Small Space Garden Design

Our outdoor spaces and gardens are getting smaller. Whether we have a balcony, back yard or  garden, thinking about the design optimises the function and enjoyment we get from our small space. 

It has been said that anything less than an acre qualifies as a small garden. In my view, a garden can be considered small if its area is less than the footprint of the house.

The Garden and its Boundaries

Just because the physical area is limited, there is nothing stopping us from ‘borrowing’ something beyond the immediate boundaries. This common design trick could be a neighbour’s tree which may act as focal point from within your own garden. Alternatively your gaze could be directed to something in the wider environment. This borrowed landscape makes the garden appear larger than it really is.  See

Hedges are often shared ‘plants’ and can create lovely foils to your own garden planting.

Hedges make good backdrops to planting
Hedges make good backdrops to planting

They can be used to blur the boundary. Dense planting creates depth and intrigue. The end of the garden becomes mysterious.

Colour is often used in planting design to trick the brain, distorting distances. Reds come towards us whilst blues recede. A fence painted a dark colour such as grey or black, also distances a boundary and produces a lovely backdrop for your own plants to ‘sing’ against.

Another way of implying distance is to put a false doorway into a boundary, suggesting there is more to explore.

The Garden and House 

The back yard or garden has to link to the dwelling. The garden can be seen as an extension of the home and putting the patio outside the bi-fold doors is obvious. Another garden design technique is to put the main garden axis on the diagonal. The longest dimension is presented to the garden user and the remaining triangles of a rectangular plot provide possible planting pockets.


Planting opportunities

Another dimension that shouldn’t be ignored is the vertical.

Climbing plants can be trained up trees, fences, pergolas, arbours or obelisk structures.

Trachelospermum jasminoides growing up a fence
Trachelospermum jasminoides growing up a fence

If a boundary is used by climbers this again blurs those boundaries. 

One of my favourite small trees is Amelanchier ‘Obelisk’. Although deciduous, even in winter it provides a sentinel like structure, lifting the eye to the sky.

Amelanchier 'Obelisk' provide vertical planting
Amelanchier ‘Obelisk’ provide vertical planting

Garden Structures

A garden should not only look good but also work well from a practical sense. Where space is tight, a structure may have more than one use. A retaining wall as a seat should be broad enough and at the right height. A seat could act as a store, containing outdoor cushions for example. A shed may support climbing plants or even a green roof.

Shed with sedum green roof
Shed with sedum green roof

Wheelie bin stores could also feature a sedum green roof. Similarly, green walls are making an appearance with DIY options now available, perhaps planted with a range of herbs for some low key kitchen gardening.

The drive and car often occupy a significant proportion of a front garden. Low planting in a permeable paving material, if carefully selected, can survive the intermittent cover of a car.

Material Choice

All materials for a small space should be chosen with care. The landscaper’s skills in laying paving with clean narrow joints has to be up to the scrutiny of the garden user. If only a few hard landscape materials are used this creates a less cluttered look. Large units often work better than small.

Large scale paving units

The ‘less is more’ maxim often works for plants too. Large bold planting works well up to a point. Knowing the plant and its rate of growth is vital when making choices. Some plants can be kept small with topiary, pruning or regularly coppicing but in many instances it is best to choose plants that will not outgrow the space too quickly.

If a plant can give more than one season’s interest then they often find their way into a small space. A small tree or shrub could flower in spring and also have lovely autumn leaf colour. Flowering cherry trees are such an example.  Ornamental grasses should remain upright and not flop with the first winter wet.

Verbena bonariensis in winter
Verbena bonariensis in winter

Repeat flowering perennials or those that naturally flower for weeks also offer much more. Verbena bonariensis is one such designer’s favourite and its seed heads survive into winter. 


The design of a small space often costs more per metre2 than acres of ground. A lawn is one of the cheapest landscaping elements but in a small garden there often isn’t room for one. 

However a well designed and maintained space adds value to your home and repays the outlay. The garden user, in the meantime can enjoy a multitude of benefits a garden has to offer.


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