In a hectic and often overcrowded world we have all come to appreciate our outdoor spaces so much more. Big or small, they are a gift to be treasured. So, if you’re lucky enough to have finally bagged yourself a little slice of the outdoors, I’ve put together some tips to help your small garden, or outdoor space live up to your list of growing demands.
With the rise in popularity of garden design programmes and a growing desire to create a space outdoors that can be used as an extension of your home, to not only relax in, but cook, dine, play and connect with nature, we are beginning to get overwhelmed with too much information. We spend time swooning over Pinterest perfect images taken in South Africa or California and then run out of steam when we realise that the we – A. Don’t live in South Africa and B. Don’t live in California. We optimistically type ‘custom made Corten steel outdoor kitchen into google, then slam the laptop closed in an outrage when we find out how much they cost and then move ‘Update Garden’ down to number 345 on the todo list.
We all know that Pinterest can be a useful tool when used sensibly, but it’s easy to find ourselves getting carried away by the cascading water feature irrigation system when you only went on there in the first place to find drought tolerant plants for your sunny borders.
So, step away from the Pinterest boards sister…well for now anyway… and let me lead you through a few easy to follow tips and ideas for designing a small garden or outdoor space.
Simple Design Principals for Small Gardens
Regardless of whether you class yourself as someone that has a good eye for design or not, we can all walk into a space and instantly know if they feel good to us or if something isn’t quite right. This will usually be the result of a number of different elements working together to create a complete, and well rounded design, where functionality and aesthetics complement each other.
Keep things simple.
Whilst beginning the process of designing and planning your small garden, it’s easy to get carried away and over complicate things. Although we want to try to include all of those functional elements in our outdoor spaces such as a place to dine, play and relax, so that we can spend as much time as possible enjoying them, we don’t want to make the space feel cluttered and chaotic.
You may have heard about the rule of three in interiors – items tend to look better when grouped together in odd numbers. Sticking to the rule of three while planning your small garden design will help you to stay focused and not overwhelm the space with too much visual noise.
Three is the magic number.
Keep to no more than three materials when you’re choosing your hard landscaping and ensure that your pathing, decking, planters and fencing all compliment each other. Collect samples and play around with different combinations so that you can see how the different colours and textures will work together at different times of the day. Also, bear in mind that the colour of something when wet could be drastically different to how it looks when it’s dry, so experiment with this too, that way you can ensure that your garden will always be looking its best come rain or shine.
For smaller spaces such as balconies and terraces, choose three species of plants for your window boxes and pots and try to stick to no more than six in a larger border or planter. Depending on the depths of your beds, planting formations in triangles of threes or fives tend to work best so that each plant gets it’s own space to breath and a moment to shine.
Proportion and Scale.
Using the same theory that you are better off using larger items to style a smaller room as oppose to lots of smaller ones, well, you can apply the exact same principal to your outdoor space too. If you’ll forgive me for using interiors as a comparison again – after all we are aiming to create our very own outdoor room, so indulge me a little.
Go big or go home.
One or two large pots will create much more of an impact and give you the perception of the space being larger than lots of smaller pots will. Similarly, planting one or two large trees as oppose to lots of smaller shrubs will give the space a focal point and draw the eye out towards them and not the size of the overall space.
Compliment your focal point with a horizontal item on a similar scale – perhaps a bench, raised bed or wall so that you are creating a pleasing balance on opposing planes.
Don’t be square.
If you are lucky enough to have enough usable floor space to accommodate two or three different surfaces, such as gravel and pathing or grass and decking it is always a good idea to make the areas different in size – visually it’s more exciting, if everything is too symmetrical and linear it runs the risk of feeling a bit flat and artificial. The general rule of thumb for creating a well balanced garden design, is to devote about a third of the garden to hard landscaping, and then soften those edges with planting and other visual points of interest.
Layering is your friend.
