Why rudbeckia is one of Lee Burkhill’s top three plants

Photo of Lee Burkhill - The Garden Ninja

Image: Lee Burkhill is also known as Garden Ninja

Lee Burkhill, aka Garden Ninja, is an award-winning garden designer, horticultural expert, presenter on BBC1’s ‘Garden Rescue’ and the owner of a hugely popular gardening YouTube channel. Having studied Horticulture with the RHS at Edinburgh Botanical gardens, he has 35 years of hands-on experience and has designed hundreds of urban gardens. Lee’s excellent videos are a great way to pick up practical tips and his passion for his subject makes them a joy to watch. 

Shortlisted for the Garden Media Guild’s Individual Social Media Influencer of the Year Award 2023, we caught up with Lee to learn a bit about his professional journey and the highlights of his career so far. Here’s what he told us…


Small border planting ideas with high impact

Stock image of an outdoor dining area with table and colourful borders

Use height, structure and colour to create stunning borders in small gardens
Image: photographee.eu

The average length of a UK garden is just 15 metres long, but limited space doesn’t prevent you from having gorgeous borders filled with show-stopping plants and shrubs. We asked Lee Burkhill, the professional designer behind Garden Ninja, for his advice on giving small gardens huge impact.

Here are Lee’s top tips for turning a small garden into an outdoor space with real wow-factor.

Edit your ideas

Garden with ferns, hostas and outdoor chairs

Concentrating on ferns, hostas and a limited colour palette gives this border cohesion
Image: Svineyard

I know just how tricky small gardens can be to design and plant effectively. In fact, I’ve specialised in small and awkward garden design for some years now. The most difficult part is editing your choices to make sure you maintain a consistent style throughout the space.

As eager gardeners we’re all keen to get as much variety as possible, and this can sometimes be our downfall. It’s easy to end up with what I call a ‘pick and mix’ garden that has no real flow or style. Learning to edit is vital in a small space.

Work out your garden’s aspect 

Lee from Garden Ninja planting a south-facing 'hot' border

Lee planting a south-facing ‘hot’ border
Image: Garden Ninja

Before you buy any plants, or reach for your spade, it’s worth spending a little time thinking about the style of garden you want based on its aspect.

The ‘aspect’ of your garden refers to its position in relation to the sun. It’s critical to know how much sun you’ll get so that you can choose the plants that will work best. Use a compass to work out which direction your garden faces and how much sun it gets during the day. South-facing gardens usually get the most natural daylight while north-facing can be quite shaded.

If you’re wanting a hot border, for example, you’ll need to make sure your garden gets enough sun and then focus on hot herbaceous plants like heleniums and grasses. If your garden has lots of shade, then you’ll be looking for fern-like foliage, damp-tolerant plants plus lots of muted colours that thrive in a more sheltered environment. Start with what’s already growing well in your garden to kick off your plans.

Choose a style

Very clear border divide in a garden

Are you drawn to strikingly modern planting schemes or cottage garden pastels?
Image: Del Boy

Saying that you’d “like it to be pretty” is not specific enough I’m afraid! Spending just a couple of hours thinking about what you want will set you up for success.

Are you drawn to formal or informal garden styles? Do you love naturalistic planting, or very modern schemes with striking blocks of colour? Would you prefer a low maintenance, evergreen border or a high impact, high maintenance cottage style?

Researching different garden styles online can really help you work out what look you’re aiming for, and provide much needed inspiration. Skip this step and you run the risk of creating a garden with no identity. I always advise clients to keep it simple and never try to combine two styles at the same time.

Trees in small gardens

Apple ‘Golden Delicious’ (M27 rootstock) from Thompson & Morgan

Growing to no more than 2m, dwarf fruit trees are a lovely addition to a small border
Image: Apple ‘Golden Delicious’ (M27 rootstock) from Thompson & Morgan

Trees are so important – they cool down gardens by providing shade, they feed and shelter wildlife, and they help to slow down the flow of water. There’s definitely a small tree for every sized garden and I’m certainly not the first to advocate this. However, many clients recoil in horror when I suggest trees for their small urban gardens. Even a tiny border can feature a small tree – the trick is to choose the correct type.

