Gardening: Small plots with big ambitions: Size isn't everything. Anna Pavord suggests simple ways to make a little space mean a lot

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The Independent Online
Fear makes you think small. When you embark on a garden you are always apprehensive, because there is no way of knowing how the thing is going to behave. You nibble away, tentatively making little spaces into which you put bulbs. These at least stay mostly where they are put and demand little by way of maintenance. You follow them with annuals, which self-destruct helpfully at the end of the season, leaving the nibbled areas just as they looked when you first made them. No menace there.

Some people never get beyond this stage, because they cannot bear the thought of the stuff outside the window suddenly surging out of control, making up its own mind what to do and where to go. The garden stays small. Perhaps a dwarf conifer or two might join the bulbs and annuals. A little pot of herbs might be allowed on the paving outside the door.

Small in this context does not relate to the size of the garden. It concerns its spirit. Gardens of this kind are invariably neat, because there is little in them to get untidy. But when you are in them you feel as though you are on a dream-time quest. You are looking for something, looking everywhere, but you do not know what it is and you never find it.

If you become a gardener, rather than the owner of a space outside the house, the nibbling never stops - you just take bigger bites. You enlarge the planting parameters each year, lifting a paving stone, eating farther into the scruffy lawn. And gradually you learn about scale.

The size of a garden need not limit its ambition. Indeed, the smaller the garden, the greater the need for a grand statement. There are two elements to this. One is the way in which the garden is laid out. Bold, simple lines, with paths wider than you ever thought necessary and beds bigger than you thought possible is one way to achieve this. Introducing key plants, or highlighting existing ones, is another.

There is no strict formula: each gardener finds his or her way. We may start working from the same set of principles, but should finish with completely different results, which reflect what we want from our own patches.

Perhaps the house, at the back, gives on to a small paved area. The most usual arrangement for the space beyond is lawn in the middle with a narrow flower bed running up either side. At the end is a shed, tree, or climbing frame.

How would it be, for a start, if you did away with the lawn and divided up the space in a more engaging way? If you have children, this may not be an option, although you could perhaps enlarge the area around the climbing frame and create extra playing space there. For the moment, forget children and concentrate on the space - the former lawn space - and its potential.

If you are sitting on the paved section immediately outside the windows, or looking out from the house, you will want something to catch the eye. The garden itself should also appear as luxuriant as possible (we are not talking about fearful gardening here).

If the squarish space in front of you is divided with a giant X to mark the lines of two new diagonal paths, several advantages immediately become clear. Space is apportioned in a clean, simple way, creating the maximum area for planting in the four triangles formed by the X. A mass of planting becomes possible alongside the paved area outside the house, where you most need something to admire. And the crossing of the paths in the middle allows a pivot for the design.

The two paths making the St Andrew's flag need to be wide. This is possible since there is untrammelled planting space in between. So be generous. The way the paths are surfaced will also influence the overall effect. Loose surfaces, such as gravel and crushed bark, are easy to put in place and more sympathetic to the eye than interlocking concrete. Old brick is good, but should be the right kind that does not flake in the frost - and these can be expensive to get hold of.

The style of planting in the four triangles can be formal or not, depending on your taste. Formality and symmetry are still much in vogue, and it is easier to succeed with this style than with any other. Formal or informal, each of the four pieces of planting ground should have one big, outstanding specimen that will give pleasure all year. It could be a plant in a container: a huge fatsia in a glowing pot of Chinese red, or a big, clipped box tree in a glazed pan of mustard yellow.

We generally use box bushes clipped into simple geometric shapes, but they can also be grown as small trees, each branch treated separately and clipped into a series of flattish cumulus clouds that float around the main trunk.

Somewhere, there should be a proper tree, one that has a reasonable chance of expressing itself. It is sad to see a tree with a 40ft soul being squeezed into a 5ft straitjacket. The difficulty arises most obviously with trees that want to spread out as much as they go up. Several types of cherry have this inbuilt design problem.

If you haven't the room to accommodate a wide tree, try a hawthorn instead. Druids wouldn't be seen dead without one. Hawthorns are mystical but tough, an irresistible combination. They tend to be ignored in gardens, because there are so many wild hawthorns, Crataegus monogyna, in hedgerows and woods, but there are cousins of the native tree that can adapt to Hackney as easily as to a hill. C. prunifolia generally stops at about 20ft and, although it is deciduous, has bright red, round fruit that hangs on long after the leaves have dropped.

Depending on the size of the garden, the far side of the X shape may be marked off by your back wall. Or there may be a necessary, but messy, drifting off into the shed/climbing frame scene. Cut this off by a bold semi- screen, which will hold in the top end of the X and create a separate area beyond.

You do not want anything solid, otherwise your eye will bounce off it like a rubber ball and come back to you too quickly, giving the impression there is nothing to look at in between. Nor do you want anything fussy, for nothing should detract, either from the importance of your central assemblage, or from the stars of the four planted beds. Think simple. And think big.

Is this making you feel apprehensive, fearful, a bit of a nibbler? If the thought of doing something so bold is too daunting to attempt on your own, ask for help. The Society of Garden Designers will recommend someone. Contact them at 6 Borough Rd, Kingston upon Thames, Surrey KT2 6BD (081-974 9483).