Garden Design by Paul Slater
Garden Design by Paul Slater  

Small Gardens

I am often approached by people who proclaim their gardens are tiny and assume that I wouldn’t be interested in designing their spaces. I actually love a small garden! I have spent the last 17 years designing and creating gardens of all shapes and sizes, including grounds of 5 acres, which is lovely but, it’s the smaller gardens that I have a real passion for. It’s the small gardens that need better planning and strict design parameters. Maximising the potential of a small space takes skill, experience and creativity. Mistakes made in a small garden are obvious and will affect your enjoyment of the garden. Details really matter.  


Our homes and gardens are getting smaller yet we demand more from them. Modern homes tend to get the minimum outside space required by planning restrictions. In fact 12% of homes in the UK* do not even have access to a private garden. Some inner city gardens (and some coastal properties or farm properties) have always been small just 16 square meters on average in London*.  But, with our busy modern lifestyles, small may be best. Minimum maintenance requirements and the ability to create genuine inside/outside living are a big bonus for many us. With some clever planning and creativity, small gardens can be fantastic spaces to spend time and relax.  


The average size garden across the UK is 188 square metres*. So taking into account all those tiny city spaces and mixing with the huge sprawling estates in Scotland, your garden may not be as unusual or even small as you think. When my wife and I bought our current property, we deliberately chose one with a smaller garden. At 120 square meters it is about half the size of our previous property’s garden. Why? Well, probably the same reason most of us choose the garden – apart from it was the just attached to the right house, we both work long hours and want to enjoy our home, inside and outside, without having to spend lots of time and effort keeping it looking nice. We needed the garden to work for our lifestyle, to look good all year with minimal effort. We need it to look after itself if we went on holiday. So with a bit of planning, some design tricks and a little knowledge of plants we were able to create something that is absolutely perfect for us.


Read on to discover how to make the most of what you have:


Plan, plan plan!

If we can learn one major lesson from interior design it’s that detailed planning and effective design is even more important in a small space. Mistakes really stand out and can be costly.

Start by making a scale drawing of the outline of the space available. Mark where the house sits and where the windows and doors are. Mark where North is or mark the areas that get morning sun, evening sun, places that may need shade. This is what we call a zone plan. If your garden is going to be a place for lots of plants, prioritise space to give them the space they need (my guide on ‘Plant Selection’ gives a few tips). You may have to forego a large patio to make room. Position your patio where it gets the sun at the time of day you are going to use it. For example; if you like to eat breakfast outside, place your patio on the West side of the garden. If you like to spend evenings relaxing and watching the sunset, your seating should be on the East side.  


Use verticals.

Its easy to underestimate the importance of vertical surfaces in a garden.  Fences, sheds, house walls, trellis, pergolas and arbours can all be used to add colour and height.  These are the ‘walls’ to your room. Make sure they are well maintained, clean and painted. We tend to look down at the ground when walking, or straight ahead at best. The trick is to create vertical sight lines that lead your eyes upwards to the vast sky above us.

Climbers grown up and over fences and structures create a sense of privacy and disguise boundaries. Various clematis, honeysuckle and roses work well – Trachelospermum Jasminoides is one of my favourites.

There are a number of vertical planting solutions that allow you to create a living wall. Careful plant selection is essential but it can significantly increase the amount of planting space in your garden. In sunny areas use shallow rooted, drought tolerant species such as Stipa Tenuissima, low growing sedums or Mediterranean herbs. Various ferns or heuchera work well in areas with less sun.


Use big plants.

The temptation is to avoid anything too big in a small space. But the right plant can be a real feature. We’re not talking about big Oak trees here, but plants that give huge impact – just 1 or 2. A small tree like an Amelanchier or a Prunus Accolade or a banana palm for a tropical look. Larger ornamental grasses look fantastic in most settings. Small courtyard gardens tend to be very sheltered and can make very good tropical style or Mediterranean themed spaces. They can reflect light and hold heat. Big old Olive tree? Perfect!  

Use bold colour.

It’s fair to say that in small gardens we need to be selective with plant species and it may not be possible to have the diversity of a wide range of colours throughout the year. But, small spaces really lend themselves to bold colours, whether in plants or as a background.  For year round colour paint a wall, shed or pergola a striking colour. Strong orange, deep reds or bold purple (think Cadburys dairy milk wrapper) work well with a foliage based planting scheme. Muted shades hint at a more relaxed feel.  Painting an fence black or dark grey is a brave move but the reward is quite dramatic. Every leaf and every bloom will stand out and have the ability to really show off! Here’s the thing – painting a room black or dark colour inside your home can make it feel oppressive and closes in the space. Outside, it has the opposite effect opening up the space as well as creating a foil for all those lovely plants.  