Two of my favourite types of tree for small spaces are:

  • Fruit trees on M27 rootstock. These won’t grow much taller than 1.5-2m and you get to enjoy their gorgeous fruits! Apple, quince and plum trees are a doddle to look after once planted – just a light snip here and there is all they need. Or, you could get a stepover fruit tree (trained to grow in a low horizontal line) or an espalier variety to grow against a wall for a real structural statement.
  • Multi-stem ornamental trees. These gorgeous specimens can become the focal point of your border. I love things like Prunus Serrula Tibetica, or even a quince or medlar fruit tree to really wow the neighbours. Their multi-stems allow light to pass through but restrict their overall vigour. Requiring little pruning, their height will also make your garden feel bigger by drawing your eye upwards rather than just across the garden.

Go big with your planting

Small Scottish border brimming with large plant

This small Scottish border is decadently brimming with large plants
Image: Rico Baumann135

If you’ve only got a small border, planting bigger is always better in my experience. Don’t be tempted to use lots of small plants to make your border feel fuller. Instead, go for some larger specimens to add drama. And don’t avoid taller plants. Variety is the spice of life after all.

Here are some of the best, hard-working and visually striking plants that blend with pretty much anything in a herbaceous border:

  • Hebe ‘Mrs Winder’ – This low-maintenance, high-impact evergreen shrub provides year-round structure and flowers.
  • Carex (multiple varieties) – These sedges give year-round colour and interest. Again practically zero-maintenance, and when planted en masse or as an edging plant they are really dramatic.
  • Callicarpa bodinieri – This well behaved, deciduous shrub packs a real punch. With ribbed green leaves throughout spring and summer, during Autumn you get neon purple berries that are a real focal point.
  • Ground cover plants – I can’t stress enough how filling empty spaces with plants such as erigeron (Mexican fleabane), lamium (non-stinging nettle for shade) or a geranium like ‘Johnsons Blue’ brings unity to your border. When you plant these en masse you provide cohesion and consistency to your garden – perfect for bringing a small space to life. Forget leaving spaces for weeds to take root. Pack your borders to get the greatest effect!

Plant groups of threes and fives

Garden order in groups 3s and 5s

No matter what size border you have, plant groups of 3s and 5s
Image: Denise Allison Coyle

My final piece of advice goes for all gardens, no matter what size – plant in groups of three or five. Grouping plants immediately brings a sense of intent to a garden and cohesion to your planting scheme. People often plant one of this and one of that in their borders. I know you want variety, but this approach can make your garden look very disjointed. It sounds counter-intuitive, but having the same plant repeated regularly in multiples around the border gives you a much more effective finish.

‘Pick and mix’ planting breaks continuity and makes your outdoor space feel frantic rather than calming. Unless it’s a specimen tree or shrub, then make sure you use the 3s and 5s rule.

Small gardens rely heavily on flow and unity. When buying plants, keep checking if you’re being consistent. Does it fit with your chosen style, colour scheme and aspect? If not, don’t add it to your basket. Follow these tips and you’ll end up with a strong, well-planned design and a wonderful garden to enjoy for many years to come. 


Gardening without plastic

plastic free gardening

A few small changes can make a big difference 
Image: Garden Ninja

We’re flooding the planet with plastic, and there’s currently a huge focus on how much ends up in our oceans. But as gardeners, what can we do about it? Traditionally, plant care and propagation have always relied heavily on plastic – it’s cheap, durable and easy to use. However, the lack of recycling options often means it ends up in landfill or as a pollutant. 

We asked Garden Ninja, Lee Burkhill, a professional garden designer who’s passionate about the environment, what he’s doing to tackle this problem. Here are Lee’s top tips for reducing your use of plastic – with just a few small changes to everyday tasks we can all make a difference…

Plan alternatives to plastic in advance

Boxes full of plastic plant pots

Plastic plant pots in a shed 
Image: corners74

Plastic is incredibly durable, but it can take centuries to fully break down – a problem made even worse when it’s not correctly recycled. Last year I counted somewhere near 400 plastic plant pots in my own shed, along with old compost bags. Although I reuse these pots and bags each year until they’re no longer fit for purpose, it prompted me to think about plastic-free alternatives so that I’m ready to switch to a biodegradable solution when the time comes.

