The plot thickens: How to make the most of a small back garden

The key is good planning, says Anna Pavord, who suggests four possible layouts

The size of a garden need not limit your ambition to grow your own fruit and vegetables. But the smaller the garden, the more every square centimetre of the place needs to earn its keep. There are several ways you can bring this about.

One is to look at the way your garden is laid out. Bold, simple lines work best, with paths wider than you ever thought necessary and beds bigger than you ever thought possible. Introducing key plants, or highlighting existing ones, is another way to pull together a garden. There is no strict formula to sorting out the space: each gardener finds a different solution. Our gardens, after all, reflect who we are and what we want.

Imagine an average back garden, longer than it is wide. There's a small paved area by the house with a central lawn beyond and narrow flower beds running up either side. At the end may be a shed, a tree or a play area with a climbing frame. This is the standard layout, but how would it be 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.

The garden itself must be luxuriant. We are not talking about fearful gardening here. Faced with a plot of ground to divide up, many gardeners turn first to the edges and work their way round the boundaries digging borders which are usually too narrow to be useful and leaving a void at the centre.

This may be an atavistic urge to mark territory, but it rarely gives good results. If, instead, you think from the centre of the space outwards towards the boundaries, quite different patterns emerge.

Diagonal Plan

If the squarish lawn space was divided with a giant X to mark two new diagonal paths, several advantages immediately become clear. Space is apportioned in a clean, simple way, creating the maximum area for growing fruit and vegetables as well as flowers in the four triangles formed by the X. This layout makes it possible to create an eye-catching display alongside the paved area by the house, where you most need something to admire. The crossing of the paths in the middle creates a pivot for the design, but the two diagonal paths need to be wide. This is possible since there is untrammelled planting space in between. You can be generous.

The style of planting in the four triangles can be formal or not, depending on your taste. Each of the four pieces of ground should have one big outstanding specimen: a giant fennel perhaps or a mop-headed crab apple with different kinds of mint tumbling around in the shade underneath it. You could edge the two side beds with lavender or alpine strawberries to hold in a display of tulips, bronze fennel, hyssop and marigolds. Narcissus, endive, violas, aquilegias, sweet cicely and French beans could share the space in another of the beds. Lettuce, leeks, parsley and chives might be planted in chevron rows in the fourth.

Depending on the size of the garden, the far side of the X-shape may mark the back boundary. 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. This is where fruit trees planted in rows of slanting single-stem cordons, or splayed out in fans, are ideal. Nothing makes a more effective screen in this kind of situation.

Rectangular plan

Rather than have the paved area set, as it usually is, next to the house, you might think of putting it in the middle of the plot, with wide mixed borders of vegetables and flowers on either side, and a miniature orchard at the end. A trelliswork screen covered with sweet peas could divide the orchard from the rest of the garden and you might soften the paved area by planting the cracks between the slabs with mats of thyme and fleshy-leaved sedums. One of the long side boundaries could be planted with redcurrant cordons, which do well in shade. On the opposite, sunnier side you might put fan-trained apples or pears. All this fruit will be easier to manage if you first string supporting wires in parallel lines down your boundary walls or fences. When the trees in your miniature orchard are well established, let the grass grow long underneath them and wait to see what wild flowers will colonise the patch.

Winding Path Plan

If you have an aversion to straight lines, then think of dividing the garden with a path that curves up through the centre, from the corner closest to the house right over to the far corner on the opposite side. The path might be gravel set with irregular stone slabs. If you then plant lobelia thickly in the path, you'll get the effect of stepping stones in a river of blue. Stepover apples (like long, low, one-tier espaliers) might be planted along one side of the path, with plums, a quince and a mixture of currants filling the roughly triangular space behind. You might be able to liberate marrows and squash to roam around under the fruit trees. On the other side of the path, mix French marigolds, iris and hostas with spring onions, beetroot, lettuce, ruby chard and whatever other vegetables you most enjoy.

Symmetrical plan

A fourth option might be to allow for rectangles of grass either side of a central path, with plants contained in raised beds built round the two sides of the grassed areas. The path could be made of either bricks or stone, to suit the surroundings. You might plant bush tomatoes to tumble over the edges of one raised bed, with tall stands of sunflowers and sweetcorn behind. The other raised bed might contain a mixture of your favourite vegetables, herbs and flowers: pinks, rue and mint, angelica, borage, sorrel and double white feverfew, verbena, violas and chicory, black kale, Jacob's ladder and cornflowers. At the end of the garden, three wigwams add height, and could be used to support runner beans, clematis and the cup-and-saucer vine, Cobaea scandens.