Big ideas for small gardens:the tiny Sussex courtyard transformed into a secret garden full of flowers and fragrance

A rose-smothered arch, a trickling water feature and even a mini lawn fit into the small back yard, full of flowers and fragrance, at an artist's house in Sussex.

Proof that a back yard can be converted into a corner of heaven is abundant in the idyllic garden created by Claire Fearon three years ago at her terrace house in Sussex. 

The courtyard is a scant 26ft by 14ft wide, yet there are two seating areas, an arch smothered in roses, a trickling water feature fashioned from a butler’s sink and even a lawn — albeit very small.

Fearon even included wisteria as a parasol tree that drips with long flower trusses in late spring. Best of all, fence-to-fence concrete has been replaced with two curving borders that hold a mass of cottage garden blooms, from roses, nicotiana and foxgloves to salvias, cosmos and alliums.

“I always longed for a secret garden full of flowers and fragrance,” says Fearon, an artist who paints bold abstracts that are led by her love of colour. “My starting point was an arch of rusted steel to give the impression that the garden has been here forever.”

Originally the garden was fenced at the back and sides, but Fearon took the curve of the arch as a template for an archway behind it, set in a brick wall. The pale sage door with inviting black latch looks as if there might be another magical garden beyond, but in fact leads to her husband Robert’s home office.

A frothy green carpet
Even the long central path, of pale pink herringbone brick, is pretty. It is broken two thirds of the way down by a circular patch of deep green — with a central stepping stone — comprised of small-leaved Microclover Pipolina, which makes a wonderful frothy carpet.

“I did lots of research to find an alternative to grass, as the circle is too small to mow,” explains Fearon. “This is the perfect solution, and it’s even drought tolerant. I keep the clover contained with a metal rim and reseed early in the year where necessary. It takes three minutes to trim with shears.”

Creating another room, Fearon sliced off a strip along the back of the garden, delineating it with low box hedging, to allow for a potting bench in the right-hand corner and café table and chairs on the left. At the other end of the garden, near French windows to the kitchen, is another table and four chairs. 

“I wanted a spot in the sun and a spot in the shade,” says Fearon. “In the morning it’s sunny at the back of the garden, so we have breakfast there, and the evening sun hits the front of the garden, making it the perfect place to dine and sit outside till late.”

Wanting her new garden to look established, she bought several mature plants: the standard wisteria, which cost £400 from Architectural Plants; an evergreen jasmine from local nursery Jack Dunckley, and, for that feature arch, a butter-yellow, repeat-flowering rambling Malvern Hills rose from Wych Cross Nursery. “It’s quite a big rambler but I just cut it back,” says Fearon. “In a tiny garden like this you have to be brutal, otherwise nothing would fit.”

The trellis around the fencing is covered with climbers — her secret is 6X organic fertiliser — including the daintier ivies, pink and purple clematis, mature honeysuckles and a passionflower. 

At this time of year, the two borders, edged with Hidcote lavender and wild daisy Erigeron karvinskianus, fizzle with hot pink, lilac, soft pink and lemon yellows. “I have a lot of pink roses such as Rosa mundi and use nepeta to make a beautiful shade of blue around them,” she says.

Every inch is used

“Cosmos throw out masses of flowers all summer. I plant lupins when they’re small and protect them with Slug Gone pellets made from sheep’s wool.”

Ground cover comes from geraniums including Rozanne, while Cistus, pittosporum, laurel, heucheras, ivies and a herb bed provide evergreen structure through the year. On one side of the shady, narrow side passage of the house, epimediums, astrantias, pachysandra, hellebores and ferns make a green tapestry. 

On the other side, the skinny strip of border has mind-your-own-business in blocks of bright lime and emerald. Little space, no limits.

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