It had been a whole two years since we downed tools on the kitchen extension and I’d downed more than my fair share of chocolate Hobnobs during that time while staring disappointedly out over the barren waste land that was our little patch of outdoor space. I didn’t even feel comfortable referring to it as a ‘small garden’ at this stage. It was basically used solely as a dog toilet and a bicycle dumping ground. It wasn’t that we had forgotten about it while planning our design though – far from it. It, along with our kitchen and family room had always been part of one big design plan.
“We wanted to create the illusion that the kitchen, family room and small garden were all one, unified space.”
Bringing the outside in, sounds like such a cliché now, but we literally wanted to do just that. We added countless garden materials to the design of our interior to give us that clear connection to the outdoors, not to mention saving us money as a result. It was now finally time to finish what we started and link together all of those connections to the great outdoors.
The garden was letting the side down and the bifold doors were like a big old reminder of that every single day. We needed to save up the money and be patient though so that we could design our small garden properly and after-all, we wouldn’t want to damage our reputation as being the slowest renovators of all time, would we?
The biggest expense and the most crucial part of the design for our small garden was the clad fence. One of the original ideas that remains from the initial meeting with the architect is the concept that the entire space would be clad in the same material; wood of course. It took us what felt like forever to source the red cedar that we eventually settled on for the interior, you can read more about that in a previous blog post about our full renovation here.
We had originally planned to use the same red cedar around the entire garden but we decided against it for two reasons…the first reason is that it would have weathered and turned grey over time. Now I do love a bit of weathered wood but the internal cladding would have remained the rich warm red colour and the two would no longer have been a continuous thread which was kind of the whole point. The second reason was budget, it would have been quite costly to buy and treat the wood for external use, not to mention the cost of the labour involved in creating this.
I began searching for a similar tongue and groove style fence that could be stained to match the red cedar colour. As always with these types of searches, they take much longer than anticipated. When you want something to look a little bit unique, you shouldn’t be surprised that you’re not able to nip to your local B&Q to buy it and bring it home that very same day, but of course these searches always pay off in the end. Usually accompanied with a heavy dose of my second favourite c-word, compromise.
We did eventually find a great one within budget from Jacksons Fencing which is already treated and weather proofed. I tested a number of stains, mistakingly thinking that anything with the name cedar would be a perfect match. Wrong. Anything with the name cedar in it was as orange as my fake tan in the early 00’s. I eventually came across this ‘Ronseal Fence Life Plus in Medium Oak‘ which had a heavy hint of cherry red and was a match made in heaven.
I only needed to do one thin coat for colour matching as the fence was already treated so it was all done and dusted in half a day. My type of DIY project. No prep. Hurrah!
The raised planters
In the same vein as continuing the fence inside and out, we wanted to paint the retaining wall in a colour similar to the kitchen cupboards. Valspar do an External Masonry paint which meant that I was able to colour match the dark inky blue cupboards with the exterior planters perfectly.
Take time to plan your layout
Now lets talk layout. We wanted to incorporate as much usable space as possible into our small garden. Here is our list of must haves.
- An outdoor cooking area
- Soft ground so that our dog can pee and poo (yes that’s right people she won’t pee on a hard surface)
- A seating area
- Lots of low maintenance planting
The pergola design
It made sense to try and utilise the retaining walls and use them not only for planters but for built in seating and as part of the cooking area to maximise every square inch of our small garden.
We knew we wanted the seating area to feel private and like a sanctuary away from the city, surrounded by plants and shielded from the house and the neighbours behind us. So the idea of the tree and planting square to be between the house and the seating corner made complete sense. It is also a great way to break up the decking and paving in our small garden space with the softer texture and some greenery.
We had originally intended to put the seating in the top lefthand corner of our small garden but while waiting to save up and get our garden done one of the back neighbours replaced his fence with one about a foot shorter than ours as he wanted to maximise his sunlight.