Finally, when it comes to proportion and scale, layering is your best friend. Introduce a range of plants and items into the garden, in various sizes, that compliment each other in texture, or colour, to continue that feeling of unity. Layer your planting, starting from the ground up so that you feel surrounded by nature – from ground level planting, to pots at eye level and also from above using climbers or hanging plants, there will always be something lush and green to catch your eye.
Unlike most interiors though, gardens are constantly evolving – they change with the seasons and most species of plant will vary in the time that they take to mature. Try to place taller plants at the back and smaller ones at the front. I meticulously planned our raised beds when we designed our garden, but I continue to move things around as they fill out or go out of season. A lot of it is trial and error. Don’t be afraid to change things up even if it’s just a seasonal plant pot here and there – it’s all part of the fun and the best way to learn.
Boundaries and Privacy.
Urban gardens and communal spaces require us to be a bit more imaginative with how we create a feeling of privacy. Surrounding those spaces with high fences or walls can make the already small space feel even smaller and a bit claustrophobic.
We lowered our garden by about two feet as we wanted a space that had a level threshold with the house, and as a result our fences are really high. We counter acted this by creating a smaller seating area within the space, using a pergola and some tree ferns for screening. The idea is that depending on where you’re seated in that space you will either be looking out towards a more open space in the garden, which creates a sense of intimacy within the seating area, or towards the gently rustling tree ferns which screen the seating area from the main house.
We’ve also used Corten steel to create a visual break in the fencing, so that the seating area feels like a little retreat within the rest of the space. Read more about our garden project here.
Prospect and Refuse.
Creating moments in our home where we can truly feel secure and content is so important to us. Transport yourself back to the first time you ever built a den with your friends, the pure joy of feeling protected from the elements by your surroundings and having your own little sanctuary whilst still being able to peep out and defend your snacks at all costs.
The idea of ‘Prospect and refuge’ is very similar, in the sense that you can look out, but it hides in a protected position. To achieve this feeling of being safe in a place of refuge you ideally need a cover overhead, a cover behind you to minimise surprises, and a sense that you’re out of the main path of travel. This will enable you to tune out stimuli, while maintaining a view of the world around you.
You can recreate this feeling of safety by ensuring that your seating looks out towards moments of beauty, avoid placing furniture in a position where it will have it’s back towards a pathway, and if that’s not possible use a screen to help create this. You could even put your screen on castors to create a more flexible space depending on your needs at that particular moment.
Overlooked from all angles.
Another useful trick for a garden that is overlooked from all sides, is to design it on an angle – placing your seating and even surface materials on an angle will not only make a narrow space feel wider, but it will also offer more opportunities for points of interest that do not involve your neighbours bathroom habits and it will also screening you from them making it a winning formula for a harmonious relationship which ever side of the fence you’re on.
It’s a brilliant way of adding an element of exploration and surprise to a garden too as it gently leads you on a journey through the various zones.
Bringing the inside out.
You all knew this one was coming, there is no simpler way to double your inside and outside space than by blurring the lines between the two. Repeating materials used inside your home, in your outside space, will not only draw the eye out and make the space feel larger but it will also make choosing your materials a hell of lot easier.
Garden’s are quite often left as an afterthought as the majority of people prioritise the design of their indoor spaces before they even consider the outdoors, but the good news is, that you can draw inspiration from your interiors – you could pull out an exposed brick wall, extend your tiled or wooden flooring all the way outside or perhaps even repeat your colour scheme in your garden design. This can be the basis to build the rest of your design on.
We took this idea and ran with it, using not only a continuation of the wooden flooring out into our garden but also matching the red cedar cladding on the walls to our fencing, so that the entire kitchen and living space are wrapped in the same material as the garden. We then carried the dark, inky blue colour from our kitchen cupboards through to the raised planters, so that when you look through the glass doors there is nothing to disrupt the eye and make you feel like there is any separation between the two spaces.
