Make a small garden special

There are many ingenious ways to make a small garden unique
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For every design problem, there is a solution, and in garden designer Annie Guilfoyle’s case, there are probably several. Guilfoyle, who is also the garden design director of KLC School of Design based at Hampton Court Palace, specialises in transforming pocket-sized town gardens, which she finds challenging and fun.

“They’re easier than large gardens because when you have a small space, you have to be more selective,” says Guilfoyle. “Everything in that space has to have two, or even three functions. If you have a retaining wall, it needs to double as seating as well as storage. If you have garden steps, use the sides to display containers. I’ve even made a functional handrail look like a piece of sculpture.

“Of course, you must have hard-working plants, such as astrantia, that flower from April to November, as well as trees such as amelanchier that provide beautiful leaf buds and white flowers in spring, dark red berries in summer, great autumn colour and lovely bark in winter. Think of it as multitasking.”

‘With a small garden you need to draw the eye in different directions’

The side alley that gets you to the garden is probably the most awkward space to tackle but Guilfoyle has plenty of ideas. “You can probably touch both sides with your hands, it’s dark, and often the kitchen-sink view is the opposite boundary wall. For many people it’s the only access to the back garden, so it has to stay a corridor. But there are things you can do to create an illusion of space and light.

“You can turn the paving to a 45-degree angle, which gives the impression of a wider space. Small units of paving will also make the space look larger. Paint the walls a soft pastel shade, which will reflect the light; avoid white, which is too bright and glaring.

“I’ve hung a piece of sculpture on a wall so that the kitchen window always looks onto something interesting, yet it takes no space. I’ve added triangular planters at intervals down a side passage so they made a chevron pattern that created a winding path; one of the planters concealed a nasty drain. Choose plants in pale shades that recede, so they don’t leap out at you, closing in the walls. These are all effective devices that don’t intrude into the space.”

Blur the boundaries

The first thing Guilfoyle does with a simple, square courtyard or town garden is lose the boundaries. “By masking the boundaries with plants you change the perception of the space; the eye doesn’t know where the garden begins or ends. If your French windows face the opposite wall, you’re constantly reminded of how shallow the space is. The solution is to turn the garden on an angle, so you explore the longer view.

Dividing a long, thin garden with screens of greenery allows you to peek through to the next section
© GAP Photos/Elke Borkowski
Dividing a long, thin garden with screens of greenery allows you to peek through to the next section
“Perhaps you can add a piece of sculpture, not at the centre, which is the obvious place, but to one side, so it draws your attention to the corner. With small gardens and courtyards you need to lead your eye in different directions with an artwork, a water feature, a beautiful pot or even a particular feature plant.”

Whatever your space, Guilfoyle urges against putting the whole garden on show. In the long, thin garden, which Guilfoyle calls the bowling alley, she suggests a strategy of giving enticing glimpses rather than showing the whole stretch. “It’s great to have a long, skinny garden because you can have several different rooms, each with a different atmosphere but you need to be able to sneak a look from one to the next so you don’t feel you have the Berlin Wall between each one.

‘Even in a tiny garden, you can mask off sections to fool the eye’

“In one garden I planted a yew hedge but cut out a postbox shape, so you had an enticing sliver of a through-view. Install a hedge or barrier or planting that people have to navigate, so you create a winding path, and make a feature at the end, such as a seating area or your vegetable plot, so the journey leads to a destination.

“You could suggest a division with a row of pleached trees such as hornbeam or pear that have bare trunks at the base and greenery on high, making an elevated hedge; this is a great idea for creating privacy from surrounding buildings, too.”

Even in a tiny garden, believes Guilfoyle, you can mask off sections to fool the eye. “I’ve deliberately blocked off the view from my kitchen window with a large, handsome photinia, so I don’t see the whole picture. It invites me to go out and see it all and have a little journey. I’ve also planted a lot of evergreens in front of my French windows so the garden looks good even in the middle of February.

“In reality it probably looks like a bomb’s hit the borders, but I don’t see that because the view I have is rather nice.”

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