How to make the most of a skinny garden: top tips for creating a sleek outdoor room perfect for entertaining

Many Victorian maisonette conversions in London are often blessed with an outside space resembling a skinny courtyard. But, by using some clever design tips, its still possible to create your perfect al-fresco dining area... 

As is the case with many Victorian terrace houses in south-west London where the property is divided into maisonettes, this Fulham courtyard covers only half of the allotted garden space, making it super skinny. 

After trying without success to turn it into a sleek outdoor room for entertaining, the owner called in garden design supremo Tony Woods to perform the near impossible. 

“The client wanted to accommodate eight people for dining alfresco in a space just three metres wide and eight metres long,” explains Woods. “Because she is an interior designer, she treated it as an outdoor room, which is fine if it’s a square shape, but she needed help to make it look like a garden. My challenge was to comfortably seat eight people as well as make it a welcoming green space that you wouldn’t want to leave.”

Before Woods worked his magic, a mishmash of trellis-topped fencing overwhelmed the space, which was entirely paved over with fake stone in a shade of dirty yellow. 

“Paving a courtyard edge to edge to make it look larger is a common misconception,” he says. “They’d installed a big table and chairs for eight all the way round it, and you had to push the chairs in to get around the space. There were a few plants in pots dotted around and there was simply no incentive to water them.”

Now there is plenty of incentive, and although the owners have to take a watering can from their maisonette down steps to the garden, they are happy to make the effort. White hydrangeas, rosemary and sage in raised beds, a pair of shrubby honeysuckle lollipop trees set into the ground and a trio of olive trees have made the space a real garden, while built-in seating against the raised beds makes the dining area, surrounded by planting, a relaxing and easy space to navigate. 

The made-to-measure wooden dining table and bench on the opposite side have  metal frames, painted light grey, to make the tabletop look almost as if it is floating. 

Instead of dismal dark brown fencing, there are now walls of horizontal battens in palest grey. 

“We kept the original fences and painted them grey, too,” says Woods. “They belong to the neighbours and besides, with battened fencing, you lose a little privacy because of the gaps between the battens. The new fences were built from scratch: in a small garden, attention to detail is important, and if we’d bought them off the shelf, you’d see the cuts and lose the flow.” 

In keeping with the light-coloured fencing, rendered walls and steps of pale grey — the steps were painted a slightly darker shade as they receive more wear and tear — the new paving is light sandstone, with the slabs laid precisely so they run lengthways, to visually increase the narrow width.

Mirrors, lighting and storage solutions

A great touch is a trio of framed mirrored panels along the right-hand wall, each partly screened by a shaggy-headed olive tree set into a pale grey dolly tub, and underplanted with lavender and aromatic herbs. 

The effect of the mirrors, giving the illusion of more space, is further softened by the use of acrylic mirror, which Woods says doesn’t pick up fine detail, and, as a bonus, is cost effective. 

Across the way, two shrubby honeysuckles, Lonicera nitida, make unusual but effective evergreen topiary trees. 

“People usually choose lollipop bays, but they get big and aggressive, whereas lonicera reacts well to being clipped tightly, and gives a crisp, tactile finish.” Good lighting is important, but it’s easy to overdo it in a small space. 

Woods restricted the lighting scheme to an uplighter in the grey pebble mulch beneath the honeysuckle trees, a light beneath the multi-stemmed amelanchier in the back left-hand corner, and a downlighter at the top of the stairs, for safety. Fat candles on the table at night add a special atmosphere. 

There is even space for storage, beneath the L-shaped seating that has a lift-up lid, while in the cavity beneath the steps, an outdoor broom cupboard is kept dry with a new felt roof. 

The amelanchier tree bursts into blossom in spring, and is soon followed by white Mont Blanc alliums, Spring Green tulips and, at the front of the garden, near the steps, a climbing hydrangea. 

In summer, they are succeeded by the white frothy flowerheads of Hydrangea Annabelle and a fragrant evergreen jasmine. Woods has turned this awkward little courtyard into a gorgeous garden that, once inside, you really wouldn’t want to leave.

Tony Woods can be commissioned at gardenclublondon.co.uk

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