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

Use height, structure and colour to create stunning borders in small gardens

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. 


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