How to plan a small garden – expert tips for tiny spaces

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  • A good design is the key to creating a garden you’ll look forward to spending time in – particularly if you’re blessed with a tiny lawn or a petite patio. If you’re wondering how to plan a small garden and unsure where to start, don’t panic.

    We asked garden designers how they would go about it to help us get the ideas flowing. It’s very helpful to work with a detailed layout drawing that’s to scale and takes into account the practicalities of the space. This will make the process smoother, saving you time and money in the long run.

    It’s also important to look at the practical aspects of designing a small garden first, thinking about who it’s for and how you want to use the space. When you’ve decided on the layout and purpose of your garden, you can take inspiration from our small garden ideas.

    How to plan a small garden

    ‘Perhaps you want a space for lounging in the sunshine or cosying up with throws in the cooler evenings, or maybe you need a setup to support a BBQ,’ says Jonny Brierly from Moda Furnishings. ‘Maybe you want a space for dining, or even watching films on an outdoor screen. Ensure you know exactly what you want to use your garden for, exactly the same as you would design rooms in your house for specific uses,’ says Jonny.

    In a bigger garden, you might have a barbecue area; in a small garden, you may have to settle for creating a paved space for a portable barbecue and devise a garden storage idea for when it’s not in use. Small family gardens are the hardest to plan as you’ll need to find room for a play area.

    Our top tip is to choose light-reflecting colours and add details you’d find indoors, such as mirrors, which will make a small garden look and feel bigger. As for budget, we’ve suggested where you can make savings. All you have to do is choose the right plan for you.

    1. Calming garden layout with containers and circular paving

    Image credit: Nikki Hollier

    Nikki Hollier is no stranger to small gardens and will be exhibiting her small space container garden that’s ideal for renters at RHS Chelsea 2022. The garden designer and Border in a Box founder’s illustration above shows a calming space with a circular paved area and raised borders and containers. The relaxed feel is elevated with a water feature, casual seating and plants at a variety of heights that give the garden a more casual feel.

    Will it take much looking after?

    Containers will need regular watering in the warmer months, but with no lawn area to mow, this space is pretty low-maintenance.

    Are there any space-stretching tricks I can use?

    Lay an outdoor rug with a zig zag pattern to make the central area look bigger and paint walls or fences white or green.

    How can I cut costs?

    Work with existing plants you already have in your garden and be patient. Buy smaller pots of lavender and other border plants and in time they’ll fill up the space without the need for spending lots of money.

    2. Low maintenance layout for a small garden

    Garden planning

    Image credit: Future

    This two-level garden design by Katrina Wells of Earth Designs is linked by steps and flanked by split-level pools fed with waterfalls would give your space lots of interest. The design is bordered by raised flowerbeds with built-in bench seating, which can seat more guests than garden chairs.

    A colourful buddleia is an ideal plant for this kind of garden; easy to care for, it will attract lots of bees and butterflies when it flowers.

    Will it take much looking after?

    Raised beds are much easier to look after than borders and you won’t need to get on all fours to tend them. The rest of this garden is given over to paving, which will only need an occasional sweep.

    Are there any space-stretching tricks I can use?

    An attractive standard plant, urn, or statuette at the end of the garden will provide a focal point. It will draw the eye to the garden’s furthest part, tricking you into seeing it as larger than it is.

    Benches with lift-up lids will provide more storage. If you need a play area for children, swap tiles for decking in the lower part of the garden and sink a hidden sandpit beneath a section of it.

    How can I cut costs?

    Raised beds look great, but will cost money to install, so you could opt for ground-level planting. Small gardens are more interesting if you add extras, like water features, but you could replace these with more borders. Another way to cut the cost of a garden makeover is to swap decorative paving for gravel or decking.

    3. Small garden design for families

    Small garden design - Family layout

    image credit: Future

    Strong shapes such as circles (arranged diagonally) will make a small garden appear wider and longer. At the heart of this garden is an open grassy circle (to give kids room to run about), while the smaller paved circles are used as seating/dining areas.

    Stepping stones lead to a tucked-away play area. Children will also love the shape of the allium plant or ornamental onion. It flowers in early summer, likes most soils, and is easy to care for.

    Will it take much looking after?