This left us in a bit of a tricky spot as we couldn’t put up a fence against his that was higher but we wanted the fencing to be the same hight the entire way around our small garden space. After quite a bit of head scratching I had a brain wave. What if we created a pergola and situated it on the other side of the garden? We could make it as wide as the neighbours shorter bit of fence and then cover it with a different material so that hopefully it would look intentional.
After a recent trip to Barcelona we knew exactly the material to search for. We’d seen bits of corten steel all over the city, predominately used on outdoor planters in restaurants and coffee shops but after a little Google searching I found some from a company called Buy Metal Online.
It wasn’t too pricey either and with all of the aged copper and brass in our kitchen it seemed like the perfect fit for our small garden. They cut it all to size for you too so it’s super easy. I emailed them to see if they’d send me the off-cut and they did. I took it to our local secondary school and the head of design technology bent if for us using his special bending machine (I think that’s the technical term for it).
I’m making this bit sound really easy aren’t I, but the poor guy thought it would only take him 10 minutes and in the end it took up his entire lunch break on one of the hottest days of the year and he got quite the workout in the process. It’s pretty heavy duty stuff, but we got there in the end and it makes the perfect splash back for our cooking area. Also, it was kind of free and probably would have been wasted so…winner!
When the steel arrives it looks like stainless steel but it weathers over time and gets a gorgeous rusty patina. It said on line that it would take around 3 months to age but it only took a few weeks in the end. Maybe that says more about the weather that we were having.
I may have also helped it along a bit with a daily spray of the hose pipe though. Patience has never been my strongest point. Once it had reached maximum rustage we sealed it with an acrylic spray paint. To be honest, I’m not overly thrilled with the result though, it’s a little patchy so I plan to redo it with a roller at some point to give it a more even finish.
Building the pergola
Now that we had the outer shell of our small garden complete, it was time to start the build. We (Ross and his dad) started with the pergola. Originally we wanted it to be raised so that we could include storage underneath but we were worried that would be too obstructive. Our builders had already spent weeks digging out the garden to get it level to the house so to add in another level now seemed crazy.
We planned a simple chunky frame design that we could attach straight to the fence in the three corners, we would then dig into the pee pit and secure the fourth post using Post Crete cement. We stained the timber with Ronseal in Tudor Black.
Any fears we had about it making our small garden look even smaller were soon thrown out with the old battered fence as quite the opposite was the case. It gave our square garden some much needed depth and the chunky black posts gave it that industrial feel that we absolutely love – especially once contrasted next to the rusty old bit of tin as Ross’ dad affectionately refers to our corten steel back panel.)
For the pergola we used:
- 10 x 10cm timber posts x 6 for the chunky frame
- 7 x 4cm timber posts x 5 for the slats at the top
- 9 ft chunky post x 1 secured with Post Crete (just poor in and add water)
- 5 ft chunky post x 3 for the fence mounted posts (we used decking screws)
- 6 ft chunky post for the top horizontal frame
- 9 ft thin posts for the slats at the top
** You will need a ceramic drill bit to drill through the corten steel back plate**
The seating area
We filled the raised planters around the edges of the pergola with sand and inserted some left over decking to make the seating tops. We had sketched out a couple of designs for our small garden, including a floating sofa and a seating cube but we decided that simplicity in such a small space would work better and that it would also increase our usable floor area for ball kicking, scooting and cocker-spaniels crazy hour (3.30pm every day in case you were wondering).
The cooking area
Ross created a triangular frame in the opposite corner of the garden to house the gas canister for the cooking area because, who the heck designs those God ugly things? We are so pleased with the results but please don’t mention pizza ovens as we’re still coming to terms with the fact that we had no room to accommodate one for our biannual and very much essential garden pizza soirée that we won’t have.
I have bought a large terracotta tile and come summer we’re going to attempt to stick it on the barbecue, get it really hot and see if we can cook the perfect pizza on it…watch this space for compromise number 47653.
