How to maximise space in a small garden

Most articles about garden design will show you gorgeous imagery of wonderful gardens and then proceed to state all the things you can do to maximise space in a small garden.

So I thought I would ‘do’ a little Google research to see what all the experts say. I found lots of articles which was great, but much of what was in them didn’t really help much; this is some of the advice I found:

‘Have a Plan’ | ‘Sensible Seating’ | ‘Create a Sensory Experience’ | ‘Plant in Layers’ | ‘Pick the Right Plants’ | ‘ Get the Design Right’ | ‘Be Adaptable’ | ‘Divide into Zones’ | ‘Think Vertically’

Great, so off you go – you now know how to maximise space in a small garden…..!

Hmmm, it’s not quite that easy though, I do agree with the advice above, but it’s not easy to translate and make relevant to your own garden.

Maximising space is all about understanding which parts of the garden are usable and which parts aren’t

There will always be parts of any garden you will not want to use; which means you physically sitting or being in that part of the garden. These might be dingy corners or the area beside the bins. It might be somewhere completely overlooked by all the neighbours.

The point being, nothing is going to make you want to use those parts of the the garden. This means the areas left are the parts of the garden you are physically going to occupy. The unusable parts become the areas you add storage and planting because this will not impinge on the usable part of the garden. It automatically maximises the space you have available!

How to work out the usable space

There is sadly no magic formula or design software to use, the best tool for a novice gardener is to use a chair. Plonk the chair down in various parts of the garden and decide under what circumstances you would want to sit there. If there aren’t any – what is the reason why not. It maybe that space is needed to walk to the bins, hang the washing or it maybe it is a cold and dingy space.

The reason is important because it determines whether that bit unusable space then has to be kept clear for access. If the spot just not a good place to be, the next step is deciding what will go there.

Storage

All gardens however small will need a utility area (even small gardens) places for the bins to go, storing all the ‘stuff’ that goes with having a garden etc. Now logic would dictate keeping the storage small, but be mindful that it will fill up easily. Make this area as large as it can possibly be; then look at how it can be disguised, made more beautiful or how to distract your attention from it; see how to hide an ugly shed. Ideally the shed should go in the area the plants would struggle to grow most. That then leaves the remaining unusable areas available for planting.

Planting

Small gardens don’t need small plants just smarter planting. There are a few rules to consider:

  • Start at eye level and work down
  • Think of the job a plant needs to do – and then search for the plant that does that the best
  • Make the most of your senses – all 5 of them!
  • Check the Size in 5!
Starting at eye-level:

Sit in the chair and look around the garden. Most of what you initially look at is right in front of you; and is most likely the fences or boundaries. These have to be made more attractive to look at. Simply covering these with a large climber is not the answer; you need to be more creative. Regard the fence in the same way you would a wall in the house. What could be added to make it look more interesting and an attractive feature.

What does the plant need to do?

Plants grow well if they are planted in the the right environment; they will be healthier, grow as nature intended and at a natural speed. The plant will look after itself; meaning you don’t have to!

Choosing plants then involves matching how they want to grow with the place you have to grow them – these two environments should be the same! But there are always lots of plants to choose from, so the next step is to narrow down what you need the plant to do.

Start by being more pragmatic, what do you need the plant to do? Provide year round privacy, is it the main ‘look at me’ feature of the garden? What shape does it need to occupy; a tall and skinny? Does it need to be soft and floaty because you will walk past it, and perhaps run your hands over it as you do. So would it be even better if when you did, the plant released sme scent?

Using your senses

Far too much emphasis is often placed on how a garden looks during the design process. But although important, if the garden only looked lovely, whenever you shut your eyes it would disappear! The garden needs to stimulate all your senses, touch, taste, sight sound and smell. The garden space available is small, as such all the plants in it have to multi-task. A useful exercise is to list what’s needed.

AreaEnvironmentJob Description
Area by the back doornarrow sunny space, access needed at all timesupright, soft, tactile, scented, drought loving
Patch in the SW cornerBest for last rays of sun, sheltered spot, love eating out therePlants to touch, scented leaves, evening scent, nothing prickly, want to feel enclosed in a world of plants
Small bed by the fenceMorning sun, evening shade. Fence is ugly and flimsy, neighbours look in!Taller self supporting plants. Evergreen ideally, must be pretty to look. Fence can have decoration added, mirror?
End fence under treeNever sit there, area for main planting viewed from the window. Tree drops leavesBig interesting leaves or leaf colours. Can be deciduous, flowers not so important, flowers in the spring before tree comes into leaf

Now although this doesn’t give you a list of plants, here is where you use the power of Google! Type in a search phrase and up will pop a site with plants to use. Then you can look at which one fits best.

Check the Size in 5!

Stating the obvious here, but all plants grow; and some grow very fast. The plant doesn’t know it’s misbehaving if it grows off the end of your trellis. So check the size and spread of it after 5 years – before you plant it! Plant labels make even the most thuggish of plants sound tame. Beware the following terms when looking for plants:

  • Vigorous
  • Fast growing
  • Spreads via underground roots
  • Self seeds easily
  • Good for ground cover
  • Anything over 3m tall

The garden you have is small, the plants don’t need to be small to include them, but they musn’t be plants that will take over the garden either!

See also

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