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Gardens: Small but perfectly formed

Elly West has plenty of tips for good garden design in a limited city space

Most of my adult years have been spent in London, where any kind of garden is a luxury. And even here in Bristol, a typical city garden is rarely going to be large. But while gardening in built-up areas brings many challenges – the most common being how to maximise the available space – it also creates opportunities to make a beautiful haven of calm away from the hustle and bustle of urban living.

City gardening is extremely important from an environmental perspective as well, providing corridors for nature and helping to absorb those carbon emissions. And there’s a real opportunity, in a small space, to get it right and create something that’s extremely manageable and useable as an outdoor room. Most gardens evolve over time and without an overall plan, but in a small space it’s perhaps even more important to focus on a strong initial design, to create a green oasis that will bring hours of pleasure.

When I’m designing small spaces, I see the same issues frustrating garden owners time and time again. Lack of privacy is probably the most common, also traffic noise, and shade cast by neighbouring properties or trees in other gardens. There is often nothing to ‘discover’ and the garden can all be seen at once. Here are my tips for good garden design in a small space…

Think about the hard landscaping. This is what will give your garden structure and backbone and includes paving, raised beds and any fences or walls. It’s worth paying as much as you can afford on getting this right and choosing the best materials, especially if you’re only covering a small area. Less is often more, so keep things simple for a more cohesive look, and avoid mixing too many different colours and materials.Improve your boundaries. If privacy is an issue, raise the boundaries with trellis, then grow plants against them. Aim to lose the edges of your garden with clever planting. It will bring the garden in but will actually make it feel bigger, as you won’t be able to see where it finishes. Bold planting also keeps your field of vision within the garden.

Add height. A pergola can make a seating area feel more private and provides extra vertical surfaces for growing plants as well. Consider adding a roof made of spaced slats of cedar or similar, which will let light through while creating a private and secluded space.

Hide any eyesores. In a small space it becomes even more important to tuck away anything that’s not adding to your view. All gardens need the practical stuff – storage, recycling and so on. But bins can be put out of sight in a store, preferably with a green roof planted with sedums, and turned into an attractive feature. A shed may just need a lick of paint and some trellis fixed to it, along with a climber or two.

Choose hard-working plants. Plants need to work harder in a small space, so choose them for texture and year-round appeal. Do they look good as they fade? Do they offer any winter colour or structure? You might prefer a restricted colour palette such as green and white, to avoid the border looking too ‘busy’ and make it more restful on the eye.

Ditch the lawn. In a small space, a lawn can be more trouble than it is worth. Pathways leading through planting to unseen areas beyond can be more enticing and interesting than a flat rectangle of grass the size of a postage stamp.

One Bristol-based couple who have definitely got it right when it comes to gardening in a small space are Rachel and Chris Wilkins, who live in a Victorian terrace in Montpelier. Their garden was among the finalists in the BBC Gardeners’ World ‘Every Space Counts’ competition to find the best tiny garden, and was featured on the programme in May.Rachel and Chris Wilkins’ garden was a finalist in the ‘Every Space Counts’ competition

Entering their 25-square-metre plot in the height of summer is like stepping into a slice of tropical paradise, with lush planting crammed into every conceivable corner. Everything looks like it’s thriving. A large banana plant dominates, its huge leaves glowing in tones of red and orange backlit by the sun. Both architects by trade, Rachel and Chris have created this urban sanctuary in less than two years, after completing extensive building work on the house.

“When we moved here, the garden was narrow and skinny with no sun,” explains Chris. “We knocked down an extension and built another, changing the shape of the garden from a long north-facing rectangle, with no light, to a more open square.”

Knocking down the extension also meant they had hundreds of bricks they could reclaim and use to pave the space. The resulting brick paths and raised beds have a rustic appeal, creating strong lines and angles, softened with exuberant planting.

Although the space is a fairly typical city garden, surrounded by houses on all sides, it does not feel at all overlooked, partly because of the tall fences topped with horizontal slatted cedar, but mainly because all the attention is drawn into the garden, which has pathways, a seating area, storage shed (cleverly hiding the water butt), a potting area on top of a wood store, and plants-a-plenty. Pots are everywhere, allowing Chris and Rachel to provide plants with specific growing conditions and their preferred soil type.

The garden is divided into two distinct areas in terms of its planting. The area nearest one side of the house is stuffed with shade-loving ferns, hostas, acanthus and astrantias, while further away from the house the planting is more tropical, with the large banana plant, plus cannas, dahlias, protea, banksea and euphorbias – not to mention herbs and pots of edibles – squeezed in around the seating area. “We cram plants in and if they don’t survive the cramming we take them out,” laughs Rachel.


Inspired by Chris and Rachel’s beautiful jungly garden, this month’s focus is the banana, the toughest of which is probably Musa basjoo. Grown for its ornamental foliage, rather than its fruits, this banana is well suited to small courtyard gardens as it likes warmth and shelter. Although this variety is fairly hardy and can be left in situ over winter, it’s best to wrap it in some horticultural fleece before the first hard frosts. In colder gardens you could grow it in a pot and bring it under cover for the winter months in a greenhouse or conservatory. Plants can reach 3-4m in height and are great for creating drama and a focal point with their huge, architectural leaves. In winter, cut off all the leaves just above the top of the stem, sloping the cut away from the stem so the water runs off it, then wrap it up until spring time, when new leaves will start to emerge.


Featured image: City gardening is important environmentally, providing corridors for nature and helping to absorb carbon emissions