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The Small Garden

Design tips and tricks to make the most of your limited space

By Clayton Ditzler


Whether by choice or circumstance, you have found yourself with a small garden space. The question is, how do you take advantage of the opportunity? And make no mistake—it does present one. The word ‘small’ has such a negative connotation, as though we have sacrificed something to end up in this place. Let’s look at ways we can make the most of a small space so that when it is finished, it is both beautiful and functional, and the last word people use to describe it is ‘small.’

Begin With Your Wish List

The first thing to think about is how you want to use the space. Obviously, certain things like Olympic-size swimming pools are out, but incorporating a plunge pool or a spa are two options. If you enjoy a campfire, consider a portable or gas-fired unit that can be moved aside when not in use. In other words, choose the features or activities you want most, and design the garden to incorporate them. Take into account all aspects of your lifestyle, right down to the number of seats you want at a dining table—it would be very disappointing to arrive at the end of the process only to discover your favourite furnishings will not fit.

In all cases, be bold—less is more. A common mistake in designing small backyard spaces is to use lots of little things, such as several small statuary items or a ‘onesy-twosy’ planting scheme. The fewer types of materials and items used in a garden, the larger it will appear.

Your Garden As A Room

Next, it helps to visualize the garden space as a room, something we can relate to, as it is to scale and where we are most comfortable. If your home opens on to the garden, this is a great opportunity to make it an extension of your living area. Techniques such as carrying similar colour tones, textures, and materials from inside to the garden area (or vice versa) help with this transition and function to make both spaces seem larger.

Apply the elements of a room to your small garden, starting with the walls. Rooms have walls—they define a space, provide separation from other areas, and often offer a measure of privacy. If your garden is not already enclosed, consider adding fences or walls to define the space. If you have a view or other borrowed landscape, take advantage of it by keeping it unobstructed or by framing it whilst closing in other spaces. Depending on the space, solid walls can sometimes feel too confining. Consider lattice, which has a more open feel to it, or softening walls with plant material. There may even be an opportunity to paint a mural on a wall to create an illusion of depth or to hang a piece of art to act as a focal point.

Next, consider the floors. For the most part, the functional spaces in a small garden will be a deck or patio in a variety of materials. In general, you won’t have room for turf, unless this is very high on your wish list. Therefore, keep in mind surfaces must take on the role of that negative space in the design—a simple pattern or monolithic surface will make the space feel larger than a smaller busy pattern. Avoid using too many materials, as this will also result in a busy look.

Having a ‘ceiling’ on your garden enhances the feeling of it being a room by lowering the height of the space and keeping it proportional. A wooden pergola can create this effect while letting in light. Depending on the design, this covering can be used to provide some shade and can be softened with vines. An appropriate small tree can also serve as the ceiling as the canopy matures. Think about it—who does not love sitting under a tree on a hot day? A patio umbrella can also create that ceiling effect.

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