Banish boundaries and make every inch count in a small garden

There’s an art to packing a small plot with plants so that it appears larger, as boundaries ‘vanish’.
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London garden designer Pamela Johnson is used to making the most of small spaces, so it is no surprise that her own plot in Balham, just 25ft wide by 45ft, looks far larger. If there is an art to packing in plants without making the garden look cramped, Johnson, a self-confessed plantaholic, has it nailed.
“The key to making a small garden appear larger is to make the boundaries disappear,” she says. Though her plot is bordered by fences on three sides, they are invisible because a wide band of planting obscures them. “You have to use plants creatively. A true climber such as a honeysuckle will go to the top of a tree, but a wall shrub will give better coverage, so I use ceanothus, pyracantha, euonymus, abelias and anything that has lax growth and is happy to be pointed in the right direction.”
The layout of the garden is simple, with a lawn kept immaculate by husband Gethyn, who installed a metal edging not just for precision mowing, but to stop his wife’s habit of stealing planting space to beef up the borders. The patio takes up about a third of the whole area, and this is where Johnson’s talent for using every inch is most apparent. Surrounding the dining table and chairs, it is a garden all on its own.
She designed the patio with a wide planting space along the back of the kitchen wall and this houses a low panel of clipped box. Evergreen jasmine Trachelospermum jasminoides and an Iceberg rose clamber up the wall alongside three terracotta window boxes, overflowing with pink and plum diascia and trailing verbena.
The shed on the side has a flat roof topped with tall Grosso lavender in troughs, while terracotta wall planters, pinned at intervals down the brickwork at the side of the door, hold succulents.
In front of the patio, by two steps leading down to the main garden, she designed a planting wall, so that a pool of cornflower blue Convolvulus sabatius tumbles on to the bearded iris and deep blue salvias below. “I do this a lot in small gardens because it gives you more space and creates two levels of planting.”
Her stand-by shrubs are what she calls edge-of-woodland. “Most London gardens are in some shade, so I’ll use single-flowered fuchsias, camellias, golden-leaved philadelphus, variegated holly, dark-leaved Physocarpus Diabolo and even fatsia, a great architectural plant that is much-maligned.”
Front-liners include groundcover black grass Ophiopogon and Vinca minor, as well as those that don’t mind being covered by overlapping plants behind, so that when the Fuchsia magellanica is cut back in late summer, the azaleas and ferns beneath are happy and will come into their own in spring.
Testament to Johnson’s vigilance are her hostas in containers. They are perfect, with not a hole to be seen. “I band the pots with copper tape to deter slugs and snails, and I keep the pots apart as much as possible so there is no connecting bridge. But what I think makes the real difference is replacing the top layer of compost every spring, where the eggs tend to be buried, and then topping with a pebble mulch.”
A heavily planted garden like this is not low maintenance, she stresses. “You can’t just plant it and leave it. You have to prune constantly, stake and support, as well as coax plants to do your bidding. Really, it’s all about letting them know who’s boss.”
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