The key to a great city garden, says professional gardener Andi Clevely, is to make the space work hard — without thinking small. “Introduce different levels to increase space. Use walls for plants, storage space and built-in seating. A raised bed could accommodate a pool, vegetables and trailing plants as well as seating along the edges. Sliding doors from the house save ground space for containers and allow house and garden to blend seamlessly.”
In his book City Garden (Frances Lincoln, £10.99), Clevely points out that urban spaces need their own particular set of design rules. Boundaries draw attention to themselves and instantly define the size of the garden, so blur them by concealing walls with plants, panelling or latticework trellis. “Used architecturally, wooden trellis can achieve an almost baroque exuberance that needs no embellishment with plants — especially if it is painted in a complementary colour or combined with a trompe l’oeil mirror for added depth and an element of surprise.”
Mirrors can suggest secret places yet to explore but make sure they display a general part of the garden; reflecting a prominent urn or statue, for instance, can destroy credibility. You can also use mirrors to reflect more light into gloomy areas such as stairwells and passageways, perhaps combining mirrors or mirror tiles with glass brick steps and divisions.
Divert the eye
If your plot is long and narrow — like most of London’s back gardens — Clevely suggests ways to divert the eye from whizzing down to the end. The most effective trick is to subdivide the length with screens of hedging, trellis, woven willow or bamboo, so that you make separate “rooms”, each with a different atmosphere; a doorway or arched opening will invite the onlooker in to explore the unseen areas. A straight central path accentuates length, so instead, meander the route down the garden or have paths at each side. You can also shorten the perspective — and stop the garden ending in a dull fizzle — by “losing” the end boundary with dense planting, a raised patio and steps or perhaps a climber-clad arbour.
Many town gardens are virtually enclosed courtyards, points out Clevely, and need a strong design strategy to detract from all those formal angles. A landscape with lots of dull straight lines should be thrown a few curves from, say, a circular pool, bed or paved area. Use plants as visual tools to soften the walls, perhaps even cover them with a cascade of greenery, as well as to add seasonal variety. Climbers, tall shrubs and fan-trained fruit will break up stark, high walls and make the atmosphere less oppressive. Painting the walls with light colours will help absorb sunlight and make the garden more inviting. Mosaics, murals and water features will all do their bit to minimise the hard edges and add a personal note.
If walls are very high, painting them to a height of about 4ft to 5ft draws the eye down to garden level. A screen of lattice panels set up as an open roof will break up the view but will still let in light.
Before laying paving or decking, think about the effect you want to create. Instead of echoing the square alignment of the walls, work on the diagonal, corner to corner, to create an illusion of space. Or defy the lie of the land by radiating strong directional lines in the floor that fan out from a doorway. A totally flat space with no vertical interest is likely to look bland. “Arranging terraced beds across or around a flat garden provides levels for imaginative combinations of climbing, trailing and wall plants, or for cascading water,” suggests Clevely.
Easy access to different levels might involve steps, which you should treat as a design feature: wide, shallow treads underscore the transition between levels and encourage a more leisurely pace.
There are many ways to exploit the vertical dimension, says Clevely, thus offering a roomier sense of privacy and a visual link between floor and sky. “Deploy a few oversize shrubs or trees, in tubs if necessary, to defy the garden’s scale. Tiered planting around the sides can produce a lush bank of foliage; include graceful arching plants such as maples, birch and crab apples to embroider the overhead view.
If you are overlooked, stretch strong wires from side to side above head height and train lightly foliaged plants such as grapes and kiwi fruit for privacy and dappled shade in summer. On a rooftop a canopy of pergola timbers could supply a reassuring sense of enclosure.”
Before you order in the Ionic columns, however, take note of Clevely’s words of caution, echoed by all good garden designers everywhere: “In small spaces, complexity and fussy detail rarely work as satisfactorily as understatement.”
* City Garden costs £10.99 but Homes & Property readers can buy the book for £8.80, including p & p, by calling 01235 827702, or visiting www.franceslincoln.com and quoting the reference code 46HPCG.