Creating a Small Garden

The tiniest outdoor space, even if it stretches to no more than a few square metres, is easy to transform into a beautiful garden.

You can develop a fine garden almost anywhere. All you need is a little open space - preferably one that receives daylight - and conditions that will allow plants to grow.

Natural soil helps, but is by no means necessary, since many a good garden has been laid out entirely in containers or with raised beds filled with potting compost.

And you don't need to be wealthy to develop a garden from scratch. All the following ideas can be carried out with minimal expenditure and yet will give you lasting pleasure and satisfaction.

With a canny design and well-chosen plants, your small garden can be made to look as attractive in the depths of winter as it will in high summer. What's more, you could even coax a little food from your miniature plot.

The Garden

With any garden, size need not be a limiting factor. Once that is understood, all that remains is to make the best possible use of the space available. Whether you are designing a couple of acres or less than a hundred square feet, the first thing you need to do is work out exactly what you want out of your garden. Here are some possibilities that you might wish to consider:

  • Will you want to raise food at home? If so, is there room for a single fruit tree, a small vegetable area or, at the very least, a few herbs?
  • Does the area receive direct sunlight and if so, is there enough space for outdoor seating?
  • How keen are you on plants? Will you want a collection of interesting varieties, or just enough to green up the plot and add a touch of colour?
  • How private is the area and how private will you want it to be? If it is a back garden, with seating, chances are you will want all the privacy you can get. But in a shared garden, or frontage, privacy will be less critical.
  • Will your garden be used by small children? If so, you may need a play area and will want to ensure that water features are safe and that all other potential hazards are eliminated.

Design in the Small Garden

If you are designing your small garden from scratch, here are some special recommendations:

Make it look bigger. Clever designers will create the impression of more space than there really is. You can do this by arranging screens, fences, archways or other divisions that appear to lead to different areas.

Provide some mystery. Concealing parts of the garden from immediate view also helps to add a little mystery, making a stroll round the plot a far more interesting experience as well as giving the impression of greater size.

Close off a small area. Even in a tiny plot, you will need to close certain areas off from general view: your compost bay, perhaps a small garden shed, the place where you propagate young plants.

Plan a vista. If you have a long, narrow plot, try to arrange for a central vista - a very narrow view. Viewed from one point, your eye could be led down the full length of the garden, whereas from all other angles, vision is blocked off.

Get the scale right. Pay very close attention to scale, with both plants and structures. It is easy to scale down the size of trees and shrubs by selecting varieties that have a mature look while still quite small.

Although completely out of scale, sometimes a big plant in a small garden creates a dramatic flourish. Try planting a big single mullein, a huge-leaved Rheum palmatum or perhaps even a group of three big sunflowers in a prominent spot.

Planting a Small Garden

The smaller the garden, the more careful you must be with your plant selection. Every shrub, tree or herbaceous plant must provide the best possible display and help to create the garden's structure. You will need small trees and clipped or shapely shrubs for a pleasing outline; plenty of in-fill plants to create the desired mood and style and a small selection of specimen plants to develop dramatic displays at different seasons.

What Plants?

Go for your favourites, and then find out which varieties have the best blooms, the longest flowering season, the most attractive growth habits and so on. A rose that flowers ceaselessly from June to November, for example, is a far better choice than a variety that blooms only once.

Look for plants with an added bonus. Those with beautiful seeds or berries as well as blossoms will provide a double display. Choose plants whose autumn colouring is beautiful as well as spring flower.

Consider the importance of handsome winter outline, in naked trees or shrubs, as well as the lush foliage of summer and choose plants accordingly.

Make a checklist of plants and ensure that you are providing yourself with flower for the whole year, and not just spring and summer. Winter and autumn flowers suitable for small gardens are listed at the end of the leaflet.

Care with colour is more important in a small garden than anywhere else. A single wrong plant might be lost among the rest in a large area, but in a small one it will stand out like a sore thumb. Plan your colours carefully, therefore, and keep your selections as simple as possible. Remember too, that foliage can provide almost as much variety of colour as can flower, but usually in a softer, more muted manner. Use strong colours, if you like them, but use them sparingly for a greater effect.

There is no need to be too long-term in a tiny garden. If there are trees or shrubs that you long to grow, plant them, enjoy them, but be ready to take them out when they become too large or too crowded.

Managing a Small Garden

Maintaining a small garden is simple and need take up only a little of your time. As with all small spaces, planning is helpful and if you have made room in your design for a small service area where compost can be made and propagation carried out, so much the better.

Composting is as important in a small garden as anywhere else. A single bin, or one or two small wooden bays will suffice. Kitchen scraps, so long as they don't contain cereals or meat products, compost well with garden waste. If you have no lawn, the absence of fresh grass clippings, which rot very quickly, will make your compost a little fibrous. Use a compost activator to hasten rotting.

Weed control is easy. Small areas can be kept weed free if you spare a few minutes each day pulling any unwanted plants out by hand. Leave these to dry on the surface, or better still, compost them.

Lawn care. If you do have grass, the chances are that there will be heavy wear and tear, if the garden is very small. Sink stepping stones or pavers into parts of the lawn that are frequently walked over. Weed and feed your grass every spring, and don't mow too close. Very tiny lawns can be kept in trim with sharp shears. Alternatively, consider a chamomile or a thyme lawn.

