Why a successful small garden needs a big idea

July 22nd, 2018
Posted In: Town gardens

A small garden needs a big idea.

You can let a larger garden evolve. And by ‘larger’ I mean any garden more than about 80ft (25m) long.

Why a small garden needs a big idea

A small garden with a big ‘exotic’ idea – this purple bench and tree fern in a London courtyard designed by Paul Thompson-MacArthur.

All the most successful small gardens I’ve seen recently have one strong idea behind them. In a small space, you can see everything at once, so it’s important that it all looks good together.

This principle applies regardless of the shape, although many very small gardens are wider than they are long. See here for general tips on a shallow wide garden.

Here are the three successful small space garden ideas to inspire you.

The plant-lover’s garden

After visiting Philip Oostenbrink’s garden (open once a year for the NGS), I realised that a small outside space is a wonderful display area for unusual plants. As the plants are so close to you, you can really appreciate the differences in leaf shape and colour. Find Philip on Twitter at PhilipHGCC.

Plant-lovers' garden - Contrasting leaf shapes and colours

Wonderful leaf contrasts in Philip’s garden – the slim palm-like leaves of Begonia luxurians contrast with the darker Persicaria ‘Red Door’ and the citrus green of Hakonechloa macra (Philip holds a National Collection of Hakonechloas). In the foreground is a rare variegated form of ground elder (in a pot).

Also, in a small space, there’s no need to plant in threes or drifts. One of each specimen will look just fine in a courtyard, terrace or patio garden. Whereas if you dot lots of different single plants around a larger garden, everything can end up looking incoherent.

A small garden is a good place to display interesting plants

Tree fern, Canna ‘Durban’ and other foliage plants in Philip’s garden.

‘It’s all about the foliage for me,’ says Philip. He is Head Gardener at Walmer Castle, where he’s creating a jungle themed garden in the moat. And as Chairman of the Kent division of Plant Heritage, he is passionate about unusual plants. His small garden (around 35ftx15ft) is bursting with fascinating leaves, and follows a jungle theme.

Philip is also the author of The Jungle Garden, a book which ‘takes the houseplant look outside’. You can read more about his principles of how to create a jungle garden here.

A jungle theme with brilliant dahlias and large leaves

Most of the plants in Philip’s garden are chosen for their foliage, but he also adds dash of brilliant colour from dahlias. Here Dahlia ‘Happy Days’ and Ricinus communis make Philip’s front garden stand out from all its neighbours.

Urban jungle garden

As well as a ‘plantsman’s garden’, Philip also defines his garden theme as ‘urban jungle’. That’s a good look for a small garden, because it’s relatively easy to get the look of a jungle packed with different layers of plants. ‘A jungle is quite an enclosed space when you’re in it,’ says Philip. ‘If you have more space, you could create a tropical or exotic garden, but it wouldn’t necessarily feel like a jungle.’

The layers of plants start with a tree (see here for how to choose a tree for a small garden). Then you plant large plants, smaller plants, ground cover plants and pots, all crowded together like the photo below.

Choose large-leaved plants for a big impact in a small garden

Philip adds splashes of colour with bedding plants, but he is really interested in the unusual plants especially those with large leaves like the Tree Foxglove (Paulownia tomentosa) on the top at the right.

Urban jungle garden

Tree dandelion (Sonchus canariensis) – one of the fascinating exotic leaf shapes in Philip’s garden.

And for more exotic garden inspiration, Steven Edney and Lou Dowle’s tropical garden is nearby and is open for the NGS on the same day.

Derek Jarman coastal garden

There are a number of small gardens open for Faversham Open Gardens & Garden Market Day (held on the last Sunday in June every year).  In 2023, it will be on the 25th June. One of the most popular gardens that has opened in the past is this Derek Jarman-inspired garden.

Paint your fence black

Guy Felton painted the fence black to echo the fishermen’s huts nearby in Faversham harbour and also at Dungeness.

The garden belongs Guy Felton and his wife. He is a retired architect so he has a keen eye. When they bought the house, the garden was a thin strip of lawn bordered by two narrow beds. It’s around 15ft wide at its widest, but tapers down to around 12ft. And it’s around 35ft long.

