All gardens great and small: How to make the most of your space, from a tiny terrace to a rural plot

For decades in our two Dorset gardens, I have fought elder and bramble, bindweed and thistle and lived out three of the seven ages of gardening. While I have been moving through stages four, five and six, I've watched our children engage (or not) with the first three ages.

In our first Dorset garden, our three children all had plots. The youngest gardened only for profit, growing vast quantities of vegetables which she sold to me at outrageous prices.

By the time children are in their teens, only a minute hardcore will still be interested, and then usually in one specific kind of plant – cacti, perhaps. Mostly, this second age is marked by boredom, though there is a useful period in their mid- to late-teens when children are strong enough, malleable enough and skint enough to mow lawns on a regular basis. The rest of the second age is marked by a passion for large houseplants, which have to be transported from one student flat to the next.

The first proper garden usually appears in the third age of gardening, when we are in our late twenties or early thirties. Is it forced on us by a need to camouflage the slum which is all we can afford at this stage? There is a desire for things to happen fast. Window boxes and yards are furnished with the results of snatch-and-grab raids at local markets. In this third phase, we are thankful that anything grows for us at all.

Imperceptibly we drift into our fourth gardening age, which is where I was when we first came to Dorset. Here at the rectory, I went through my "white garden" phase. I now had a terror of planting the Wrong Thing. You feel it's veering close to social ostracism to plant Hybrid Tea roses (out) rather than Rugosas or Albas.

Fortunately, sometime in your forties, you achieve the equilibrium of the fifth age. I kissed goodbye to Sissinghurst, the white garden, other people's opinions and finally felt that I had time, confidence and space enough to give the garden its head. I fell in love with ferns. I planted a wisteria. When you feel roots coming on, your planting gets correspondingly more permanent.

Of course there is an in-built ebb and flow to seasonal plants – jasmine and viburnum take over from summer's roses. But underpinning these fleeting effects in a garden is a foundation of enormous strength and stability. And it's at this stage that you catch the first intimations of why you must garden, why you must mesh with this vast inexorable passage of the seasons.

And so you pass to the sixth stage, the one I'm at now, where the first glimmerings of mortality hover over the horizon. This is when you plant trees and begin to understand, just a little, what your plants are trying to tell you; when you've seen enough good gardens to know a bad one.

Nevertheless, I'm looking forward to the final stage of my gardening life, the glorious seventh age, when I will have developed to a fine pitch the art of seeing only what I want to see. I will dare shout at crass visitors who stand on my Draba aizoides. By the seventh age, I will surely have learnt at last how to grow Draba aizoides.

And I shall gaze at my compost heap with new interest. Here among the grass cuttings and the ghosts of plants past is surely where I should plan my last, comfortable resting place. Henceforth, spring will always be balmy. Rain will come on cue to water the newly-sown seeds. Autumn will be long and languorous enough for the dahlias to dazzle into November. Nirvana.       

Anna Pavord's new book, 'The Curious Gardener: A Year in the Garden' is out Monday, Bloomsbury, £20

Window box

* Choose a window box that fits as exactly as possible the size of your window. Made-to-measure wooden boxes are ideal. Line them with heavy-duty black polythene, punched through with a few holes.

* Use woodstains rather than paint. They are easy to apply and, watered down, provide some pleasantly murky greens and blues.

* The bigger the container and the larger the volume of compost, the easier it is to keep.

* Profusion is the effect that you want, which means a dedicated regime of feeding and watering. Slow-release fertilisers (such as Osmocote granules) are excellent for this.

* Flowers turn towards the light, so from indoors, you are backstage, as it were, looking at the underpinning, not the performance. Solve this by dropping the level of the box, so that you look down on your flowers.

* For a suitably lush effect (and window boxes must be lush) you need plenty of leaf. Include at least one good foliage plant in each.

* Helichrysum petiolare is a foliage star, because it threads itself about, as well as climbing and cascading. The standard version has grey, felted leaves. And there's a great lime-green one called 'Limelight'.

* Use gorgeous, grey-leaved Lotus berthelotii for a waterfall of foliage to spill over your box in summer. Mix it with royal-blue surfinias and a smattering of trailing lobelia.

* Flowers must have the same unflagging determination to perform as the young Shirley Temple. Don't turn up your nose at lobelia. Or petunias. Or white busy lizzies, which are brilliant in shade. Mix them with small ferns for a cool draught of green in the urban jungle.

* If you choose geraniums, remember that many-headed kinds, such as the 'Balcon' series, give a much fuller effect in boxes. Geraniums need sun, but a window box in full sun is thirstier than one in part shade. You may need to water twice a day.