Rotating plastic compost bins results in speedy production of good compost - sometimes within a few weeks. Try to balance your mix between wet and dry material and turn your bin regularly to ensure crumbliness.

Food From Small Gardens

Although production will be limited by the size of your plot, you will be pleasantly surprised at how much food a tiny vegetable patch can produce.

Go for long-running vegetables: courgettes for summer, when a single plant will produce two or three courgettes a week; purple-sprouting broccoli for winter, whose young shoots can be cut and cut until the plant is exhausted.

Select prolific tomato varieties such as 'Sungold' for a long run of tiny fruits, or stand containers about, planted with the variety 'Tumbler'.

Spinach is efficient with space, too, producing a constant supply of fresh green leaves.

When buying vegetable seeds, select special dwarf varieties. There are dwarf runner beans, for example, as well as miniature curly kale and compact broad beans. Spring cabbages are smaller and neater than winter ones.

If you have room for a single fruit tree, select a self-pollinating variety such as 'Victoria' plum, or 'Conference' pear. Alternatively, purchase a so-called 'family' apple tree that has several varieties to a single trunk.

Using Containers in a Small Garden

Containers can double the impact in a small space, especially if there is a limited area of natural soil. Use them in rotation to extend the season, and to ring the changes whenever the mood suits you. If you want a trouble-free container garden, install an automatic watering system.

Special Problems With Small Gardens

Too much shade. The commonest problem, especially in gardens overshadowed by buildings. Paint surfaces white, or pale colours, and without compromising your privacy, remove any unnecessary screening or fencing. Prune or thin out any overhanging tree branches and site flower borders in the best lit position. Select shade-tolerant plants, including ferns, and use foliage rather than flower to create your special effects in dense shade.

Too narrow and thin. Take advantage of this by developing a long, enticing vista but try also to divide the plot up into discrete rooms, each with a different theme. You can have great fun arranging small seating areas so they face across the garden, each with a different viewpoint.

Eyesores. Unsightly objects such as ventilator outlets, electric poles and fuel tanks may need to be concealed. You may also want to blot out an ugly horizon. Take care to site shrubs, screens or trees to disguise the view, but avoid the mistake of making your masking plants or screens so obvious that they draw attention to the object they are supposed to conceal.

Awkward shape. L shapes, or gardens that disappear round corners, pose tricky design questions. The secret is to take advantage of any special quirks, and to design round them, rather than trying to go against them. Use narrow corners to create arbours, for example, or plant up thin necks of land with conspicuous or interesting varieties so that they become a pleasure to walk through.

Best Plants for Small Gardens

Scaled-down trees

Holly, bay, Portuguese laurel - all trimmable to any size. Magnolia stellata, Amelanchier, Laburnum, Malus 'Golden Hornet,' Prunus amanogawa, Arbutus unedo. Also Japanese maples, either in containers or open ground.

Scaled-down shrubs

Myrtle, Box, Lavender, Rosemary, Santolina and Genista. Also Cornus alba varieties which can be pollarded (cut very hard back) every year to enjoy the young stems.

Autumn plants

Michaelmas daisies, Colchicums, Crocosmia, Schizostylis, Korean chrysanthemums and Rudbeckia.

Winter plants

Snowdrops, winter aconites, Hellebores, Bergenia, Chaenomeles, Sarcococca and winter jasmine.

Shade specials

Iris foetidissima, all ferns, Hostas, lily of the valley, primroses, Heuchera, Vinca and Solomon's seal.

Repeating perennials for long season

Penstemons, dahlias, Argyranthemum, some salvias, some hardy geraniums and Phygelius.

Plant List

Here you'll find a list of different types of plants along with optimum planting times/seasons for them.

Alpines & Rock Plants

Plants Optimum Planting Time
Aubrieta March - June
Cushion saxifrages February - May
Cyclamen (Hardy) September - November
Helianthemums (Sun roses) March - June
Primula marginata March - June


Plants Optimum Planting Time
Californian poppies (Eschscholzia) March - June
Candytuft (Iberis) March - June
Cornflowers (Centaurea) October - May
Larkspurs (Consolida) October - May
Shirley poppies (Papaver) October - May
Scented stocks (Matthiola) October - May


Plants Optimum Planting Time
Alliums October - May
Botanical tulips October - November
Crocuses September - November
Fritillaries September - November

Grasses & Herbaceous Plants

Plants Optimum Planting Time
Alchemilla mollis (ladies mantle) October - June
Hostas October - May
Iris sibirica October - May
Ligularia October - May
Miscanthus March - June
Succulent sedums All Year


Plants Optimum Planting Time
Basil April - June
Chamomile March - May, June
Chives October - June
Coriander April - June
Lavender (Lavandula) March - July
Oregano October - May
Thyme October - May


Plants Optimum Planting Time
Acaena (New Zealand Burr) March - June
Brachyglottis greyii (Senecio) October - June
Japanese maples (Acer palmatum) March - June
Nandina April - July
Rosemary (Rosmarinus) March - July
Rock roses (Cistus) March - July
Santolina October - June
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