Design: Gods of small things

Tired of the expensive plans in glossy mags, Kate Watson-Smyth takes advice from real gardeners on how to turn a city yard into an oasis
Click to follow
The Independent Online

Open any book on designing a small urban garden, and there you will find chapters devoted to creating outside rooms, decking different areas and making paths that lead to hidden corners. Which is all well and good – but for most of us, a small garden really does mean just that. There's no space for rooms, or hidden corners. Sometimes even the plants seem to take up too much space.

My own garden is one such example. And, being at the bottom of a hill, it's on two levels. Imagine two strips about 6ft deep with a 3ft wall between them and you start to get the idea.

Several designers have been called in over the years for ideas and inspiration. Suggestions included spending £6,000 to level it all out and then deck it. Another wanted £10,000 to level it all out and pave it. And the last quoted £14,000 to level it all out and put down flagstones.

You don't need to do a cost per square metre calculation to realise that these are not exactly what you'd call budget solutions. Finally, we decided to work with what we had and keep the two levels, but to try to trick people into thinking that it's all a deliberate, architectural feature.

Enter designer number four. "A great space," he said. "With clever lighting and clever use of plants, this will be a lovely little garden." I said that as there was to be no heavy landscaping – merely repaving and planting – our budget was around £5,000.

He drew himself up to his full height (about 5ft 4in), sneered, and said that if it wasn't worth doing properly, it wasn't worth doing at all. And properly, in his opinion, meant spending at least £25,000. With that he swept out and has never returned my calls.

Flicking through a recent edition of House & Garden, I see I'm not the only person getting sky-high quotes for small spaces. There, I see that three designers are tackling Rachel Johnson's 20ft by 16ft garden. The costs were £5,000, £22,000 and £50,000 respectively.

How many of us can really justify spending that sort of money on such a small area that will probably be unused for nine months of the year? There's no doubt that a well-planned garden can add value to a property, but when most of us are trying to find the money to do up the kitchen, it's just not realistic.

Finally, I found Graham Davies. A keen gardener from the age of 12, he set up his own business two years ago. He has no truck with the celebrity garden, and is unfazed by a really small space. Crucially, he is also unfazed by a really small budget. So for all of you who are staring glumly at a roof terrace, small backyard or pocket-handkerchief lawn, here are some realistic ideas you can use to create the illusion of space in a tiny garden.

Graham Davies, Graham's Gardens, 07980 608 444,; Mark Gregory, 01932 569 169,;Primrose London, 0870 499 0220,;

How to make tight spaces feel bigger


Creating different levels tricks the eye into thinking that you've got more space than you actually have, Graham Davies says. "If your steps are shallow and wide it gives a grander feel to the garden, and by creating different heights and levels, you give the impression that the space is bigger than it is.

"Another idea is to make your steps work for you. Waterproof cushions on the steps mean they can double up as seats while still giving space for people to walk up and down. Ideally, the step should be one bottom deep and two-and-a-half wide so that two people can sit and one can walk past to the next level."

If your garden is long and thin, use a meandering path with curved beds to lead round the space. Circles work well in square gardens to create interest.


This can be pricey, but in a small garden there isn't room for lots of lights or you will make it look like you are preparing to carry out surgery. Subtle lighting will blur the edges, giving the illusion that there might be more space than there actually is. Uplighters take the eye up towards the open sky so that you are looking at the height rather than the width.

"Use lighting for atmosphere," says Mark Gregory of the landscaping specialists Landform Consultants. "In a small garden, you can afford to spend a bit more on the quality of each light, which will certainly repay you in the long term. I have seen houses go to bidding wars when they are sold because they have really great gardens. It's worth doing things properly."


These are useful for bouncing light into a shady corner. The online shop Primrose does some very clever mirrors that look like half-open windows. Davies says: "Mirrors can be a good trick, but don't put them in an obvious place or they will just look silly. Put them to one side or in a trellis so that you draw the eye in."


There's nothing worse than filling up precious space with a huge table and chairs – let's face it, they might only be used a dozen times a year. Think of your garden as the place where you and your guests can sit or perch for a drink while the barbecue smokes away, and then move inside for eating. That way, you don't clutter everything up with chairs and stools. A couple of built-in benches and those seating-steps and you should be able to accommodate people on different levels without feeling like you're all crammed into a lift. It creates a more informal, picnic feel.


"This may seem an obvious point to make if you have a proper garden, but for those with nothing more than a yard, the choice of plants is crucial," Davies says. "Climbers are perfect as they can grow large and flat against a wall, giving lots of greenery without taking up all the space."

Mark Gregory says: "Think vertical. Some plants that would usually be used as ground cover will adapt and grow upwards if you train them. The other consideration is that small gardens tend to be shady, so remember that when choosing your plants – heucheras, ferns and varieties of ivy all work well."

What to plant in an urban garden

Maya Albert, an adviser to the Royal Horticultural Society, has the following plant suggestions for small gardens:

* Clematis armandii is an evergreen climber with fragrant flowers. It doesn't love the shade, though, and will need to be kept under control.

* Clematis alpina is smaller, evergreen and likes shade.

* Mahonia has spiky architectural leaves with white flowers. It is tough and doesn't mind poor soil, often a consideration in a small garden where there might be neighbouring trees that leach the goodness out of the earth.

* Sarcocca is a tough evergreen shrub with scented flowers.

* Fatsia japonica has hand-shaped glossy tropical-looking leaves.

* Berberis is prickly but has coloured leaves fading to green for extra colour.

* Hostas love shade, although they can be slug magnets.

* Epimedium has heart-shaped leaves that are bronze and give autumn colour.

* Akebia and Hydrangea petiolaris are both good climbers.