The best gardens, however small, entice you in because they do not reveal everything all at once. “If you catch glimpses of places that suggest there is more beyond, then you have created a reason to get up and explore, and the journey has begun.”
So says garden designer and plantsman Noel Kingsbury, who has gathered together a multitude of design tricks in his book, New Small Garden, which also includes planting ideas and garden case studies.
“Dividing up the space will make the garden more intriguing. If your plot is not big enough to do that, consider including stopping places, such as a bench or seat, that will allow you to see the garden from different angles and provide multiple viewpoints, which will also help to visually enlarge the space.” Mirrors edged with planting and false doors help lend the lie that the garden has secrets to hide, while a gate in the adjoining garden fence, although unused, suggests that the garden extends further.
If a visitor asks where your garden ends, says Kingsbury, you have triumphed. “Trees and shrubs that poke above your back fence and merge with trees behind them are effective in breaking up boundary lines. Or use a large shrub or tree that blends with neighbouring greenery, together with a path on one side of it, suggesting that the route continues through.”
Think diagonally, not only because setting the garden on a diagonal creates the longest lines, but also because it creates fat triangles on either side for planting, which, says Kingsbury, are preferable to mean strips on either side of a central lawn. Laying out paving slabs diagonally in a courtyard is another way of making the space appear larger.
Repeating materials or plants lends visual unity to a small garden, which is especially important if it is an awkward or complex space. Kingsbury suggests using the same ground surface material throughout and repeating a distinctive permanent element, such as a strong colour, clear plant shape or sculptural feature. “Reducing the visual complexity of a smalll garden conveys a sense of calmness, which most of us want from our gardens,” he points out.
Avoid the straight path that rushes you down the garden. “Breaking a path so that it suddenly changes direction delays the journey time and makes you see and experience different things. A straight path can be broken in two and given a kink part of the way down. Even more effective is the Chinese idea of the staggered path that forces the walker to change direction several times.”
A step also makes us pause. “Wide, low steps slow the pace. Even a four-inch drop from one area of the garden to the next will produce a similar effect to subdividing it,” says Kingsbury. “If there are no changes in level, you can use raised beds to increase visual interest and add to the perception that the space is larger than it really is.”
You can also take attention away from limited ground space by incorporating a tall element that takes the design upwards. Repeating a narrow feature such as upright box topiary or a simple set of coloured poles will also develop a strong sense of rhythm. To emphasise the length of the garden, Kingsbury advises laying decking at 90 degrees to the house and doing the same with paving slabs, reducing the gaps between the shorter sides so that those closest to the house are larger than those at a distance.
Small gardens have a great advantage: their limited amount of terrace or patio coupled with the proximity of the garden unites them more intimately to the house, and you can accentuate this by reflecting the colours of the rooms overlooking the garden with the planting, or by using common elements, whether paving, sculpture or ceramic containers. Kingsbury says: “French windows or bifold doors mean the garden is only a few steps away, and by carefully framing a view of the outdoor space, you can shut out the boundaries, neighbours and city, focusing on the lush greenery, convincing the onlooker that they are somewhere else entirely.”
- New Small Garden (Frances Lincoln) costs £20, but Homes & Property readers can buy it for £15 by calling 01903 828503 and quoting code 451.