Small garden design ideas

Transforming small outdoor spaces

Improving your garden, whether it’s a tiny terrace or a compact urban plot, can add value to your property.

When buying a property, a bit of outside space is a must for most of us but, as the average UK house reduces in size1, so too do our gardens. According to research by Wyevale Garden Centres – the largest garden centre retailer in the UK, gardens of new-builds are smaller today than they have ever been2, and many homes have only tiny balconies or slices of outdoor space; so how can we maximise their potential?

Research by the Federation of Master Builders has found that improvements to a garden can significantly increase the overall value of your property3 but, in a tiny plot, it can be hard to know where to start. We’ve asked a selection of garden experts for their tips on making the most of a modest outdoor space.


Get the groundwork right

In very small gardens, a lawn can be more trouble than it’s worth, so think about switching it for practical hard flooring instead, suggests Chelsea Gold Medal-winning garden designer Tony Woods from Garden Club London4.

Decking may be the obvious choice but consider more offbeat alternatives, too. “Large-format tiles instantly make a small space look bigger,” says Tony. “Porcelain tiles come in a range of finishes, are easy to clean and can be laid inside and out (in much the same way as conventional paving). Using these, you can really make your garden an extension of your living space.”

Tony also suggests faux grass, which is gaining in popularity. “It’s permeable, so water flows through it, and it’s an ideal playing surface for pets and children."

Garden designer Catherine Clancy5 adds a note of caution: “Don’t use too many materials in a small space. Aim for a maximum of three – paving, gravel and wooden fencing, for example. Gravel is a good, low-cost flooring solution and you can then add some paving slabs in key spots.”

For a quick fix, a pot of outdoor paint can be a useful and affordable garden tool. “Many gardens are enclosed with three or four different types of fence. By painting them one colour you create consistency,” says Tony. “A neutral shade or black can make any garden look bigger and create a good backdrop to show off your planting.”

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Be clever with containers

Improving your garden, whether it’s a tiny terrace or a compact urban plot, can add value to your property

Traditional borders swallow up a lot of space and aren’t essential, so think about arranging your garden in a different way. “Pots and containers give you flexibility and can be planted to reflect the seasons,” says garden designer Claudia de Yong6. Planting in pots may mean extra watering (container plants tend to dry out more quickly than those planted in the ground), but it also means you can give each plant just the treatment it needs.

As well as traditional container plants, such as tulips, geraniums or trailing petunias, plenty of shrubs and trees will also thrive in a pot. According to the experts at The Joy of Plants, you should look out for dwarf lilacs, magnolia, bays, olive trees and palm-style plants, such as Cordyline, Phoenix and Acers. These taller plants might be more expensive, but will give structure to a small garden.

“Go for a few huge statement pots rather than lots of small ones which can look cluttered,” says Catherine.


Pick the perfect plants

Before buying, check that any plants you like the look of are appropriate for the type of garden you have. Is it sunny or shady, sheltered or exposed? Choose varieties that will cope with the conditions.

A useful design device is to limit your choice. “In a small space, too many plant varieties can look ‘bitty’,” advises Catherine. “Try lavender en masse in a sunny spot or a collection of ferns in the shade.”

Tony suggests using different sizes of the same plant, which will “add structure without it being overbearing”. Alternatively, limit your palette; a single colour can help bring all the elements of the garden together.

Having a tiny plot to work with doesn’t mean you can’t be bold. “Tropical-style planting adds lushness to a small space and you can mix and match plants to create a canopy,” says Claudia. “And, for a sense of theatre, add outdoor lighting to emphasise the plants’ architectural structure.”

Growing your own fruit and veg is also easier to do in a small garden than you might think. According to Diane Appleyard of the National Allotment Society, narrow beds or containers work well for plenty of crops, such as tomatoes, salad leaves, potatoes and beans, as well as strawberries, herbs and patio fruit trees.


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Go up the wall – literally

If ground space is limited, consider using the vertical elements of your garden as a growing surface. Fences and walls are the obvious starting point, but you can also add trellis, a small pergola or even interesting plant supports.

Shelves and hanging baskets are useful, too, as they allow you to have plants at eye level, adding visual interest. Hanging garden wall planters, now widely available, are a good way of creating an affordable, and cutting edge living wall, though you can get a similar effect by planting easy-care evergreen climbers, such as ivy or star jasmine.


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Use an expert

If you’re planning a major overhaul, it’s worth paying for expert advice. “Getting someone to help can save you money in the long run,” says Catherine, who advises that a design scheme should cost between 5-20% of the total build cost of a project, depending on the extent of the design work and the complexity of the design.

Use professional bodies such as the Society of Garden Designers, the Association of Professional Landscapers or the British Association of Landscape Industries to find experts close to you.

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