Small gardens have to work harder than big ones. When your outdoor space is limited, you’ll need clever design and innovative planting to make it feel roomier.
We asked some of our favourite British garden-designers for their top tips on making a small garden feel more spacious. Here’s their expert advice:
Get creative with design
The tinier your plot, the more creative you’ll need to get, bearing in mind that the end goal is a beautiful space that everyone enjoys spending time in.
“Small gardens are much harder to design than large gardens,” explains Belinda Macdonand of Shades of Green Garden Design:
““Think carefully about what the amenities you need to include in the garden are and consider whether you are able to double up on functionality – e.g. can storage areas be designed into fixed seating?”
Eugene Hill of Dewlands Garden Design agrees that creativity is key to excellent small-garden design. He draws inspiration from the way architectects work within small spaces…“[It’s] all about getting creative with the space to make the most of the tiny footprint. That’s the same philosophy that should be employed when thinking about creating a small garden; getting imaginative to make the most of the space.”
Keep it simple
It’s easy to overwhelm a small garden by trying to fit too much into a tiny area, say our experts. Simplify and strip everything back to achieve a spacious, balanced feel.
“Less is more!” advises Sarah Wilson of Roots and All:
““It’s often more difficult to design a small space than a large one, as restraint is key. If you can hone down the style of your space in terms of colours and style, keep the number of different materials used to a minimum and pare down your planting palette, you’ll find the overall look is more coherent and pleasing to the eye.”
Belinda Macdonald agrees: “the smaller the garden, the smaller the range of materials and plants should be used – use the motto ‘more of less’ to help you to remember this tip.”
“Clear out the clutter,” advises Bo Cook of Bo Cook Landscape and Design: “It is easy to end up collecting pots and other garden objets… Paring back to a few key pieces can help make the space feel calmer and larger.”
Blur the boundaries
All of our experts advised drawing attention away from the boundaries and edges of your small garden, to make it look bigger.
Belinda Macdonald recommends softening your garden’s perimeters:
““Blurring the boundaries of a small garden can help draw the eye to ‘borrowed views’ outside the garden. This can be done in a variety of ways: Planting small trees or large shrubs in informal groups along the boundary and in the corners of the garden; staining fences and or/sheds black makes them ‘disappear’ and encourages planting to stand out.”
And Bo Cook also advises clever planting to do this job: “Green up the boundaries to blur the edges of the garden, and borrow from the wider landscape or cityscape. If you can make your boundaries green, the edges are less obvious, tricking the brain into thinking the garden is larger than it actually is.”
Many gardeners get this so wrong, says Eugene Hill: “If you’ve got a small garden, it can be very tempting to push everything out to the edge, which is a big mistake. When you do this, as you walk into the garden, you instantly see the boundaries at first glance, and by doing that, you tell everyone who visits ‘I’ve got a small garden’.”
Finally, Geoff Stonebanks used a clever visual trick to make his award-winning Driftwood Garden look bigger. He fitted a folly door in the perimeter fence and concealed the edges by an arch with various foliage growing up over it. “There is a real sense that there is more garden beyond the door!” says Geoff.
Use curved edges
If you’ve got a regular-shaped garden, softening the hard edges will also make it look bigger, says Jason of Hornby Garden Designs: “The use of curves in a rectilinear garden can make it look wider, and add a degree of femininity.”
Clever planting will also soften hard paving edges and bring a feeling of space, advises Bo Cook:
““Remember plants soften paving edges, so even if you aren’t in theory a straight line person, you can still have a simple square paving area that is made more organic in shape with the right choice of billowing and spilling edging plants.”
And, speaking of edges, Alexandra of The Middle Sized Garden recommends having just one border in a small garden: “Decide where you’d like your one main border to be and make it as big as you can – don’t try to have equal borders all around the garden.”
Be clever with planting
The plants you choose can also affect how spacious your garden feels, says Alexandra:
““Choose plants that people can see through or round, for example, tall thin spires (such as a very narrow fastigiate yew), verbascum, alliums or foxgloves. Plants you can ‘see through’ include verbena bonariensis, many of the grasses, and thalictrum.”
Well-balanced planting is key, says Sarah Wilson: “Having a harmonious space where everything works together and has been placed with purpose can make the space seem calmer and more expansive.”
For Bo Cook, pared-back planting is essential: “Keep the planting simple. A single multi-stem or standard tree for height and balance, accompanied by groups of repetitive planting, will create a cohesive refined space.”
Plant on the vertical
When we talk about small gardens, we’re focusing mainly on the horizontal plane. But it’s important not to neglect all of the vertical space you have available, says Alexandra: “Your garden has space in the air – make the most of it. These vertical plants lead the eye upwards and distract from the boundaries.”
Belinda Macdonald also recommends planting on the vertical:
““If you love plants, make sure you use all the vertical surfaces in the garden for growing – walls, fences, sheds, consider adding an obelisk, arch or pergola – there are many wonderful climbing plants and some shrubs can be trained against vertical surfaces too.”
When it comes to the size of the plants you choose, Belinda feels you don’t need to restrict yourself to the smallest specimens: “Don’t be afraid of using large structures or plants in a small garden – it can help it to appear bigger.”
Alexandra agrees: “Add one or two eye-catching larger plants to create impact. And always have at least one tree, however small your garden is. It adds proportion to your garden and uses the vertical space as well as offering a home to wildlife and improving air quality.”
Create different zones
Carving out different rooms or spaces is another powerful technique to make your small garden look bigger, says Eugene Hill:
“The trick to designing a small space effectively is to divide it into different functional areas. There might not be a huge scope, but it’s about creating different spaces within the garden so the brain is looking more at compartments within the garden than the actual boundaries.”
Geoff Stonebanks used this technique in Driftwood Garden, creating no less than nine different ‘rooms’: “This solved 2 immediate problems. The garden had to be navigated by moving through each room, instantly giving the sensation of passing through a much bigger plot. Secondly, the various room boundaries helped create different micro-climates throughout the garden.”
Geoff used reclaimed objects to mark out each new room in his garden: “…grey, vintage French shutters pinned to the side of small raised beds almost create a doorway moving from one room to the next. This is achieved elsewhere in the garden with rusty old gates and railings too. The use of tall objects, to create height, works well.”
Choose the best
Finally, every inch counts in a small garden, so always pick the best of everything that your budget can accommodate: “Use the best quality hardscape materials you can afford as everything is on show in a small garden,” advises Belinda Macdonald.
For huge impact in a small space, Jack of Jack Wallington Garden Design recommends investing in quality furniture:
““It sounds silly but new, stylish furniture instantly makes people go wow if you choose something carefully, so it’s always worth splashing out on good furniture. Also, grow one annual en masse, such as Calendula or Cosmos, and spread it around in stylish pots. Having the same plant in lots of places adds colour, impact and structure that’s guaranteed to knock people’s socks off.”
Eugene Hill suggests that you should approach the design of your garden as if it were a room in your house: “Think about your outdoor space like a kitchen, something you’ll enjoy using every day – it’s an investment so why not invest the same sort of money in your small back garden as you would your small kitchen? Design it carefully to be something you want to be in and it’s money well spent!”
We’d like to thank all of the garden designers who shared their insider wisdom for this article. And we hope you’ve found some tips and techniques that will help you make the most of your own small garden.
Since the first seed catalogue was published in 1855, Thompson & Morgan has grown to become one of the UK’s largest Mail Order Seed and Plant companies. Through the publication of our catalogues and the operation of our award-winning website, Thompson & Morgan is able to provide home gardeners with the very best quality products money can buy.