Jill Billington shows that even with a tiny garden you can choose between dramatic exuberance and pared-down simplicity
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WTHN the intimacy of an enclosed private space a scene can be set with theatrical abandon. Reality can be suspended and a staged setting suggestive of another time and place may seduce the observer. An inventive use of materials, combined with the skill of an artist, enables you to play illusory tricks which make your space appear larger, lighter and more airy. Mirrors hint at phantom spaces and painted scenes can transport you far from the reality of your urban surroundings.

Verandahs (right) are a feature of houses in hot landscapes where the house reaches into the garden and the outdoors is drawn inside. n cooler areas, conservatories try to achieve the same effect but the glazed walls remain a barrier. n a very small courtyard, a verandah could be built to stretch part-way into the garden, with only timber uprights as support: these can be made to vanish, becoming columns of green ivy. "Framing" a small garden in this way can appear to extend the outdoor space as the indoor room becomes an integral part of the garden. f the same paving - say, terracotta tiles - runs through the living-room, the verandah and into the garden, the uninterrupted floor space will complete the unity. f the garden is little more than a passage, the verandah could extend across the whole space, a transparent glass or polycarbonate sloping roof letting through sufficient light to support plants. J S FOR JAPAN Many contemporary small gardens have taken a lead from the tiny, finely honed Buddhist courtyards of the classical Japanese era. Such gardens are for reflection, absorbing the mind without distraction. Everything has significance in the Japanese garden and controlled, symbolic planting grows alongside carefully selected sacred natural materials like stone, wood and water. The Japanese appreciation of the essence of different elements is subtly reinterpreted in contemporary western gardens as understated, pared-down elegance, where each stone, slab or plant merits attention, rather like theatrical one-man shows. n tiny contemporary gardens all materials, whether living or inorganic, have to earn their place in a space unadorned by fripperies.

Minimal oriental-inspired styles of garden are especially appropriate alongside modern architecture. The planting should, above all, be simple and balanced, with one plant dominant and any others minor, however exquisite. A few rocks and one immaculate acer or the low-spreading Pinus mugo can provide the pared-down relationship which becomes the focal point of a courtyard. The ground is more likely to be gravelled (as in the picture of a tiny enclosed Chinese courtyard garden shown above) or laid with stone slabs than with lawn, and the boundaries evenly covered with an all-over pattern of self-clinging vines or ivy - or with nothing at all, if the materials used are perfectly constructed, with meticulous attention to detail in the supports of a fence or the joints of a brick wall.