Ground level surfaces

The choice of hard landscape materials is absolutely mind boggling! Natural stone paving has always been my favourite and when installed correctly will last a lifetime. Lighter colour stone will reflect light and make the space feel bigger. Darker stone such as slate will absorb the heat from the sun and radiate it back out in the evening like a natural storage heater. Porcelain paving is relatively new to the UK and it claims many advantages over natural stone. Some of those claims are true – the biggest being that it allows greater creativity in laying patterns and colours.

Traditional softwood decking has just about had its day – the main problem is that it had been done badly too many times. Good quality hardwoods are now more readily available – the dark tones look good in many styles of garden. With some regular (but simple) maintenance it will last a very long time (Ipe timber, also known as Brazilian Walnut) can last over 100 years even without extra treatments! What ever timber is used, make sure it is installed well.

Decorative aggregates are a cost effective way of covering a large area and, although not suitable for everyone, allow good drainage (always a consideration). According to current planning rules you can not cover more than 50% of your garden with non-permeable surfaces). A light coloured shingle can reflect light and give a very relaxed natural feel to a garden.

 A lawn in a small space is a luxury item. It is the most demanding and time consuming plant to maintain. As a designer, it is rarely my top priority in a small space. Artificial lawn is a last resort but never discounted totally.

There are now a number of outside rugs available that can transform the look of a tired patio or terrace for minimal outlay.  



The layout of any garden depends somewhat on how you want to use the garden and the style of it.  A traditional garden with a lawn will need a patio in a position that allows the maximum lawn size. You could add several smaller patios to enable you to sit in sun or shade at any time of day.

A modern garden used as a living space extension could have several defined areas (cooking, eating or lounging) set across the space. A larger patio or deck centrally placed allows a versatile area where furniture can be changed with the needs of your family.

Define separate areas with different flooring or planting styles. Use large pots or raised beds to create separation without blocking the overall view of the space.

Adding raised or sunken areas also adds definition to separate areas but also creates an increased sense of space.  Level changes over 300mm (either raised or reduced) from the original ground level may need planning permission.

If your garden is square, add a large circle in the middle. The curves confuse your eyes ability to reference dimensions. If your garden is an irregular shape, set out the paving at 45*. This creates long lines of sight and makes it feel bigger. You will also get interesting shaped planting areas that help disguise different areas.  

Even in the smallest spaces it is important to create perspective or views and sight lines. One trick I like to use is to create the longest slight lines possible, often starting inside the house or even beyond. When you enter the front door of a house being able to see through the house, out the rear windows and all the way to the rear boundary really opens up the sense of space both inside and outside! Add those verticals to direct the eye upwards and beyond the garden.

Talking of directing the eye beyond the garden ‘borrowed landscape’ is a term often used to describe how we include views, objects or larger plants outside the garden. For example large trees in neighbours properties (or your neighbours neighbours property) can be used as a focal point. Disguising the boundaries in your own garden with similar colour or texture as the trees beyond makes the wider area feel part of the garden.


Inside/outside interface.

Using the same flooring outside really does work to blur the inside and outside. Match the style of furniture and colour schemes for an even greater impact. House plants by the door that and similar leaf shape and texture adds to the seamless look. You have to consider the damp proof course (DPC) of your house but there are several options that a good designer or architect can suggest to overcome this. It is normal to have a step of 150mm below DPC to avoid the risk of rain water or damp getting into your home. Done well, a level floor makes the whole house and garden feel much bigger.



How many of us really consider our garden furniture preferring to settle instead for the ‘that will do’ attitude or the traditional timber table and chairs? A small garden needs to fit the space and allow you to walk around it.

Consider custom built in seating around a table to maximise the space available. Storage can even be built into it!  I once built a fire basket with removable table over the top - when the client finished with the table it was lifted out and a fire could be lit in its place. This was surrounded by a curved wall painted orange.

You may not need a dining table (some people just don’t like eating outside) but how about a bar with stools? Perfect for breakfast or drinks while the BBQ is cooking. Or drinks with breakfast – I don’t judge!

A simple bench makes a good perch for a morning coffee and can be slotted into a small alcove or among the planting.

If you want a more relaxing option – choose sofas or chairs that have an open structure so you can see through them. The classic ‘Acapulco chair’ has been very popular in recent years and are extremely comfortable.

A modern take on a hanging chair is also good for a small garden. String or rope chairs hung from a substantial frame make a cool seat for summer lounging. Grow climbers up  the frame to disguise it.


Hopefully this has given you a bit of inspiration to embrace a smaller garden and help you make the most of what you have. If you don’t want to tackle your garden on your own I have a range of services to help. Contact Us to see how.



*Source Office of National Statistics


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© paul slater