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Garden design for small spaces

Posted on Oct 10, 2014

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 Using the principals of design in your landscape

By Katie Costain and Ben Freeman

In Christchurch and urban areas across the globe, gardens are becoming smaller as real estate values, building footprints and time constraints increase.

In a small garden everything is on display – walls, paving, structures, furniture and plants are all visible from your house and usually all at once.

Depending on your way of thinking, space limitations can be either restricting or liberating. Just because your garden is small in size, it doesn’t mean it has to be small on design.  Below are some of our top tips for designing a small garden.

Small gardens need to be planned with just as much, if not more, care than large gardens. It is important to take your time and consider the site conditions and limitations.

If you are aware of the advantages and restrictions of your site, you can fully develop the potential of your garden. Consider how your garden will be used throughout the year; take note of where the sun rises and sets during the day, as this will give you a good indication of where to best site your furniture and plant choices.

Simplicity is crucial to the success of a small garden. Whether you’re choosing hard landscaping (pavers, structures) or soft materials (plants), it’s essential to try to limit your selection to only one or two varieties. Attempting to place too many design elements in a tiny area can result in a dilution of the overall effect, and make the space appear even smaller.

The selection of plants in a small outdoor space is important and restricting the range of species will help to strengthen the design. The plants used within a small garden have to provide a variety of functions: it needs to provide year-round colour and interest, establish structure, soften ‘hardscapes’ and built forms, and keep a low
maintenance profile.

In terms of planting, layers are perfect for small gardens. Colourful, flowering perennials and clumping groundcovers can be used to form the lower layers, while shrubs, climbers and/or small trees add height to the upper layers.

Opt for one or two species of perennials, shrubs and climbers, and mass-plant these in clumps along the base of walls, around trees and to fill any bare patches.

All gardens, regardless of size, look better with a tree. Trees provide verticality to balance the horizontal lines of pathways, lawns and fences. They can also add structure, colour, fragrance, flowers/berries and a home for birds.
Compact tree species can be planted in large pots if space is very limited. Small varieties of flowering cherries, magnolia, citrus, maple and our native cabbage tree (Cordyline australis) are all great options.

Climbers are ideal for small gardens. Not only does it take up very little ground space, it can be used to cover tall walls and screen out unsightly views. With a huge variety to choose from, most will also happily adapt to growing in pots and regular trimming to keep shape.

Shrubs like pittosporum, coprosma and camellia are used in many planting schemes across New Zealand for their versatility and easy care nature. They are essential for small gardens because they provide a leafy outlook, a rich sense of texture and don’t take up as much space as trees.

Structure is important when it comes to designing a small garden. The hardscape ‘bones’ of the design hold it together in all seasons and weather conditions. Hardscape elements including paving, decking, seating, water features and raised garden beds unite and anchor the softer and more fluid forms of the planting.

A great way to add depth to a site and create additional interest is the inclusion of a feature or focal point within the space.

Problematically, many small gardens are enclosed by a hedge, wall or fence, so have no natural focal point leading the eye through the garden. A sculpture, water feature or even a large piece of bespoke furniture creates an internal focal point.

The best small gardens are those which have a bold and strong design view. Space, and how to best utilise it, is the key in any small garden, get that right and the rest follow on.

It is surprising how much can be incorporated into a design, whilst still allowing room for all kinds of use.

In the smallest of gardens where outdoor space is at a premium, simply rotating the design 45 degrees can instantly make the space feel larger and more interesting. By doing this, large garden beds can be created in the corners of the site, creating a sense of depth and allowing you a wider variety of planting opportunities.

Key tips to remember:
•    Evaluate your site before you begin. What are the physical attributes of your site:  sun exposure, soil composition, architecture etc
•    If in doubt, pare back the design. Simplicity is crucial to the success of a small garden
•    The structure of your garden holds the entire design together. Consider the use of strong design features and hard landscaping and how this can contrast and complement the softscape plantings
•    A focal point in your design and layered planting adds depth and interest to your garden
•    Use a restricted plant palette to strengthen the design and overall outcome of  your garden
•    Plants that have multiple purposes are great for limited spaces. Edibles such as  lemon trees, artichokes, rosemary and lavender hedges, are not only functional, but look great too. They are an excellent way of saving space in a small garden, and  many varieties grow exceptionally well in pots and containers.

Katie Costain and Ben Freeman are the directors of Billygoat Landscape Architecture (BGLA), based in Canterbury and Wellington. For more information, visit www.bgla.co.nz

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