Colour is one of the most important considerations when designing any garden space, regardless of its size, but it can also be tricky thing to get right. The most common mistakes made when using colour in a garden is usually the result of a lack of planning. You enthusiastically go to the garden centre without a plan, picking up whatever’s on offer because it all looks so jolly sitting there in and amongst the other plants of the same variety, only to then bring it home and realise that non of it works together and that the cheery yellow echinacea is having a big old fight with the blue hydrangeas you inherited when you first moved in.
Most of us will remember using the colour wheel at school, well, unlike learning to recite the periodic table, this little tool is going to serve you well while you’re putting together your idea’s for the design of your small garden or outdoor space. For those of us that are particularly challenged in the colour department, simply following the rule of ‘less is more’ and thinking of the items in terms of a capsule wardrobe, where all of the elements in your home and garden should come together effortlessly and compliment each other should make things a lot easier.
Picking colours that are next to each other on the colour wheel will create a harmonious design, which is a great way to go for those of you with smaller spaces. In contrast, using opposing colours on the wheel will create a more dramatic impact, but I would suggest using no more than two of those colours in smaller spaces, so as to avoid a feeling of chaos and overwhelm.
Once you have chosen your colours, repeat them throughout your soft furnishings and planting design. Place plants in groups and swathes to create organic texture and movement, similar to how you would find them in the natural environment.
Ah, multi functionality – perhaps my favourite aspect of small space living design. I think people shy away from it as they think it’s something that only artisan pals of George Clarke with beards and braces can do. Not true.
“Aim to make as many things as possible in your small spaces duel purpose, as this is a great way to maximise every single inch.”
Start out by thinking of all of your hard surfaces in the garden as a the opportunity to be dual purpose…
Problem – you have to have a supporting wall to hold up the neighbours garden.
Solution – great, we can use it as extra seating and raised planters, or even leave them hollow and create a lid with a hinge so that they can be used as extra storage. We also used ours to create a built in outdoor kitchen with a useful cupboard to store awaybthe unsightly gas canister and cooking equipment.
Problem – we don’t have much floor space for planting.
Solution – go up. Use the walls or fences to create green walls or useful hanging rails for herbs and garden equipment.
Problem – we would like to have a pergola in the garden to create some shade to sit together and relax but that wouldn’t leave us any space for the kids to play.
Solution – raise the pergola away from the ground slightly so that you can open up sections underneath that conceal a sand pit or water play area. You could also use carabiner clips to easy attach and detach a swing to the structure of the pergola.
These are great examples of multi functionality in a garden, it doesn’t have to be overly complicated .
Using castors and hinges to make things foldable and easily stored away can also work brilliantly in a small garden. We built our own rolling veggie patch using left over decking wood – it can easily be moved around for easy access or if it needs to be safely moved out of the way for a game of football. Read more about how we made this rolling veggie planter in a previous blog post, here.
If you don’t have the space to have a garden table and chairs out all year round, you can create one that folds away, that is a bespoke size for your space. We put our garden table legs on hinges so that the space is flexible – sometimes we like to lounge around and throw the french cushions from our reading nook on the floor, under the pergola when we want a more relaxed feel, and other times we like to get out the table when we want to sit and eat an alfresco meal together.
Read more about how we made this table in a previous blog post here.
We can also attach a hammock to our pergola when we have some precious time alone to just read or take a snooze in the garden. I think the last time I counted we had five different layouts and ways to use the space, making it not just an outdoor room but several rooms – it’s by far our biggest achievement in our small space, and it’s been a complete game changer during the restrictions of the last 12 months.
I hope you found these tips for making the most out of your small garden or outdoor space useful – I am planning to do a trio of garden blog posts over the next couple of weeks with lighting being featured next.
I’m hugely passionate about lighting design, and of course good lighting is crucial if you want to create a garden space that can be enjoyed all year round. You can find out more about outdoor lighting in my next blog post here.