8 effective tips for narrow town garden success

Posted By: Alexandra Campbell On: June 19th, 2016 In: Garden style & living

If you live in a town or village, you probably have a long narrow town garden. It may be shady, over-looked and small.

But whatever your gardening style – classic, wildlife, jungle or romantic – you can still achieve an amazing garden in spite of the problems.

Lush planting and gravel in a narrow town garden

This very narrow garden is effectively a gravel path with deep beds. It belongs to Genevieve Ellis in Faversham.

You don’t need a lawn

If your garden is long and thin, the path is an important part of the design. It can be a focal point or it can create the shape of the garden.

Many Victorian terraced houses have a ‘side return’. It’s a narrow strip of outside space that runs alongside the back extension. Many people now extend the back of the house from garden wall to garden wall, roofing over the ‘side return’ to create a big room instead of a narrow garden space.

Rectangular urban garden tips

Looking back towards Genevieve’s house from the garden gate at the end.

But the side return is almost the whole of Genevieve Ellis’s garden and she has made the most of it.

The space is only around 7ft wide, and is essentially a gravel and stone garden path which runs down the middle and widens out into a circle at regular intervals. There is charming planting on either side, and two places to sit.

2) The path is the key to a narrow town garden

Genevieve’s garden is made by her choice of path. If you have a sprawling country garden, paths are ways of getting from A to B in the most logical way. In a long, thin urban garden, your choice of path will make a big difference to how the space works and what the garden looks like.

Make a long, thin town garden look bigger with a winding path.

This brick path starts on the right of Posy Gentles’ garden (Garden 3), giving her a big border to the left. It then bends to the left and gives her another big border on the right.

The offset path is one of the most successful strategies. The two paths above and below start on one side of the garden and either bend or turn. An offset path gives you the option for deeper beds and lush planting.

Winding urban garden path

This garden was the smallest garden open for the Whitstable Open Gardens (so not open for Faversham Open Gardens). Probably only about 15ft wide and 60ft long, its winding path creates space for lavish planting, places to sit, and a greenhouse.

4) You can have large plants in a small garden

Mary Mackay’s garden has a tropical atmosphere. Her garden is probably around 25ft wide and 50ft long, but she has a giant cordyline, huge bamboos in pots, great silver-leafed cardoons, tetrapanax and more.

Cordyline and bamboo in a narrow town garden

Mary Mackay’s garden in Faversham combines cordylines, bamboo and other large plants.

5) Many plants grow well in the shade

If you read a plant catalogue, you may think that full sun is essential for a beautiful garden. Most plants seem to have ‘full sun’ or ‘full sun or partial shade’ as their growing conditions.

‘I think it’s like labels on clothes saying ‘dry clean only’,’ says Posy. ‘Alot of plants do surprisingly well in shady spots.’

‘Right plant, right place’ is a gardening mantra – and it works. But the ‘right place’ doesn’t always have to mean full sun.

Because it is surrounded by walls and is so narrow, Genevieve’s garden is very shady and yet the list of plants growing well is long.

Plants include choisya, sarcococca confusa, violets, Japanese anemones and a camellia that flowers for three months a year. There is an azalea in a pot, plus hydrangeas, cyclamen, hosta, hellebore, persicaria, clematis and foxgloves. The list continues with crocosmia, several different types of roses, daphnes, fuschias, thyme, geraniums, oxalis, trachelospermum and many more.

Shady garden with abundant planting

Genevieve’s garden is very shady as it is bounded by walls and buildings and is very narrow, but the planting is abundant.

You may not realise how sunny your garden actually is. If your main time for sitting outside is in the evening, your garden may be mainly in shadow, but at midday, it may perhaps be almost wholly sunny. Many plants do reasonably well on about 4 hours of direct sunshine a day. A shady garden needs less watering.

Trial and error is the only way to find out if plants will be happy in a shady spot. Sun isn’t the only factor in how well a plant will grow.

6) You can have privacy even if you are overlooked

The tension between shade and privacy in long thin town gardens is a source of great friction between neighbours. One side wants its privacy and the other feels their garden is compromised by trees or vigorous climbers.