‘There didn’t seem any point in mowing such a tiny strip of lawn,’ he said. So they replaced it all with shingle, which makes the garden look wider and lighter. The plants grow out of the shingle.

Shingle, grasses and 'found objects' for the beach-comber look.

Raised beds, grasses and ‘found objects’ such as shells and broken china all convey a beach-comber ‘Derek Jarman’ look.

Faversham harbour is nearby, and when Guy was walking around the boatyard, he spotted an old wooden yacht rudder. It was about to be put on the bonfire, but the owner said Guy could have it. It now stands halfway down the garden ‘dividing up the space’, and looks like a piece of garden sculpture.

A yacht rudder is upcycled into garden sculpture.

Garden sculpture or an old yacht rudder? There’s a pretty seating area behind.

Exotic courtyard garden

This is the smallest garden in this post. It is around 15ftX15ft and belongs to my friend, Amanda. She picked ‘exotic’ as her theme, and asked garden designer, Paul Thompson-McArthur to make it work. (She says it was my idea, but I’m not sure…I think it just came up when we were all talking.)

A simple, striking design for a small space

Paul Thompson-McArthur kept this exotic look simple, with a few distinctive plants and brick paving which echoes the garden walls.

The back of Amanda’s kitchen is one long glass door, which rolls back, so her garden is on view all year round. ‘Exotic’ has a long season of interest, because it’s based on leaf shapes. In the winter, the two benches both look like garden sculpture, and there is a distinctive piece by Tom Stogdon, too.

Add sculpture and furniture for a year-round view

Amanda’s garden from the kitchen – it’s on view all year round, but the purple bench is a good focal point.

Choose every element carefully in a small garden

Amanda’s tip for small gardens – choose a chair that is quite ‘transparent’. The sculpture is by Tom Stogdon.

The details that make all the difference…

In a small garden, everything can be seen, so Amanda wanted all the detail to be right. She asked Paul to source nails and wires that looked as if they could have been there forever.

Pay attention to detail in small gardens.

I love these rusted nails and wires set into the wall to support the climbers. Amanda’s house is Georgian, so touches like this give the garden a feeling of having been there for years.

Another tip from Amanda is to remember the garden when you’re having any work done in the house. She had her kitchen renovated, which would have been the ideal time to run an automatic irrigation system out into the courtyard. ‘But I did the garden after the house, by which time the kitchen floor had been laid over the piping, and it really wasn’t feasible to take it up again.’

An automatic watering system, by the way, makes alot of sense in any garden. It’ll keep your plants alive, especially if you are away alot, and it’s also a good use of water.

More small garden tips

If you’re looking for that one word or big idea as a starting point, then check this list of top 12 garden styles.  And there are 10 more garden style ideas here.

You’ll find more successful small gardens in these posts: 15 easy affordable ideas for town gardens, 8 steps to the long thin garden of your dreams, and 6 Effective Tips to Narrow Town Garden Success.

For general garden design principles for both smaller and larger gardens, don’t miss Pollyanna Wilkinson’s advice in How to Design Your Garden (if you’re not a garden designer.) And there is super-helpful information from Charlotte Rowe, too, in 5 top garden design tips (plus 2 common mistakes to avoid.)

And if you’re on a budget but you aren’t very good at DIY, then don’t miss the post on how Jo Rutherford transformed her garden with easy budget tips.

See more of the gardens in video

You can see more of Philip’s garden in this video, plus another look at the other two small gardens and more small garden ideas.

Pin for reference

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Why a small garden needs a big idea #gardening #gardendesign


8 comments on "Why a successful small garden needs a big idea"

  1. Maureen Hanson says:

    I love to see what other people have done with small spaces.
    Thank you for all your ideas.

  2. Mr Lakhdar DIAF says:

    Good ideas for small gardens

  3. Thank you for sharing your thoughts Alexandra. I have a small garden, and although it’s fortunate that it’s a reasonably new build (blank slate!), it’s an awkward shape and I’m struggling to get final design ideas in place, as mistakes in a small garden are not so easy to hide! Reading blogs like this can help come up with new ideas or approaches, I particularly like not having to plant in drifts or odd numbers. An idea I scaled down from the rule used in larger gardens! So thank you.

  4. Sue Sutherland says:

    Another great post. I look forward to them every week.

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