Gardening: Small but perfectly formed

A-Z; OF REALLY SMALL GARDENS; If you think size is everything in the garden, think again. Our A-Z garden series will offer big ideas for really tiny plots
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The Independent Culture
WHICH IS MORE important to you - alfresco living or an intense love of plants? Planning your small space is all about making fundamental choices. Functions have to be ruthlessly selected and you must get rid of any superfluous objects, features or plants, otherwise the site soon becomes depressingly overcrowded.

Over the coming weeks, in an A-Z guide, we will be publishing edited extracts from Jill Billington's Really Small Gardens to explain the pleasures and pitfalls of the small plot, and how to use and manage it. We start this week with advice on planning and planting your garden.

Many people today want to use their gardens as an extension of indoor living, yet dining out of doors requires space - which cuts down planting opportunities. If you are passionate about plants, you may wish to plan your garden so that it is possible to have a short stroll around it, with different planting groups to see along the way. Must you have a lawn? Grass is soft and welcoming but needs looking after and will not do well in small dark yards; you may also have no space in which to store a lawnmower. Practical needs have to be balanced with the other requirements for the tiny space, and decisions must be made at the very beginning of the planning stage.

So how small is your space? Is it as big as 6m (20ft) square or not much wider than a passage, about 1.5m (5ft) deep? The scale of the first allows for people to eat outdoors, whereas the latter is so intimate that the garden becomes a virtual stage set, best viewed from a window. To enjoy any small space to the full, you need to make the reduced scale work for you. This does not mean everything in the garden has to be miniature: a tiny space, crammed with bijou furniture, Lilliputian pots and dwarf plants is uncomfortable. People using the garden should be at ease whether moving or resting and, even if the small space is intended to be viewed rather than entered, it should not be necessary to use a magnifying glass. Some well-chosen, larger plant forms will balance the smaller ones.

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ADVANTAGES AND CONSTRAINTS

APART FROM the dimensions themselves, certain other features of the small plot will be immutable, which may become more influential than anything else. But the challenge is to turn constraints into creative assets. Light levels, climate, soil and boundaries are fixed conditions: you may work with them or around them but you cannot change them. In resolving the problems they create, however, you may well hit upon solutions that are ingenious and original, even if elegant proportion sometimes has to be sacrificed for convenience. Certain problems are common to the majority of small plots. Since many small gardens are in towns, bounded by high walls or sunk down among surrounding tall buildings, they are overlooked and have problems of shade cast by either buildings, boundary walls or neighbouring trees. But there are ways of screening your garden and, by planting suitably shade-tolerant plants, of making it look both verdant and attractive.

PLANTS CAN be seen as structural material, the "bones", to be used as the building blocks of a garden or the means of sub-dividing space. In a small area all plants have a crucial role to play, whether they are creating the framework, clothing the walls or simply providing colourful highlights. The framework is generally maintained by evergreens, as they keep their leaves all year and create a permanent structure against which seasonal plants can ring the changes. Their constancy is as valuable to an intimate space as are the paving, the boundaries and the hard landscaping.

In the small picture, left, for example, the "bones" of this garden are provided by colourful evergreen conifers. Other foliage plants, such as the red-leafed maple and variegated cornus, provide extra colour for half the year, while the planting of tender perennials in containers adds summer interest.

Evergreen shrubs particularly suited to small spaces include laurels, whose polished leaves will, in the dark recesses, reflect light. Prunus laurocerasus `Mischeana' performs even in deep shade as a freestanding, strong-growing foundation plant with its long, smooth leaves and flat- topped habit. Choisyas are shiny-leaved too but if you only have space for a smaller version of the fragrant Mexican orange blossom, choose C `Aztec Pearl' whose aromatic foliage is cheerful in sun or light shade and which flowers twice, once in late spring and again in late summer; protect it against harsh weather with a fleece if necessary. For deep shade, nothing beats pyracantha, which can be manipulated to fit snugly against your wall. At the foot of the foundation shrubs, try planting a dwarf variegated euonymus (E fortunei) to add colour and light: `Emerald Gaiety' has white and green variegated leaves, while `Emerald 'n' Gold' have yellow and green.

Evergreen ceanothus are lovely in sun and there are many rich blues to choose from, though you will have to keep them under control by removing a few shoots annually to encourage young growth; seek out one of the toughest forms, like C `Autumnal Blue', and plant it against a warm wall. Or try the tiny Escallonia `Red Elf', which is generally evergreen but may lose its leaves in exceptionally cold weather. The planting framework would be dull if it consisted of nothing but evergreen wall shrubs. Dramatic forms will add style to a staid scene; though the lethally spiked yuccas are too aggressively rigid in tiny spaces, you can achieve the same sword- like vertical look with evergreen phormi- ums. P tenax `Maori Sunrise' is a relatively small form and has purple- crimson leaves; P cookianum subsp. hookeri `Cream Delight', also small, has elegantly recurved foliage around a base of classic sword-shaped leaves.

A very small space can quickly become an overgrown mess if you do not take into account the wayward nature of many plants. Containing them within neatly clipped dwarf hedges can make the whole garden look presentable and dividing even a small area can be an effective way of preserving order.

The A-Z of Really Small Gardens is taken from RHS Really Small Gardens - a Practical Guide to Gardening in a Truly Small Space by Jill Billington, published by Quadrille, available from good bookshops. Readers of the IoS can order their 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 and quote ref GLR 991.

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