Sow in wooden seed trays

Wooden trays with sown seeds

Seed sowing in wooden trays
Image: Garden Ninja

Seed sowing is one of my favourite activities and, looking around at my online gardening peers, it seems to be a shared passion. Creating and growing from seed greatly increases the variety of plants available. It’s also better for the environment as it reduces the ‘food miles’ travelled by plants, flowers, fruit and vegetables.

I’ve been using a range of different plastic-free growing containers this year and the results have been really positive. Wooden seed trays have been a real winner. Not only do they look absolutely lovely compared to a sea of black plastic, but they heat up really quickly – great for seed germination! They’re also really breathable, meaning that the roots on my seedlings have been far stronger than their plastic counterparts.

I experienced zero damping off or humidity-related issues when using wooden seed trays compared to plastic. They do cost more initially and don’t stack inside each other, which is a slight drawback. However, they should last me close to 20-30 years if I look after them, bringing a better economy to their purchase.

Sow in homemade newspaper pots

Homemade plant pots made from biodegradable newspaper

Making your own pots from biodegradable newspaper is quick and easy
Image: Garden Ninja

The next surprise winner has been homemade newspaper pots. Yes, you read that right. I’ve been using a round jig to make pots from strips of newspaper to pot on my seedlings.

I know they won’t last longer than a few months before breaking down. But for annuals and vegetables that I’ll be planting out as soon as they’re strong enough, they are unbeatable. What’s even better, you can fit 24 of these paper pots into one of the wooden trays, which makes moving and hardening plants off really easy. I love things that are multi-purpose.

Like the idea but don’t have time to make your own? Thompson & Morgan sells packs of 48 fibre pots – you can plant out the whole pot when you’re ready and it will naturally biodegrade into the soil.

Reuse and recycle

48-pack biodegradable fibre grow pots from Thompson & Morgan

Use recycled yogurt pots or buy biodegradable pots online
Image: 48-pack biodegradable fibre grow pots from Thompson & Morgan

Finally, reusing plastic containers from the house does deserve a rightful mention. Yogurt pots, vegetable packaging and other plastic containers all make great seed trays or starter pots. I’d always advocate reusing as much as possible before these end up in the waste. In fact, I’d argue there’s actually no reason to buy plastic seed pots and containers if you carefully watch what you’re throwing away from inside and then reuse!

Make your own compost

Compost in a wooden compost bin

A rotating composter will last a lifetime and can produce compost in less than 8 weeks
Image: Stonel

Compost is an easy way to achieve plastic-free credentials – provided you have the space to make your own. Once you get into the rhythm of making your own compost you can, in theory, provide enough for your growing needs. It can be tricky for new gardeners to get the right balance for perfect compost. I’ll be the first to admit I have to tweak my recipes each year. Patience is key with home composting (that and the mythical perfect nitrogen to carbon ratio!)

If you don’t have the space or time to compost, the alternative is buying it in thick plastic bags. Often these bags are classed as ‘single use’ i.e. they can’t be recycled and end up in landfill. I tend to reuse these bags around the garden when weeding or clearing up, but there are other alternatives for empty compost bags. Weed bags for life, if you will!

There’s also been an increase recently in the number of local independent nurseries that provide a ‘loose’ compost scheme. You take along your own bag or container and pay for your compost by weight. What a great idea! I’d urge you to research your nearest loose compost provider. That way your bags can live on!

Another great use for compost bags is as an alternative weed membrane. If you’re thinking of putting down weed membrane matting (which itself is usually plastic based) in a low maintenance bed, why not cut open your old compost bags and reuse them? First pierce the bags, like you would a microwave meal, to allow for drainage and airflow. Then overlap them on the area to be covered and top with a healthy layer of either compost or earth. Cut planting holes through the bags to allow plants to grow whilst suppressing weeds. Yes, it may take more time than rolling out a huge carpet of membrane, but you’re helping to reduce your landfill waste and saving money.

As gardeners we have a first-hand understanding of the delicate and beautiful ecology that our gardens contain. By considering alternatives to plastic, and spending a little more time thinking about where our plastic ends up, we can start to make changes. These ideas might seem small – but they’re a good step in the right direction to reduce waste, limit pollution and inspire others to make similar changes. 


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