* When the petunias start to rot and the geraniums stop flowering, hook them out and prepare another show for winter: cyclamen and baby box balls for slick-chic, pansies for pleasure.

* Plant plenty of bulbs for early spring. Avoid leggy monsters. Choose anemones, crocus, dwarf narcissus, baby tulips. Pack them close for a lush, generous effect.

* Gardener-cooks can plant rosemary, thyme, sage and marjoram in a sunny window box. For winter, interplant mounds of grey and purple sage with fountains of curly-leaved purple kale.

* When you water your window box, have in mind your neighbours down below...

Back yard

* Even if your yard is no more than a sub-dungeon, you'll want to sit out in it. Think how and where.

* In a very small yard, the neatest solution will be built-in seats: a slab of green oak on top of a retaining wall, a niche carved out of a boundary hedge, a series of lockers (for storage) with cushions on top.

* If you buy furniture, get stuff that's a pleasure to look at. But don't plonk it centre-stage. Set it off-centre, preferably where the evening sun lasts longest.

* The surface of a yard or terrace matters. Why spend a fortune on a limestone kitchen floor if it butts on to a hideous concrete chequerboard of green, pink and cream pavers outside? Get rid of them and spread gravel until you've saved up for something more permanent.

* If you are lucky enough to have sound walls round your terrace or yard, use them. But wire them before you plant. In a small space, climbers and wall plants need tight tying-in.

* Choose wall shrubs and climbers with scent: evergreen trachelospermum and myrtle are superb. What, no roses? No. Think of the malevolent thorns. And, in a small space, the pruning.

* Terraces and courtyards are often paved throughout, but a border just wide enough to plant climbers will be a huge benefit. Plants will grow better in the ground than in pots and you won't have to water so frequently.

* Clothe your boundaries in breathing green – especially fig and vine – through which you can thread an occasional clematis.

* A small space doesn't mean small plants. Think of key plants as you might pieces of sculpture. Tree ferns are superb and in sheltered town gardens often keep their fronds all through winter. Arum lilies are equally arresting, though they dive underground for winter.

* Keep your outdoor space uncluttered. A few big pots packed with plants will have more impact than a scatter of small ones. As for the pots themselves, that depends on your style.

* Courtyards, especially those leading off from sub-basements, can be shady places. Remember that dark, lustrous purples, however trendy, can be lost in these conditions. White will glimmer, like a moth at dusk. Which brings you back to the indispensable arums and their folded white napkin flowers.

* Sweep (or rake – if you've gone for gravel). Nobody's pretending sweeping is sexy, but in a small space dead leaves, broken branches and the general detritus of autumn can have a lowering effect. Take it all to the tip.

* Be wary of using mirrors. It's a trick that only works once. After that it just becomes irritating.

Victorian terrace

* Gardens attached to traditional Victorian terraces are generally long and thin. This introduces the possibility of doing different things in different areas. From tamed to wild in a hundred feet. It can be done.

* Changes in levels help to define changes in mood and style. But make the transitions generous. Steps that stretch lazily across the width of a garden will help make the garden itself seem wider.

* Occasionally, a belt of water can be built in to provide the break between one space and the next. The space nearest the house will probably be paved (sitting out, eating out), but the next, beyond the water, can be grass – if you can be fussed with the mowing.

* Grass is peaceful, but needs light. It will not grow in a space heavily overhung or shaded by next door's fence. And you'll need somewhere to store the mower.

* One side of the garden will be more shady than the other and will need a different palette of plants from the side that is in sun.

* Shade is lovely. Say that at least 50 times a day until you believe it. In a garden it creates a far more interesting and mysterious atmosphere than sun. And there are plenty of plants that love it: snowdrops, hostas, hellebores, hydrangeas. And ferns, ferns, ferns. Ferns are so confident of their elegance, they've seen no need to change the way they've looked since the age of the dinosaurs.

* Fix your fences. Sagging larchlap can only get worse. Keep climbers well trained. You do not want to make the garden even narrower than it already is.

* Compose a view from the window that you look out from most. It'll probably be the one by the kitchen sink... Devise a natural backstop to that view: a tree that produces autumn fruit as well as spring blossom, a beautiful big pot planted with a steel grey agave, a metal bower, trained all over with sweet-smelling summer jasmine, a small wooden hut, stained birch grey, to escape to when the sink gets too much.

* Don't let the end of the garden degenerate into a dump of old carpet, unscrubbed plastic pots and pallets that never got made into a compost heap. You need a working area, but make it crisp, with an outdoor potting bench and a compost heap that is strong and well-corseted.

* Long thin borders are harder to plant successfully than shorter, wider ones. So think, not of running a border down the length of the boundary, but stretching it in a swathe across the garden, leaving a path to one side leading you to the work area.

