How to design small gardens
Charlotte Rowe MSGD gives advice on what to consider when creating pocket gardens
Designing a small garden makes one really consider all elements very carefully, before discarding any clutter and paring things down to the basics. It is not often recognised that small gardens are such a challenge and in many ways more taxing for a designer than large spaces. A small urban garden needs to look good at all times as it tends to be visible from all points in a house, and this makes it difficult to plant effectively for seasonal interest.
The detailing has to be bang on; and the hard landscaping materials need to be fit for purpose and look right with the interiors of the house. Most important of all, the design itself has to be sharp, arresting and accurate – every inch of space counts and any mistakes in the design, detailing or dimensioning are immediately obvious.
Taking the brief
One of the first things I establish when taking an initial enquiry from a client is the actual size, as small means different things to different people. Next I try to establish how they want to use the garden and some basic idea of what they want in it - there is always a danger that they want to squeeze too much in. It is also important to steer them away from putting lawns in small gardens. A tiny patch of lawn looks ridiculous and incongruous - better by far to have paving or gravel broken up with planting or planted rills to ensure that the space looks green and not too hard.
It is important to not be afraid to discuss budget right at the outset. Small gardens tend to be more expensive per square metre than large gardens, simply because a larger proportion of the garden needs to be given over to hard landscaping such as paving and fencing. This can sometimes come as a bit of a shock to a client, who simply wants an external extension to their house – an outdoor room – and has no idea that outdoor spaces can cost substantially more than an equivalent indoor space, due to cost of the materials and the additional workmanship involved due to the effects of weather.
It sounds really basic, but it is especially important to carry out a really accurate site survey – if the site survey of a small garden is inaccurate, you will run into trouble. For example, in one early design I placed a 12m-long water feature running right down the garden close to the side boundary as an important focal point from the kitchen window, but when we came to set out the garden with the landscape team, we found that the garden was slightly narrower at the far end, so we quite literally ran out of width for the water feature, which entailed a partial redesign at the last moment.
Distribution of space
A key objective in designing a small garden is to make it look and feel larger. We achieve this in many ways but one important element is the distribution of the space and how it is broken up. It is much better to break up a small space into zones so that the eye can travel through the space and is fooled about how large the area is. This can be achieved using elements such as hedging, rills, planting beds or trees or hardscaping such as raised beds or built-in benches. The quickest way to make a small or smallish space look even smaller is to have an expanse of one material, whether it be lawn or paving, right across the space running from boundary to boundary.
Materials and palette
The hard landscaping is the bone structure of any garden and this is never more important than in a small space. While the planting can evolve and change - indeed, can be replanted if conditions or needs change - the hard landscaping needs to have durability and please for a long time. Therefore, it is important that top-quality materials are used and that the number of finishes, materials and colours are limited in a small garden.
As most small urban gardens are visible from the house, it is important that the look complements the interiors of the house so one of my first questions is about finishes and colour palette in the rooms closest to the garden. You can’t always expect an exact match but I go to great lengths to get the flooring inside and out either in the same material or in a good complementary finish. This often means encouraging the client (and the architect if one is involved) to choose the external finish first as most stone flooring used inside cannot be used out of doors.
One of the key problems with a small enclosed urban garden is that you often have two microclimates in one garden – for example, a shady knoll under a wall on one side and a hot exposed Mediterranean planting bed on the other - and it can be a challenge to mesh these two areas together. As with materials, do not make the mistake of introducing too many plant varieties into small gardens and terraces.
Use rhythm and repetition – this will help make the space look calm and measured. Make sure there is enough green architecture to ensure that the garden looks good all year.
We have never designed or built a garden without lighting. It is absolutely crucial to have some lighting in a town garden and I view it as a key element of the design ab initio. Keep the lighting you choose simple. Don’t over-light and concentrate lighting on any trees, pots and any vertical surfaces you have.
Though challenging, working on a small design project allows one to see the result quickly, and there is a certain satisfaction and gratification in making something really beautiful out of what at first appears to be a totally impossible space.