Great ideas for small gardens

Whether you’re the owner of a balcony or a tiny town garden, small is beautiful, and a few simple guidelines will keep the impact high and the budget low.

Good design and planting are the basic ingedients for any successful garden, especially those where space is at a premium. The smaller your garden, the more important it is to get the design right first. Larger garden spaces can get away with the odd bed of weeds or neglected corner, but a small space is open to greater scrutiny. It’s better to have a plan and stick to it – as well as a budget – as you can always stagger the work and cost over time. My own experience of low-budget gardens has never meant I’ve had to compromise. On the contrary, it’s stimulated more creative ideas…

Before you begin
Write a list to clarify your needs and expectations. Don’t forget the mundane details, such as refuse, washing lines or a shed. Consider who’s using the garden, from the children to the guinea pig, before making any creative decisions. Consider, too, enlisting professional help – advice from an experienced garden designer may save you time and money. Choosing a theme is a useful design tool, too.

Popular themes include Japanse, cottage, Mediterranean and contemporary. Decide if you want to go for an informal or formal theme. Most small gardens limit the opportunities for a more natural, informal approach and so suit a sense of order.
However, there are no rules, and I’ve enjoyed a stunning woodland garden at Capel Manor, Enfield, created in an area no larger than 6m x 6m. They used several Betula utilis var. jacquemontii – these are small and don’t cast deep shade, and their ghostly white trunks look beautiful. The magic of a woodland garden makes an ideal child’s play area, and is low maintenance, too.
For a more formal approach, either traditional or contemporary, the Japanese garden is one of my favourite styles, offering a quiet space to relax. The gold-medal-winning Daily Telegraph garden at Chelsea 2001 put Japanese gardens on the map, ensuring there are even more materials and plants available to create your own Japanese retreat. Now, there are over 200 Japanese gardens you can visit in the UK. One of the oldest and most beautiful is at Tatton Park in Cheshirem, and the one at Capel Manor inspired the first garden design I ever did.

There are various tricks that can make a small garden seem much bigger than it actually is. In a particularly small basement area or courtyard, carefully placed mirrors – perhaps with trellis over them – completely fool the onlooker, making the area appear to be twice the size.

Cool colours, such as blues, pale yellows and purple, will help a space recede, by appearing to be further away. Hot colours, such as red and orange, will give the opposite effect, appearing closer than their true position. Choosing cooler, paler colours in a small area will certainly make it appear larger than if you were to use rich, hot colours.

Foliage size
Using small-leaved foliage in a small area can create a feeling of more space – particularly if used at the end of the garden, helping the space to recede. Large=-leaved foliage will appear to be closer. However, a large garden space dominated by architectural foliage and several large-leaved plants can create the feeling of being surrounded by a larger space, while, at the same time, you’ll experience an intimate and meditative environment.

Small gardens are ideal for really indulging yourself with scented and aromatic plants. The most strongly scented flowers are often white or insignificant, but have a more seductive way of making themselves known – smell.
Always check the conditions a plant needs before placing it anywhere, to ensure that it gives its best performance.
Daphne tangutica Retusa Group are dwarf forms of this deliciously scented evergreen shrub. White to purple-red flowers appear during late spring and early summer. They need well-drained, humus-rich soil, which doesn’t dry out, in full sun or dappled shade. Buy one now.
Also flowering at this time of year is Syringa meyeri ‘Palibin’, which is a slow-growing, compact deciduous shrub, much valued for its abundant clusters of fragrant, lavender-pink flowers.
Grow in fertile, well-drained soil in full sun.
Right outside my kitchen door, the spicy fragrance of Lilium regale fills the aire in mid-summer.
I grow them in large terracotta pots, where they thrive. Ensure good drainage and plenty of organic matter, in sun or partial shade, for an elegant display. I use aluminium spirals to support their tail 2m stems, and enjoy their dried seed-head state will into the winter.