Anyway, where were we..? Ah yes, Ross made the frame and a worktop/ “cooking perch” out of (you guessed it), left-over decking, the gift that keeps on giving. I stained the seating area and worktop in the same stain as the fence to weather-proof it and painted the base cupboard in the same inky blue colour matched Valspar masonry paint that we used on the raised planters. One very rainy winter on and so far no signs of warping. Phew.
So lets get onto the planting design of our small garden. We wanted one large tree, about 5-6 foot if possible, or maybe even two small trees depending on their leaf span. We originally thought that we wanted an olive tree. I love them and being half Greek, it seemed like the right choice but they were really pricey and actually after considering the other plants in the design that we wanted it didn’t really fit.
We went to see some palm trees too but they don’t offer much coverage and they do tend to shoot up pretty quickly. While watching an old episode of Garden Rescue, we found the perfect trees. Queue two weeks of endless scrolling for affordable tree ferns in the London area.
I eventually struck gold. There was a nursery in North London selling them at £20 per foot of tree. Before you could utter the words Charlie Dimmock we were in the car and off quicker than her bra before filming an episode of Ground Force.
The tree ferns
The nursery was such a fun day out. Our son thought he was in Jurassic park and had the best time exploring. We became the proud new owners of two tree ferns and we named them Danny and Arnold after the actors in the classic “arthouse” film ‘Twins’. Arnold is the tall one at 4 ft and Danny is half his size.
At only £20 per foot of tree they were much cheeper than other trees their size and offered us a great screen for the seating area in our small garden due to their wide reaching leaves.
Armed with some info on planting we all shoehorned ourselves into the car with two massive trees. We returned home, bought some supplies and planted them that very weekend. I’m planning on writing a separate tree fern and planting blog post so watch this space for more info.
Massively spurred on by the arrival of the twins in our small garden, we set about doing extensive research on plants for the raised beds and pee patch. Like a proper grown up, I made an actual spread sheet. Now, anyone that knows me knows that I am a massive winger and that this is extremely out of character for me, but plants are expensive and I did not want a load of dead plants on my muddy hands.
Our small garden, like most has very mixed conditions – the left side is half mixed sun and shade and the other half is pure shade. The back is mainly sunny with periods of shade and the right is pure sun. This makes things difficult as you generally want to stick to between 8-10 species of plants and repeat them throughout the design. I found the best way was to go onto a website like Crocus where you can easily search for sun or shade loving plants and then make a list of what you like for each specific environment.
Some species cross over and can survive multiple conditions so you can easily get that repeated and consistent look on both sides if you plan ahead and make a light map of the garden. You can also hide little shade loving ferns underneath taller sun loving grasses to give them shelter in a sunnier spot.
Make a planting mood board
I made a mood board which consisted of mainly architectural planting; tall and ornamental grasses and ferns. They’re all pretty easy to lay out in a uniform pattern while still feeling messy and organic, like you didn’t really plan it, when in actual fact you (really!!) did. It’s kind of the garden equivalent to a messy bun. If only making a spread sheet could help me nail that one.
Here are the plants I narrowed it down to with a screen grab of my Monica Geller spread sheet to give you an idea of what I did…yes I did attach photos to see how the plants would sit next to each other…no they did not stay in the intended layout when they arrived. I changed them…several times. I still change them months on. I know. Imagine being married to me.
Left side – Top half is mixed sun and shade / Bottom half is pure shade
- Hakonechloa macra (Japanese Forrest grass) x 3
- Anemanthele lessoniana (tall pheasants tail grass) x 4
- Athyrium niponicum var. pictum (fern) x 3
- Carex oshimensis ‘Evergold’ (Japanese ornamental grass) x 2
- Stipa tenuissima (Mexican grass) x 2 – full sun section only
- Carex testacea (tall Japanese ornamental grass) x 1
Back side *sniggers – Combination of full sun and partial sun
- Stipa tenuissima (Mexican grass) x 2 – full sun section only
- Anemanthele lessoniana (tall pheasants tail grass) x 2
- Carex testacea (tall Japanese ornamental grass) x 1
- Athyrium niponicum var. pictum (fern) x 3 – placed underneath the tall grasses for maximum shade
Right side – Full sun all day
- Stipa tenuissima (Mexican grass) x 3
- Athyrium niponicum var. pictum (fern) x 2 – placed underneath the tall grasses and tree ferns for maximum shade
- Panicum virgatum ‘Shenandoah’ (tall grass) x 3
- Hakonechloa macra (Japanese Forrest grass) x 2
(Pee pit – Would be full sun but the tree fern leaves offer some shade)
- Carex oshimensis ‘Evergold’ (Japanese ornamental grass) x 2
- Athyrium niponicum var. pictum (fern) x 3 – placed under tree ferns
- Stipa tenuissima (Mexican grass) x 4 – in the exposed sunny areas
I plan to use pot plants to incorporate a bit of seasonal colour through perennials to encourage bees and butterflies into the garden.