Private terrace at the end of a long, thin garden

Mary Mackay has created a private area at the bottom of her garden, surrounded by bamboo trellis and reached by an arch.

The key is not to expect privacy in the whole garden – you do live in a town after all, but to establish where you would like to sit and to make a small area private, using trellis, a pergola or a single tree. And if your neighbour does the same, be tolerant and plant shade-loving plants (or use the shady area for storage).

Pirvate seating spot in a narrow town garden

The most private place in a narrow town garden is often close to the house, like in Genevieve’s garden.

Pergolas for privacy in a long, thin urban garden

A pergola offers privacy at John and Mary Cousins’ house. Pergolas, like sheds, can be up to up to 2.5 metres (8ft 2″) high if they are near or on your garden wall.

7) Blur the edges (or the end of the garden) with planting

Town gardens used to have a fairly standard format. They had a lawn or terrace in the middle and planting round the edges.

But that makes them look smaller, because it creates defined boundaries.

Planting in clumps – having beds across the garden rather than in thin beds down the sides – blurs the edges because your eye doesn’t quite know where the garden ends. Here are two examples where clumps make the garden seem bigger or more luxuriant.

Conifer planting in narrow town garden.

A mixed – mainly evergreen – planting at the end of Julie Holbrook’s garden means you don’t know exactly where the garden ends.

Verticals add texture to a long, thin town garden.

The main planting bed in front of Posy’s house has lots of verticals. You can see that there is garden beyond, but you can’t quite see how far it stretches.

8) In a small space you can experiment

Julie Holbrook has done most of the hard landscaping in her garden herself, laying the brick terrace, making a brick barbecue and also creating a water feature out of Kent peg tiles and roofing lead.

Kent peg tile fountain

The Kent peg tiles are layered in a ‘waterfall’ around the cordyline. Water flows down from a concealed tap at the top.

Brick terrace

Julie used old brick (her house dates back to the 17th century) and pebbles in her terrace.

Let me know if you’ve got any good tips for narrow, recatangular gardens, and do share this using the buttons below – thank you!








  • Alex says:

    Great tip about creating privacy in a specific area of a town garden rather than expecting the whole thing to be private. It’s kinder on the neighbours and also stops the garden feeling corridor like with a tall fence running down the side. We had a very tall fence down one side of the garden of our old house (put in by the neighbours) and it was very unforgiving – deep shade and made the garden feel quite oppressive.

    • And, oddly enough, however tall the fence is, it won’t make the garden feel completely private because, in a town, we can always been seen from upstairs windows. It’s just lovely to have a few private spots in the garden.

  • Pete says:

    I think what you say about the garden path is absolutely right, if you have a pergola (http://www.harrodhorticultural.com/garden-pergolas-cid112.html) as well with things growing on it to create that corridor like feel. It gives the illusion that there’s larger spaces the other side of the shrubbery which in turn makes the space feel much larger than it is. They also help to create atmosphere, it’s that blurring the boundaries element that you mentioned above.

  • Cara says:

    These are great tips for a town garden, especially blurring the sides with planting. Artificial grass is also great in small gardens if you don’t have the time to maintain but want it to always look vibrant and green, as well as saving time and money.

  • Nemasys Info says:

    I love your fifth point about how some plants grow really well in shade. Definitely worth giving a go.

  • Sue D says:

    WOW – how did I not know about Faversham Open Gardens Day…?? Gutted as I am doing a school fete on Sunday so wont be able to attend, but will definitely keep an eye out for it in future.

  • Andy says:

    I heartily recommend Faversham Open Gardens to everyone, we had a great time there last year and the garden market is charming with very tempting stalls!

    • Thank you, Andy – Faversham Open Gardens had lots of visitors who heard about it from your fab BBC Radio Kent Sunday Gardening programme – a great gardening start to Sunday.

  • Lucie Neame says:

    Super article with great pics. I love these tiny bosky spaces. Great for flora fauna and people. A seat is a must to sit and enjoy.

  • Diana Studer says:

    Wish we could.
    Hope the weather is kind!

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