10 garden planting ideas for small gardens

August 18th, 2019
Posted In: Garden trends & design, Gardening know how, Town gardens

Border planting ideas for small gardens often need to  be different from those for larger gardens.

Beautiful herbaceous borders and drifts of plants look gorgeous in big gardens. But sometimes they are not practical in small ones. This is especially true if you have a narrow garden or a garden that’s an awkward shape.

So this is the first part of ’10 small garden border planting ideas’ that you can try instead. (The second part will be next week)

Planting ideas for small gardens

Garden designer Posy Gentles’s own garden is where she experiments with planting ideas for small gardens. The Cryptomeria japonica ‘Hungarian Gold’ in the foreground is a plant Posy recommends for ‘punctuation’ in a small garden.

Garden designer Posy Gentles creates planting ideas for all or part of her clients’ gardens. These vary from larger country gardens to small town spaces. So she sees how different plants and plant combinations work in different sizes of garden.

Her own garden is long and thin. It’s around 20ft wide and 100ft long, so she tries out many of her planting ideas here.

Note: by ‘small garden’ I mean a typical town or village garden. It may be long and thin, square or even wedged-shaped. It could be the ‘average garden’, which is 50ft long.

Why planting ideas are different in a small garden

A ‘large garden’ in gardening terms can mean ten or fifteen acres, or even more. The great gardens inspire us. They are where new plants are developed and horticultural expertise is nurtured. Without the great gardens to lead the way, our own gardens would be very much poorer.

Airy planting works well in small gardens

Airy planting, such as this Thalictrum, allows the eye to rest and then to continue its journey down the garden. A solid block of planting would make the space feel too small.

But most of us do not have a ‘large garden’. A garden of less than an acre may feel large if you’re trying to look after it without any professional help. Mine certainly does, which is why I call this blog ‘the Middlesized Garden.’ But in real gardening terms, my 100ft x 80ft town garden is ‘small’, as is Posy’s own garden.

And border planting ideas do not always work in the same way in small gardens as they do in big gardens. More space makes a big difference to some planting ideas. ‘For example, if I tried to plant a drift of anything in my garden, I’d use up all the planting space on just one type of plant, ‘says Posy.

She also thinks that a traditional herbaceous border with chunky shrubs and big blocks of colour are less likely to work in a small garden. ‘If you have airy planting, then the eye can rest on it, and then see through. Solid plants and shapes will make the garden feel smaller because you can’t see beyond them.’

Posy’s 10 planting ideas for smaller gardens

  1. Start with the evergreen structure – use evergreens as punctuation points
  2. Add vertical planting so the eye goes up
  3. Include plants for architectural shape
  4. Always have at least one tree
  5. Add layers – a gauze-like soft focus layer and a glitter layer with small points of colour from small flowers
  6. Use climbers to take the garden upwards and blur boundaries.
  7. Think about leaf colour and shape.
  8. Add light and contrast with variegated or glossy leaves
  9. Include plants with movement, such as grasses and bamboo
  10. Contrast with scale. Big leaves and big plants next to smaller ones

Start with evergreen structure

Posy advises you to think about using structural evergreen plants to anchor the garden. Think about how they will lead the eye.

‘If you want to lead the eye down the garden, alternate evergreen plants, placing them asymmetrically.

On the other hand, two plants opposite each other delineates a gateway. It can mark a boundary or a separate area in the garden.’

Asymmetrical punctuation points lead the eye on

These two yews (Taxus baccata ‘David’) are vertical ‘punctuation points’ that leads the eye down Posy’s long thin garden. But they are placed asymmetrically not opposite each, leading the eye on.

Use symmetrical evergreens to mark out areas

The three round box balls along the path also lead the eye on into the garden. Note how the evergreens in Posy’s garden are either tall and thin or low. You can see over or round them easily – they don’t block the eye.

Posy also recommends grouping a collection of structural plants to make ‘an arrangement.’ ‘In small gardens, you don’t want planting that blocks off the garden, so a grouping of different sized evergreens will mark out a change of area better than something solid like a hedge.’

Group evergreens in different sizes in a small garden

The structure in this corner of Posy’s garden comes from tall, thin yew (Taxus baccata ‘David’), a low round box and a very low Cryptomeria japonica ‘Valmoriniana’ near the ground. In summer it’s surrounded by cardoon, roses and hydrangeas.

Vertical planting leads the eye upwards

‘Try to get as much vertical planting as possible in a small garden,’ advises Posy. ‘A large garden can have a big herbaceous border spread out in front of you, but that won’t fit into a small garden. Use the vertical space to add colour and shape.’

Foxgloves, sanguisorba and persicaria are all good plants for vertical interest.