For the planting we used a mix of compost and top soil and we tried to leave roughly 6 inches between plants. We used a zig-zag formation with the taller grasses at the back and the shorter ferns and ornamental grasses at the front. It’s easy to dig up a plant and move it though so you can play it by ear and see how they get on. If I see a plant struggling in the sun I simply move it to a shadier spot.
Grasses are great as they’re really affordable and can easily be divided every year in the spring to make new plants. They basically pay for their keep.
We were a little late in the season to be doing our planting due to having to wait a few weeks for the plants to arrive. They arrived in mid June and by October they had matured and filled out beautifully so don’t get too bogged down with all of the planting rules – we’re kind of learning as we go along here so if we can do it so can you.
Small garden phase 2
We still have some big plans for the garden this year as there a few jobs that we started and did not finish due to running out of time. The cooking area needs a hanging herb garden. I use the word ‘needs’ here as I’m sure you’ll agree it’s the vital ingredient to happiness (and roast dinners).
Copper pipe hangers
Ross finished off the season putting up our signature copper hanging pipe, keeping it consistent with the plant rail in our garden room so that we are able to hang various things against the fence utilising all usable space in our small garden. I also purchased some sail fabric and started making a sun shade at the end of summer that can be weaved between the pergola slats and also rolled down to make an outdoor cinema screen for movie nights.
The thick fabric destroyed my sewing machine though stopping me in my tracks so I will be finishing off that project in the spring along with creating some hanging planters out of half pipes for the vertical herb garden.
Until then I was gifted these beautiful Venice window boxes from Garden Trading that I will use in the mean time and then these shall be re positioned on our window sills when we get around to our front of house make over. I can not contain my excitement to get started with that one.
We were also very kindly gifted this cosy Foscot Fire Pit which was used a lot during last summer and autumn let me tell you. It’s a great size, we went for the small 55cm one, it’s easy to store away during the winter by removing the legs and it cleans up pretty easily too. Although I’m quite a fan of the rusty look so I’m tempted to let it age gracefully. I’m still trying to twist Ross’ arm into making me a small log store to tuck away into the bottom corner next to our bifolds. Wish me luck with that one.
Making it magical with lighting
Finally, and if you’ve made it this far, you shall be rewarded with the warming glow of our beautiful outside lights gifted from Iconic Lights. They are multi purpose and can be used three ways; wall lights, in-ground lights or spike lights. We got two sets and I have to say, although impossible to capture on camera as usual with lighting, they look spectacular. Specifically uplighting the tree ferns.
We feel like we’re in the courtyard of a tropical hotel. We put them on every single evening, whatever the weather, and you no longer get that spooky feeling that someone is staring at you through the reflective glass…shudder. We topped it all off with some festoons hung from the pergola for a bit of fun.
I hope that this blog post shows that you can achieve a functional and stylish small garden on a budget by building things yourself, planning and getting a bit creative. By using zoning you can maximise every inch of a small garden space. We’ve taken an ugly and unusable space and turned it into a sanctuary for the whole family and we can not wait to add more layers to it this year.
If you do attempt to recreate any of the ideas in this blog post then please do let us know in the comments below.
Enjoy getting stuck in and have a great summer!