    The lawn will need cutting once a week in the summer, and if you go for low-maintenance plants, such as hebes, you’ll only need to give it a quick tidy.

    Are there any space-stretching tricks I can use?

    Paint walls and fences white to make space appear bigger, keep planting in borders low to make the garden seem wider and go for a low-level chest storage unit instead of a tall shed.

    How can I cut costs?

    This is not an expensive garden to create, but if you’re looking for budget small garden ideas, you could cut down on planting by making the central grassed area larger. Alternatively, you can stretch it into an oval to fill more of the borders.

    4. Small secluded garden design

    Garden design for a small secluded garden

    Image credit: Future

    Want seclusion? Then this is the garden for you. All walls and fences have trellis panels fixed to their fronts and tops so that climbers can be trained up to hide the space from onlookers. The wide S-shaped path is cobbled for a relaxed feel, so make sure you choose a table and chairs with chunky legs to avoid wobble.

    Go for low-maintenance exotics, which provide year-round interest, and place large plants, such as tree ferns and a windmill palm, in the borders. This will mean that the shed can’t be seen from indoors and the bench is hidden from neighbouring houses. Passionflowers grow quickly but won’t damage fences or brickwork if given supports, such as a trellis, to cling to.

    Will it take much looking after?

    Once planted, this garden will look after itself – aside from the odd pruning of climbers, such as clematis, and the addition of some bright summer blooms, like lilies or poppies.

    How can I cut costs?

    There’s an urn water feature here, but you could replace this with an eye-catching plant, such as zebra grass. Swap the patio cobbles for gravel, which is cheaper to buy and easier to lay. If you know you want a patio area, our small patio ideas and ways to make the most of a small paved area are sure to inspire.

    small garden with outdoor dining table and bench

    Image credit: Future Publishing Ltd / David Giles

    How do you design a small garden?

    Multifunctional items are your best friend. It’s also well worth using your fencing and walls for planting, and choosing furniture that you can stow away. Mark Lane, gardening expert for stairlift and home lift company Stannah recommends maximising small outdoor spaces with mini-greenhouses, wall planters and fold-away tables and chairs.

    Outdoor shelving, tiered planters, vertical gardens, self-contained water features, corner sheds and storage ladders are also great solutions. ‘Seat storage solutions or a bike or bin store with a living roof can turn a minimal space into a multifunctional one,’ Mark says.

    Ash Read, interiors expert at Living Cozy says it’s important to think about what you want from your garden and how it will fit in with your lifestyle. Then you can work out how to design it to meet these needs.

    ‘Consider dividing your garden into different zones. A winding path through the plants can slow down the journey and trick any visitor into feeling like there is more space in your garden,’ Ash reveals.

    How do I make my garden beautiful in a small area?

    ‘Do take into consideration the whole space, including anything overlooking it,’ says Nikki Hollier. ‘Can the surrounding views, for example, be incorporated into the garden to make it feel bigger? In Japanese, this concept is called Shakkei – a borrowed skyline.

    ‘Keep colour simple and uncluttered – in my Chelsea garden, I am using white, soft pinks (for warmth) and shades of grey, all of which are restful and easy on the eye,’ Nikki explains. The small garden expert goes on to say that it’s a good idea to use a mixture of evergreens and perennials with different leaf shapes.

    These will add texture and year-round colour and interest. ‘And if you can, add a tree that is great for birds and bees. A crab apple is wonderful as it has blossom in the spring, fruits in late summer for the birds and amazing colour in the autumn,’ she says.

    She also suggests adding a comfortable and relaxing seating area so that you can relax with friends and chat over a cup of tea or a glass of wine.

    How do you make a small garden look nice?

    We’d recommend bringing in colour and a sense of comfort into your outdoor space with outdoor rugs, cushions, and lighting. ‘Cushions may seem like small details but when it comes to transforming your space they offer a quick and easy solution,’ comments Martin Waller, founder of Andrew Martin.

    ‘As the days get warmer their transformative power is no longer limited to indoors. As well as bringing much-needed comfort to your garden seating, the addition of outdoor cushions allows you to blur the lines between interior and exterior helping to create a space that is often left unused through half the year, feel like a carefully considered living area,’ says Martin.

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