How to: Guide To Designing A Small Garden

1

Whether it’s a courtyard, roof terrace or tiny plot, a small space can offer big potential if designed with care. There’s a trend to think of gardens as outdoor rooms, and this is particularly true when it comes to small gardens, which can be a valuable extension to the home. They’re often paved or decked, so you can walk from home to garden in slippers if you like.

Points to consider carefully when planning a small garden include storage and space saving ideas – boundaries will need to be chosen with great thought, too, as you’re more aware of them than you are in a bigger space. It’s also likely that you’ll want to block out neighbouring properties and make the space as private as possible.

Here are the points to consider when creating a design for a small garden.

Work out your plan

Start with a list

First, create a list of all the practical features you need to include – don’t forget washing lines, wheelie bins and barbecues. You need to be realistic about what you’ll need, as well as what you’d like.

What will you use your garden for?

Decide if you want to pack the plot with hundreds of plants or you would rather use the space for entertaining the whole family?

2

Would you like a theme for your small garden?

Colour themes work well in tight spaces. Choose whites in a shady garden, but avoid this colour in a south-facing plot as it will be blinding. Hot colours will give an invigorating, party feel, whilst pastels offer a calming effect.

If you have a small city plot, tropical gardens work well – these gardens tend to be far more sheltered, so tender plants will thrive.

What permanent features do you need?

When choosing features for your small plot, don’t think small. One very large pot will add more impact than lots of small ones. Pack the garden with an eclectic mix of tiny pots and ornaments and it will soon look cluttered and feel smaller.

This principle also applies to garden furniture and features – one large garden ornament is far more effective than a collection.

Choose fencing, furniture, and sheds with care as they’ll form a major part of the garden – perhaps consider painting them or choosing examples that are a little more decorative than you’d find in most gardens. How about a shed with living green roof, for example?

Be clever with storage

Talking of storage, it will pay to be smart here. Choose benches that double up as storage boxes, and if you can’t fit in a shed, consider a storage cupboard that will fit your bikes and tools. Invest in furniture that can be left outside all year, and try to avoid buying garden games, hammocks and parasols you can’t store.

Which way does your garden face?

A south-facing plot will be sunny and ideal for lounging in the sun all day. You might want to consider adding some shade here.

North-facing gardens offer the least amount of light and can be damp.
East-facing gardens get morning sunlight, so a table for breakfast might work well here.

West-facing plots get afternoon and evening sun, which is the perfect space for evening barbecues, so plan lighting and a built-in garden kitchen to suit.

You’ll also need to choose the plants that grow well in each aspect. For example, a north-facing plot will be ideal for hostas but won’t be suitable for sun lovers such as herbs.

5

Consider the setting

Town and city gardens are often small and overlooked. Climbers are ideal plants for decorating fencing, providing privacy and adding height to a tight space. A screen of plants will also reduce noise levels from neighbouring gardens.

Remember, you’ll need planning permission to put up a fence over 2m high. There’s no restriction when it comes to hedge height, but if you allow them to grow too tall, you’ll cut out your light and affect plant growth – they might also start to bulk out, making your garden feel smaller.

On the other hand, if you have a view you want to welcome in, think about how to frame it with specimen plants [ link to /ideas-and-advice/how-tos/spring/how-to-plant-a-statement-pot/ here ] or features – although if you use lighting or water features that make a sound, remember to consider your neighbours. Don’t shine a light up into their bedroom window!

Will you need landscaping?

Lawns are a wonderful addition to any garden, but if space is limited for storage of mowers you might want to opt for hard landscaping instead. [link to landscaping patio feature when live or how to lay a patio video]

Decking and paving are far more popular than gravel in small plots, as gravel can easily find its way into the house. Remember, though, that paving and decking will need cleaning as they can become very slippery. And don’t instantly discount lawns, as a garden that’s completely landscaped can cause problems in areas of high rainfall.

4

It’s a good idea to play with perspective in small gardens. If you place a bench or enticing feature at the far end of the garden, it will draw the eye to the end of the plot and make it feel larger.

Planting ornamental and/or edible plants in containers and raised beds is a popular option for small gardens. Choose trees and shrubs that won’t outgrow their space too quickly, particularly very invasive bamboos and trees and shrubs.

What is your budget?

As your garden is small you might be in a position to invest more heavily in furniture and landscape materials. If you’re only buying a few paving slabs why not have the best?

Our Top 10 pointers for planning a small garden

  • Plan how you want to use the space – for gardening or entertaining.
  • Consider your boundaries. Fencing, hedging and trellis are all ideal.
  • If storage of mowers is an issue avoid having a lawn.
  • Invest in furniture that can be left outside all year.
  • Be clever with storage. Benches can double up as a storage box.
  • Fewer larger containers are more impactful than lots of tiny pots.
  • Link the garden to your home by using complimenting colours and materials.
  • Choose trees and shrubs that won’t outgrow their space too quickly.
  • Divide the space to create a private retreat in the plot.
  • Avoid water features and gravel in a family garden.


The next step: draw your plan

Once you’ve thought it through and made your list, it’s time to get out the graph paper and draw a plan. We’ve sketched out an example below – it features a small lawn but the space could be paved instead.

This small space has been divided into two with a pergola, which provides a frame to grow climbers, add height and create a more private patio if neighbours can look down the garden.

The circular lawn makes this narrow plot seem wider and there is easy access from the shed to the lawn for mowing. While we’ve featured a lawn, this space could be paved instead. Lastly, a bench placed at the far end of the plot will cheat the eye and make the garden look longer than it is.

3 Inspiring small garden designs

We’ve picked three designs we especially like, to give you an idea of the impact created by different garden designs.

3

The tropical look

Here, a double patio door opening out onto the garden brings the garden into the home and gives a feeling of space. Foliage plants, such as bamboos and tree ferns screen off the neighbours, add height and help to create an oasis of calm.
The raised beds keep soil away from floor surface and allow for low maintenance gardening. This design would be easy to keep clean and manage.
Image Credit: Alamy

2ndexample 

A small town garden with year-round colour

Dividing a small garden into two like this gives a feeling of space – it also allows you to create a retreat and a quiet corner to get away from it all. Choosing more than one landscape material for paths will bring year-round interest and make the journey to the end of the plot seem longer – the curve in the path has the same effect. The climbers here have been used here to great effect, too.
Image Credit: Peter Bird

6

Making the most of a tiny space

This very tiny plot has been transformed by using clever horizontal slatted fencing with mirrors inset to give a feeling of space and light. The containers and raised beds make for a low maintenance garden, while the lollipop standard olive trees create less of a block than a solid shrub.
The furniture is designed to be left in place all year so no storage is required.
Image: Garden Club London

Have you seen our guide to the first steps of garden design? Make sure you read it before you get to work...

Before You Start...

'Create a list of all the practical features you need. Don't forget washing lines, wheelie bins and barbecues.' - Tamsin Westhorpe, Dobbies Magazine Editor