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Small gardens
In this guide we take a look at how to make the most of small gardens. It's also useful for helping to make the most of any space within a bigger garden.

Written by Thrive trustee and garden designer Richard Rogers.

  • A small garden allows any changes to be made easily and an uninspiring garden can be turned into something beautiful quickly
  • As they are usually very close to the house, small gardens can also be made to feel like an extension to the house and add an extra ‘outdoor room’ which can become a haven for relaxation and getting away from the pressures of indoor life
  • Even in the smallest of spaces you can benefit from having a connection with nature. Plants and the wildlife that will be attracted by them can have a range of benefits for your mental and emotional wellbeing

I first became interested in gardening when my parents allocated two small areas of the garden – one for me and one for my brother. I still remember some of the plants I grew all that time ago and the joy I felt from seeing the fruits (and flowers!) of my labours.

  • Start small and give a small area or even just a single pot to each of your kids and give them some easy things to grow (eg sunflowers, beans, annuals) so that they see the results quickly.
  • Give them plants that they like to eat – strawberries are loved by adults and children alike and it is very exciting to see the flower turn into a ripening juicy strawberry. They can also be easily propagated as they invariably send out ‘runners’ that can be pegged into another pot of compost, where they will root and magically form new plants.
  • Create separate spaces within the garden, separated by a section of trellis or willow hurdle and plant them with different different styles of plants. These could then become imaginary landscapes for the children to inhabit themselves or with their toys. For example you could make up a gritty mix of soil and plant Sempervivems and alpine plants, adding rocks and gravel to create a small desert landscape.

How to maximise your space

This may sound obvious but it is easy to accumulate things in the garden that have either outlived their usefulness or we simply haven’t got round to disposing of. We are good at ignoring these things, but if you bite the bullet and have a good clear out of all the old toys, frost damaged pots, left over building materials, things which you thought might be useful one day, but couldn’t fit in the shed etc – you can then see more clearly how much space you have and you are likely to start feeling better already.

A very small patch of lawn can look out of place and can actually be one of the highest maintenance parts of the garden. Small gardens often have the shade from neighbouring houses or trees and a lawn needs work to keep it healthy. Lawnmowers also take up more storage space than other garden tools. Instead think about using paving or gravel, broken up by flower beds to soften and green up the space.

The great thing about gardening with pots is that they are flexible and easy to maintain. You can rearrange your pots as different plants are looking at their best and have fun experimenting with different plant combinations. Limit the number of colours and different sizes of pots if you can as this feels more harmonious and relaxing. Including at least one really large pot is a good idea as it makes more of a statement and has more presence than several smaller pots. See our guide on planting containers for more ideas.

Planting Containers

Containers are a great way of producing growing space where very little seems to exist, such as on balconies or small outdoor spaces. They can create planting potential on a paved patio space or introduce different levels of planting by creating a tiered effect.

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When space is at a premium you can make the space feel bigger by utilising vertical surfaces. Green walls have become more popular and allow you to increase the amount of green in your garden by planting up a wall. Growing climbers up a fence or wall has a similar effect. Trachelospermum jasminoides is a good choice of climber as it is evergreen and provides a heavenly scent throughout the summer months.

You could get creative with how you grow plants as part of a green wall – for example planting in old tins or gutters secured to the wall or in the pockets of concrete breeze blocks – as seen below in a garden at RHS Chelsea Flower Show, designed by Tom Massey (inspired by the gardens created in Syrian refugee camps).

Small gardens 3

Adding structures such as arches, pergolas or simple obelisks lead your eye upwards, taking your attention away from the boundaries and make the space feel bigger. They also do this by breaking up the space and creating more interest. Large shrubs and trees also have this effect and it can really be worth considering adding a tree even in a small garden. There are plenty of trees that suit small gardens such as Amelanchier lamarckii which has a light canopy and a long season of interest.

If you have added a tree, they provide an invaluable habitat for wildlife. Other things you can do to welcome in more wildlife and make your space a more interesting place to be are:

  • Hang out bird feeders
  • Grow a range of flowering plants and shrubs, leaving the seed heads on
  • Add a water feature – they come in all shapes and sizes. Virtually any container with any holes sealed with liner or silicone can provide both an attractive focal point and become a magnet for wildlife.

Seating that does not take up too much space is a good idea. Small bistro furniture works well as the chairs can be folded up and it can be moved around easily. Another space saving device is to build bench seating into a boundary or retaining wall. These areas can become focal points and features in their own right.

Small garden 2
Mindfulness Garden designed by Richard Rogers

There are several tricks that are used by garden designers to make a space feel bigger than it really is. These include dividing up the space so that you don’t see the whole garden at once and including split levels, so that you the journey through the space seems longer. In 2019 I built a show garden, in support of Thrive, that included many of these tricks as the garden only measured 6x4 metres! If you would like to learn more, you can read my guide to designing small gardens.

See more interesting tips and guides from Richard Rogers at richardrogersdesigns.com

Cultivating Wellbeing in Gardens & Nature resource

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