GARDENING: A-Z OF REALLY SMALL GARDENS: BLAZING A TRAIL

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In this week's extract from 'Really Small Gardens' we suggest ways of enhancing your plot using things that don't grow

M

IS FOR MATERIALS

THERE ARE many arguments against lawns in small spaces. Grass does not support furniture; it needs cutting - and where will you keep the mower? But if you really want the softness of grass and the sensual pleasure of feeling it underfoot do not give up. Your "lawn" does not have to be as smooth as a billiard table so choose the right seed for wear and tear, or even for shade, and you will succeed.

If you are prepared to forego a lawn, you could pave your garden with either large or small paving slabs. It is important that all hard surfaces are laid correctly on a rolled-hardcore base. A few very large natural flagstones, laid in a random, non-grid fashion, is stylishly effective in a small space, whereas smaller slabs of different sizes would look fussy laid in a random style, even where the floor area is tiny: the result would be to make it look even smaller. However, if identically sized small slabs were laid in a geometric grid, this would create an all-over pattern which carpets the ground in a unifying manner. The pattern does not diminish the space because it is the whole area, not the individual units, which becomes significant.

Brick or concrete pavers, tiles and granite setts, which are all usually standard sizes, can be used to create unifying bonds or patterns. The basketweave or "chevron" pattern (where bricks are laid at 45 degrees to each other) is traditionally rural in feel. Think twice before using materials such as bricks or stone in damp shade, as they attract slippery algae and moss.

Concrete is a wrongly maligned material which is both economic and convenient. Concrete paving can be made on site so that only the dry materials, in bags, need to be brought through the house. This durable and fluid medium can be poured to fill exactly the shape and space you require. Its surface texture may be enhanced by incorporating small stones or grit, coarse textures are less slippery than smooth in wet weather. Some people have fun setting in personal mementos such as broken china, children's marbles, foot and even paw prints; such detail can be attractive and amusing.

Pebbles may be either set in cement or laid loosely on gravel; they look attractive in association with alpine shrubs, Japanese acers or small pines like Pinus mugo. Though you cannot walk upon them with any comfort, rocks provide interest and are an asset in an inward-looking tiny space. A few rocks used with pebbles and gravel can be associated to create year-round effect, particularly suitable for a small courtyard or a garden viewed mostly from a window.

Gravel is well suited for walking upon. There are different types of gravel, from coarse grit to rounded, rolling-pea shingle. Choose those which relate to local building materials or the house masonry. White is very glaring, while chippings of quartz evoke gardens of rest, so look for granite, sandstone, limestone, dolomite, porphyry, flint and slate gravels. One advantage of gravel for small spaces is that it may also act as a mulch, flowing over the whole courtyard so that the walking area is indistinct from the planted area. If you put a layer of geo-textile (membrane) beneath the walking area, it will prevent the growth of plants there, but elsewhere plants will thrive protected by a layer of gravel. First remove perennial weeds from the soil, then spread a gravel layer of approximately 5cm (2in), which will suppress annual weeds and conserve moisture. If you wish to allow plants like valerian to self- seed, leave out the geo-textile and let creative weeding come into play.

Timber decking suits small spaces, especially roof gardens where weight is a factor. It is best built on cross-beams which are supported by solid posts, 10cm by 10cm (4in by 4in). At ground level, cover the soil below these beams with either an 8cm (3in) layer of stone chippings or heavy- duty plastic sheeting covered with sand, to prevent weed growth beneath. Plants can lap over on to the slats at the edges and gaps can be made in the timbers above planting pockets to allow stemmed shrubs or very small trees to grow through. Timber decks are best suited to warm, sunny sites.

N IS FOR NIGHT LIGHTING

AS AN EXTENSION of the house, the garden should be available after dark, even in winter. Lighting also has a safety role, illuminating steps and entrances as well as providing security. A good outdoor lighting company will advise on all these aspects. Stone steps, for example, can be downlit on either side, beneath the lip of the tread, making them an attractive feature as well as one that is safe to use. And light from wall-mounted downlighters or freestanding, hooded lights on poles, can bathe steps and paths in pools of light, providing an easy passage without blinding glare from above.

The best outdoor lighting is subtle, allowing some plants to be seen in silhouette and others to be spot-lit. The garden should never be illuminated like a football pitch; too much lighting reduces its depth and destroys any sense of mystery. In extremely small courtyards restrained lighting works best, choosing to focus on a particular feature such as a piece of sculpture, an urn or a plant. Side lighting emphasises form most effectively, as well as revealing texture, whereas front lighting tends to flatten and smooth out surfaces.

Low-voltage outdoor lighting will not burn plants and is energy-saving. The fittings can also be small, which is invaluable in a tiny space. You may want to tuck them out of sight, but even if you do see the light source in daylight, there are many simply designed, compact fittings which are attractive in their own right. Paradoxically it is the darkness which is so important when lighting a small space. Indistinct depths of shadow which hint, as opposed to light which reveals, are all part of the subtle qualities of lighting. This is why coloured light is so rarely effective: it distracts from the purity of light and shadows. If you are not sure what effects you can create in your small space, get a friend to help you by using powerful flashlights. These can be carried around the garden, trying up, down and side-lighting so that you can study the results from the window of your house.

The successful use of outdoor lighting can create a feeling of intimacy while, at the same time, suggesting that the garden is part of something bigger. Lighting is just one aspect of designing a small plot so that you exploit its assets to the full. Few garden sites are ideal and it is surprising how often, in resolving problems, we generate original and satisfying solutions which add unexpected charm and help to make the diminutive garden unique.

O IS FOR ORGANIC

IN YOUR SMALL garden you are likely to want to fit in as many plants as you can, making demands on the soil. You will thus need to aid plant growth by improving the soil. Doing this organically means following a regime of good husbandry. This involves regularly working in decomposed organic material to improve the soil's structure, aerate it, conserve moisture and break up solid clods of earth. Suitable additives include your own compost, otherwise rotted manure, spent hops, spent mushroom compost, leafmould or cow dung, all of which can be bought in bags from the garden centre.

You may also use organic fertilisers in spring, to top up the soil's nutrients. Fertilisers such as bonemeal, blood, fish and bone, and hoof and horn are available in powder or granular form (non- animal-based fertilisers are available). They add the main plant foods, nitrogen, phosphates and potash in a balanced proportion. Deficiencies of other elements can occur, find out from your garden centre what the particular remedies are.

READER BOOK OFFER

A-Z of Really Small Gardens is taken from Jill Billington's RHS Really Small Gardens, published by Quadrille, available from bookshops. To order your copy for the special price of pounds 20 (a saving of pounds 5), including p&p in the UK, call the credit card hotline on 01256 302 699 quoting ref GLR 991

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