8 beautifully simple garden ideas that really work

Posted By: Alexandra Campbell On: February 25th, 2018 In: Garden design, Garden travel, Gardening know how

The Diggers Club Garden of St Erth demonstrates simple garden ideas to home gardeners.

It’s a charming and very domestic-scale garden. Every idea in it could be taken back to your garden, wherever you live, to work in small and middlesized gardens everywhere.

The Diggers 'St Erth' organic garden

Originally an 1860s miner’s cottage, St Erth is now a garden shop, nursery and visitor centre for The Diggers Garden and Environment Trust. But, as you can see, it’s on a very domestic scale.

In case you were thinking of St Erth in Cornwall, this St Erth is the name of a cottage and garden near Daylesford, Australia. But the ideas work whatever your climate.

1: Focus your efforts where you can see them

If you’re short of time or space, then focus your efforts near the house. Aim to create a dramatic, brilliant splash of whatever you love best in the beds nearest your doors and windows. That way you can see your favourite part of your garden most of the year.

The only herbaceous borders at St Erth are in a neat square directly outside the back door. As you open the door, you’re greeted by a blaze of colour from easy-to-grow perennials.

Simple garden ideas

Stepping outside the back door, the herbaceous borders are framed by wisteria. A grass path leads to the rest of the garden beyond.

Dramatic borders close to the house

A close-up of the echinaceas, salvias, gaura and other well-known perennials in the herbaceous borders close to the house.

2: Use shape and texture to achieve easy-care effects

Colour in gardens means hard work. Flowers need feeding and dead-heading. Even the longest-flowering ones are only ‘at their best’ for a few months a year. They may need regular replacing. If you rely on colour for the effect all over your garden, you’re going to be doing alot of work.

That’s why it makes sense to focus your colour efforts where you can see them. In the rest of the garden, you can achieve a wonderful effect by making the most of different foliage and bark shapes and shades.

Underplant trees with shrubs

There are some imposing trees in the St Erth garden. They are underplanted with a range of different shades of green. I particularly like the way they’ve stripped away the tree branches lower down – which makes it lighter.

Contrast tree leaves and shapes

I love the contrast of the sharp, spiky cordylines with the softer more rounded shapes. Cordylines grow well in many temperate climates, although they’re perceived as exotic.

3: Simple garden ideas and combinations work so well…

Instead of having lots of different plants jumbled together, why not try just two? We spotted an attractive combination of three silver birches simply underplanted with hellebores. It looked so effective and needs almost no care.

Silver birch and hellebores

Beautifully simple combination of silver birch and hellebores. This will look good pretty much all year round.

4: Don’t be afraid of underplanting under trees…

People sometimes think they can’t have a beautiful garden if there are too many trees in it. The St Erth garden shows that you can have a really quite woody garden and still have lots of different plants.

Underplant under trees

This striped euphorbia ‘Silver Swan’ creates a patch of light and contrast beneath a tree.

People sometimes seem to be afraid of trees. They worry about whether the roots will damage their property or fret over the shade they cast.

But trees are absolutely vital to cities and towns. They convert carbon dioxide to oxygen, protect against wind and weather erosion, and are one of the best defences against global warming. And trees give your garden a sense of permanence and scale.

Most trees will not damage your buildings. Just don’t plant them bang next to the house.

5: Make the most of vertical space…

St Erth was one of the first certified organic gardens to be opened to the public in Australia. Its fruit and veg areas have lots of lessons for the domestic gardener.

You can make a very small patch of ground extremely productive by using vertical space. At St Erth there is an area around 6-8ft wide and long. They’ve combined poles and string to create a support structure around 6-7ft high. In shape, it’s rather like an upright portable clothes dryer….

Pumpkins, beans and tomatoes grown together

A clump of upright poles, tied together, create a high density support for pumpkins, beans and tomatoes. Alot of produce grown in a very small space!

Pumpkin growing on a support

A close-up of a pumpkin growing in this tightly packed few square feet. You can see the bean flowers and pods entwined with it.

Other ways of making the most of a small space for vegetable growing is to major on cut-and-come again crops. Sarah Raven has a good system of easy veg growing for year round success, which helps you work out what fruit and veg will give you the most return for the least space.

6: Grow food up ornamental arches…

There were a number of  decorative arches used for growing food. One had pumpkins growing up it, and another created an ornamental support for grape vines.

Use arches for vertical growing space

A small ornamental arch used for growing grapes. You could also use it for beans or pumpkins.

7: Combine food and flowers in the same bed…

Maximise your use of space by combining food and flowers in the same patch.

Combine flowers and veg

An arch over a bench at St Erth. To one side you can see sugar cane growing – you could get a similar effect with sweetcorn. The arch supports pumpkins, while verbena bonariensis grows alongside.

8: You can fit an espaliered fruit tree in almost anywhere…

There’s a cafe at St Erth. The area outside is divided up by espaliered pear and apple trees. This is one of the best simple garden ideas for very small spaces. You can use a single espaliered tree or a short line of them to shelter a terrace or cover an eyesore, such as a compost bin. They don’t need to be any higher than 4-6ft, and you’ll get fruit too!

Find out more about growing espaliered fruit trees here. And discover the small garden with a hundred espaliered fruit trees here.

An espaliered fruit tree as a screen

An espaliered fruit tree divides up the outside eating area at the St Erth Cafe.

A small espaliered fruit tree screen can be an attractive option for creating more privacy in your garden.

9: Add quirky touches…

Every garden needs a few slightly surprising touches. At St Erth I really liked a gate made of old tools.

Garden gate made of vintage tools

A garden gate made of old tools…

10: Visit other gardens when you’re on holiday…

You may take your holidays in a different climate, but there’s still so much to learn from gardens in other countries.  I’m based in Kent, England, but the St Erth garden in Australia has many plants that are familiar to me, such as echinacea. It also has a collection of exotic plants. With the return of exotic plants to English gardens, it’s interesting to see them in context.

Another inspiring garden to visit is Le Jardin Agapanthe in Northern France.

The Diggers Club has three gardens open to the public. I’ve visited the one at Cloudehill, which is much grander than St Erth. It has stunning borders, and also makes a very good use of modern sculpture. If you can’t get to Olinda, near Melbourne (Australia), then take a look at this video:

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Pin for reference:

Simple garden ideas from St Erth Diggers Garden


4 comments on "8 beautifully simple garden ideas that really work"

  1. sunrise gardens says:

    I love the garden gate with all the tools – what a fab quirky idea. I’m wondering if a similar effect could be achieved with redundant tools fixed to a wall, perhaps as part of a system for climbing plants ….. #gotmethinking.

    1. I had a good look at the gate and decided that I wasn’t handy enough to recreate anything like it, but I do love the idea and fixed to a wall would probably be easier. Great idea!

  2. I love the burgundy flower with the ball centre. Would this plant be suitable for a pot? If not I will find somewhere else to plant it. I live in South Australia on Hindsight Island and would like to know where I could find it? I love it!

    Regards Deb

    1. It’s Echinacea purpurea, and it should be fine in a pot. I had some (of a different colour) in a pot once and they worked well. It’s quite widely available so I suggest you contact your usual plant nursery – or if you can get to the Garden of St Erth, they definitely have them there. Echinacea can also be grown from seed. Hope that helps, best wishes, Alexandra

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