* Plant more of less. In a small space, that's a tough discipline, but it will pay off.

Suburban plot

* Suburban gardens of the Thirties had a wonderful innocence. Embrace it. Retro-style works just as well outside as it does in. One day Wallpaper* magazine will go overboard about the deeply meaningful designs of crazy paving. You can be there first.

* Be sympathetic in the materials you use. Brick is very Thirties and is one of the best things to use for paths. And a terrace, if you can afford it, though a terrace eats up a lot of bricks.

* Cherry trees and magnolias are naturals for the space in front of the house. Behind, you can scarcely do better than plant sturdy varieties of apples and pears.

* While your own tree is a source of beauty (and, you believe, an unparalleled resource for wildlife) your neighbour's tree, of course, is a nuisance, casting shade upon your plot. Be forgiving. And don't lop without asking first.

* If there is still an old vegetable plot at the bottom of the garden, keep it. That will be one less name on the allotment waiting list. Clear off the ground and feed it lavishly with weed-free mulch. That plot, seductively productive, may soon become your favourite part of the garden.

* Think of using some kind of screen or pergola to give height and divide different areas of the garden. These structures need regular attention, as the plants you put on them (vines, roses, clematis, honeysuckle) need pruning and tying-in as they grow. Green oak timber, if you can get it, lasts longer than larch poles and does not cost much more.

* Do not plant a screen of Leyland cypress. It is the quickest way to turn a garden into a prison. It may grow fast, but that's no compensation for its hideousness.

* During a particular stage of your gardening life, the lawn may be compromised by a large trampoline. Accept the limitations. And the fact that footballs will always land in the middle of your dahlias.

* Try to organise the planted spaces so that different areas peak at different times of the year. If you want dahlias, for instance, don't scatter them about, but group them together with outrageous Salvia 'Bethellii', spiky cordylines and monkshoods for a late summer knock out.

* In the most gorgeous borders, leaf comes before flower. You need great mounds of greenery against which to set your stands of Japanese anemone, veronicastrum and purple Verbena bonarienis. Use spurges. Especially Euphorbia characias and Euphorbia stygiana.

* Go easy on the wind chimes. Listen instead to the infinitely more intriguing sound of the wind itself. It's said that you should be able to tell a tree – oak, ash or beech – by the sound that the wind makes in its branches. Can you?

Country garden

* Plant trees. It’s the best gift you can make to the future. Avoid fast-growing rubbish. Try walnut, sweet chestnut, holly, cut-leaf beech. You won’t see them in their splendour. But someone will pass by in 100 years and thank you.

* Take time to understand how best to knit your plot into the wider landscape. The join between the two should be seamless.

* The planting style should be your style. But if you find that a lonely place to be, copy the designer Tom Stuart-Smith, who never puts a foot wrong. The look for now is a wafty, yet carefully crafted vision called “the new naturalism”. It might include cow parsleyish things (especially Cenolophium denudatum) mixed with astrantia, blue Siberian iris, acid-green spurges and white dicentra, as it did in Tom’s most recent Chelsea garden. Thalictrum, verbascum and angelica are also fashionable. And good, which is not always the same thing.

* Don’t believe all you read about grasses (miscanthus, calamagrostis, molinia, stipa, etc). Somewhere in the UK they may indeed stand splendid and frost-rimmed through winter. But they are more likely to collapse in a wind-battered, rain-shattered heap of compost.

* Box and yew are likely to feature somewhere in a large, rural plot. If they don’t, they should, though since the mid-Nineties, box has been blighted by a disease, which is difficult for amateurs to control.

* Topiary is always to be encouraged. If you don’t have any, introduce some. Traditionally, cones, spires, balls and birds will have been carved from box and yew. But phillyrea also clips well. Holly looks handsome, especially as a tiered cake stand, but is uncomfortable to work with.

* Don’t blight your view with a bright turquoise swimming pool. Get in an expert (try clear-waterrevival.com or naturalswimmingpools.com) and plan a reed-lined swimming pond instead.

* In a large rural plot you will have space to make a meadow – currently the most fashionable accessory a gardener can have. But be aware that after the end of June, the thingwill look a mess. Don’t put it centre-stage, but around a corner somewhere when, after its beautiful and romantic midsummer peak, it will be out of sight, out of mind. You shouldn’t cut it until September.

* Gardens are more often ruined by money than by lack of it. You may at present hold the title deeds of your home. Nevertheless, have the grace to acknowledge that in the land’s eyes, you are just passing through. Work with it. Respect it.

Anna Pavord’s gardening column returns on 20 November

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