Use vertical space with tall thin flowers in a small garden

Posy recommends using plants whose flowers are vertical spires, such as this persicaria, to make the most of ‘vertical space’ in a small garden.

Add architectural plants for a small garden

Posy combines ‘soft-focus’ planting in pastel colours – for example, pink Baby’s Breath and lilac Thalictrum – with plants that have a strong architectural shape. Plants with a strong shape can be planted singly – you don’t have to keep to the traditional planting advice to plant in threes or fives.

And vary the size of architectural plants. Posy’s top plants for architectural shape include small plants with a good shape such as ferns and curly kale as well as dramatic cardoons.

‘If you have lots of perennials or flowers without the punctuation of architectural plants, then it can look like a mess,’ says Posy.

Use architectural plants in a small garden

Cardoon (Cynara cardunculus) is around 6ft high. Its spiky pale grey leaves add drama to Posy’s narrow town garden.

Always have at least one tree in a small garden

‘Always have at least one tree in a small garden,’ advises Posy. ‘It leads the eye upwards and makes the most of your vertical space. You need to choose your tree carefully, and it will create shade. But there are lots of excellent planting ideas for shade. ‘

Small garden trees include silver birches

Posy’s trees include a trio of silver birches in the centre of the garden. They add privacy but you can see through them and past them, leading the eye on to believe the garden is larger than it really is. In the foreground you see ‘glitter’ from astrantias and soft-focus plants like Nigella.

‘You could even have a small garden with a number of trees, and make shade gardening your focus,’ she suggests. ‘If you’re living in a town, you’re probably very over-looked so that would be very private.’

Small garden planting ideas

Posy has a number of trees in her narrow town garden. This Magnolia stellata is just outside the kitchen door and is covered in clematis later in the year.

Layer small garden planting ideas with soft focus and ‘glitter’

When it comes to flowers and colour, Posy thinks that big blocks of strong colour can make a small garden feel smaller because they stop the eye. You can’t see beyond a traditional herbaceous border with clumps of plants.

Which is fine in a larger garden because you can walk on to explore. In a small or middle-sized garden, this could feel too solid and chunky. (although Posy also emphasises that ‘All rules are made to be broken’).

So she likes to think of adding colour in layers that you can see through or which don’t occupy much space.

For example, you can get ‘soft-focus’ interest by using plants that have a delicate lacy structure. These include fennel and nigella. They take up very little space but act like a gauze across other plants.

Add 'soft-focus' plants to your small garden borders

‘Soft-focus’ plants such as Nigella and plants with tiny flowers add a gauzy layer to Posy’s borders. They are textural and pretty, but almost transparent.

And  she uses ‘glitter’ as a way of describing small dots of colour from small flowers. These are scattered across her borders, sprinkling colour and light without obscuring the view beyond.

Choose small flowers and pastel colours for small garden style

Lots of small flowers in pale and pastel colours add ‘glitter’ to this bed. The tiny pink flowers at the centre are Baby’s Breath (Gypsophila ‘Pink Festival’)

Good plants for ‘glitter’ include astrantia, gypsophila and Saxifrage ‘London Pride.’

Posy also believes that flowers in soft colours and pastels work better than very bright or strong colours in a small garden because a lot of very bright flowers is like drawing a line around an area.

More garden design advice

You can find garden designer Posy Gentles here. And her garden in Faversham, Kent, is usually open once a year for the NGS and for Faversham Open Gardens & Garden Market Day, which is held at on the last Sunday in June.

Posy Gentles garden design

Posy Gentles (right) consulting with a client on revamping a front garden border.

See more small garden design and planting advice in this post on  how Great British Bake Off finalist and garden designer Jane Beedle transformed her 52ft garden from a muddy patch into a colourful haven.  And if you like low maintenance plants, consider getting more plants that spread or brilliant low maintenance plants for beautiful gardens.

I’m often asked for recommendations so I’ve put together lists of my favourite gardening books, tools and products on the Middlesized Garden Amazon store. For example, here is a list of good books specifically on plants.

Note that links to Amazon are affiliate, see disclosure. As an Amazon Associate I earn from qualifying purchases but it doesn’t affect the price you pay. Other links are not affiliate.

Next week, The Middlesized Garden blog will explain more about Posy’s other 5 small garden planting ideas. So do join us – there’s a ‘follow by email’ box below. We will whiz into your inbox every Sunday morning.

Pin to remember small garden planting ideas

Small garden planting schemes and ideas

4 comments on "10 garden planting ideas for small gardens"

  1. John Moore says:

    Wonderful advice! Fifty years of gardening mistakes makes me appreciate Posy’s guidance.

  2. Jayne Turner says:

    Proud and often confused owner of a small garden

    1. I think we’re all confused sometimes!

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