What’s a ‘small’ garden? Usually urban, it could be many things – a strip between front fence and veranda, a pocket-sized backyard, a courtyard or patio, or even a balcony. What all small gardens have in common is that every centimetre counts. Design needs to be pared back and concentrated, including only what’s essential.
Physical space Making your space a pleasurable place to be starts with the physical elements: sun/shade, wind, views and access to water. Then there are the human needs. What do you use the garden for – cooking and entertaining? A private retreat? Extra living space? A wild space for kids to play? Growing vegetables, fruit or herbs? Even a small garden space can meet all these needs
Mutlitasking structures Built-in structures need to multitask. Steps and decking can double as seating, as can generous built-in edges on a raised bed or sandpit. Screens to give privacy (or hide the bins) can double as supports for cucumbers or sweet peas. For shade structures, adaptable options like umbrellas, retractable awnings/sails or pergolas planted with deciduous vines give you options for more sun in winter and less in summer.
Planting to make it ‘bigger’ Simplifying your planting palette can make a small space look bigger. Plants with large leaves, such as monstera, fig or taro, seem to be closer than they are, so backing them with fine-textured plants creates an illusion of distance. Blur the boundaries by covering at least some of the walls or fences with vines or tall upright plants like rushes or bamboo (well-contained to prevent a takeover). Look at the plants’ eventual size and choose those that won’t outgrow their space.
Make it edible Even a small garden has room for edibles – maybe not all your favourite vegetables, but you can start with fresh salad greens and herbs. Lots of veges thrive in containers, and dwarf fruit trees can grow in a barrel if given plenty of liquid feed. If you only have room for one fruit tree, choose your very favourite – for me, it would have to be a lemon tree for the fragrance of its flowers as well as the flavour of its fruits.
Fire (Sun): Are you a sunbaker? Or do you prefer a shady corner? In winter, a sunny patch to sit in is a luxury; in summer, full midday sun is uncomfortable. Is there a certain time of day – morning coffee, or after work – when you like to sit in the sun? Put a chair in the part of the garden that catches the light then. And save the sunniest corner for warmth-loving treasures, such as tomatoes in grow bags or a lemon tree.
Wind: Depending where you live, this can greatly affect how much people enjoy your garden. Small, enclosed gardens are often very sheltered, but balconies or roof spaces can be ultra exposed, and the hard surfaces of walls or buildings can amplify the wind. Don’t let wind stop you enjoying your space – a little screening around a sitting area makes a huge difference. Permeable hedges, shrubs or trellis work best because they absorb wind rather than channelling it.
Water: Buildings and walls often cast a ‘rain shadow’ where things get very dry. Containers and pots also dry out quickly. Choose drought-tolerant plants for the driest spots to save endless watering. And consider a water feature: even something small like a birdbath or barrel-sized pool can bring wildlife into small spaces.
Earth: Make every centimetre in your garden count by building the best soil possible. Even a balcony has room to tuck in a worm farm, recycling kitchen scraps into valuable fertiliser. Add extra compost and mulch to containers for maximum nutrition and moisture, or pack a small bed with extra compost to plant veges closer together than usual.