to plant…?

Before you start scouring the internet for plant bargains you need to go out into the garden and sit down.

Then shut your eyes….and open them again. Something should immediately catch your attention.  Is it nice or not? If nothing catches your attention, the garden needs something great to look at.


Looking at our example garden, what catches your eye? At the moment it’s probably the hedge (dark green and light absorbing) the side of the shed and the paving.

The hedge is a negative view – it makes the garden feel imposing and darker. So this must be kept in check. The shed is also a negative view but painted a chic colour you can improve the appearance of it. The paving is also dominant as there is nothing else to distract the eye from all those straight lines.

The planting for this garden needs to address the negative issues and provide a more interesting view to look at.

If you read the article Garden Design for Beginners, one of the main principles you can follow is to utilise the ‘regulatory lines’. In this case these are strongly vertical, thus taller vertical planting will seem to fit in better.

However as the garden is also quite enclosed, using dense green tall plants will only add to the claustrophobic feeling. Similarly solid immovable plants will also make the garden feel more enclosed. By dealing with the negatives, you can come to a positive decision that tall thin airy planting would look best.

Repeat the same plant in several places.

Use lots of bulbs that will pop up over the course of the year to provide fresh interest. In the colour scheme of your choice.

See also:

Garden Design for Beginners

How to Design a Garden if:….

It’s all weeds

It’s a city garden

The garden is really narrow

The Garden is really boring – what can I do?

I still have no idea where to begin

You need to start from scratch

Creating a Low Maintenance Garden…

Part 1

Part 2





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