Don’t forget the trees
Trees in a small garden must be carefully chosen. They can provide shade, attractive bark and flowers, as well as autumn tints, not to mention the gentle sound of rustling leaves.
Small trees will also be happy in a large container. Japanese maples are excellent for gardens of any size, and do really well in large pots. Choose terracotta or wood, which are porous, and ensure good drainage and plenty of organic matter. I successfully grow Acer palmatum ‘Sangokaku’ in a half wooden barrel – its bright coral-red sterns and brances glow after the leaves have fallen and look stunning. Grow in well-prepared, moisture-retaining (yet excellently drained) soil, with a high organic content. Position in sun or partial shade with good shelter, and avoid an east-facing aspect, where cold winds and morning sun after frosts can cause damage to young leaves.

Trees for small gardens could include…
Malus coronaria ‘Charlottae’ – a decidious, fragrant tree, which has pale pink flowers in spring.
Cornus ‘Eddie’s White Wonder’ – also decidious, this multi-stemmed tree bears small purple flowers surrounded by large white bracts.
Amelanchier x. grandiflora ‘Ballerina’- a decidious, spring-flowering tree, with a stunning autumn colour. Grows best in neutral to acid soil, in sun or partial shade.

Star plant list
For a woodland garden, Betula utilis var. jacquemontii
For a Japanese garden, Acer palmatum ‘Sango-kaku’
For a scented garden, Daphne tangutica Retusa Group, Syringa meyeri ‘Palibin’, Lilium regale
Small trees: Malus coronaria ‘Charlottae’, cornus ‘Eddie’s white Wonder’, Amelanchier x. grandiflora ‘Ballerina’.

Garden notebook

How to prune roses
This is a straightforward job, but you need to do it well to get good flowering growth. Here are a few tips…

For all roses:
Cut out diseased, dead wood and weak, spindly growth.
Cut back strong, healthy growth, just above a bud.
Cut at an angle, away from the bud.
You should leave an even framework.

Floribunda (clustered flowers): Cut back main stems by 20-25 cm, and side shoots by half, leaving five to seven buds on each stem from the base, with about six stems on each bush.
Bush roses: Cut back old, diseased wood to promote new growth, and deadhead flower stems, every year. Cut back main stems to three to five buds on large flowered varieties, and five to seven buds on cluster-flowered ones.
Hybrid tea roses (large flowered): Cut the main stems back by half. Leave about three to five buds on each stem from the base, with abouty five stems on each bush.

What’s in bloom

Lysichiton americanus is an aquatic plant, with glossy, green leaves and yellow spathes – great grown next to a pond.
Anemone blanda ‘White Splendour’ produces pretty, large white flowers. Plant tubers in autumn for a stunning spring display.
Daphne mezereum shows off clusters of pinky-purplish fragrant flowers in early spring, followed by fruit.
Crocus tommasinius is a must. The flowers vary from silvery lilac to rich purple.

Garden to visit

Trelissick, Truro, Cornwall, 01872 862090
One of Cornwall’s many garden gems, Trelissick is a 30-acre garden above the Carrick Roads estuary. Look out for cyclamen, underplantings or erythroniums at this time of year, and the masses of woodland foxgloves in late spring. Adults 4,50, children 2,25, family ticket, 11,25.

Q: I’d like to put a wooden screen in my garden. What do you suggest?
A: Homegrown bamboo looks great cut down and tied with cord, but don’t nail it, or the wood will split. Cut the canes above a joint where they’re more solid. Try Phyllostachys nigra, and Phyllostachys aureosulcata ‘Aureacaulis’. Always dry bamboo before using.

Things to do in March
  • Mulch beds and borders while the soil is moist, so you don’t have to water as much, later on in the season;
  • Prepare vegetable beds;
  • Prune overghanging hedges, so they don’t throw too much shade on plants below;
  • In borders, naturalise autumn-flowering Cyclamen hederifolium;
  • Weed the borders and beds;
  • Feed the lawn.