Small Gardens

Armed with a few tricks of the trade, you can make the most of any small garden space



Properties are getting smaller by the day and most of us have chosen to forgo our big backyards to maintain our precious indoor living space. But how do you make the most of a smaller outdoor area?
Perth-based landscape designer Martin Cuthbert says, while smaller spaces can be harder to design, you can create something spectacular — it just takes a little skill and some creativity. “There is no room for error when designing smaller spaces because you have to account for everything, even down to the last 100mm,” says Martin.
Ian Barker, a Melbourne-based landscape designer, agrees. “In designing small gardens, there needs to be careful thought and planning to make the most of the available space,” he says. “The mindset needs to be that every centimetre counts.
“It’s important to remember that the garden should be treated as an outdoor room that is every bit as valuable in terms of lifestyle as your internal living rooms. That said, don’t try to put too much into the space. Interior designers will always say the smaller the space the less furniture they place in the room.”


Simplicity is the design key

By manipulating visual, acoustic, fragrant and textured elements in a courtyard or small backyard it can become a private getaway — a place for escape from the worries and niggles of everyday life. Martin suggests keeping the number of plants, colours and surface finishes to a minimum in small backyards and courtyards because the simpler the design, the better the overall effect and the easier on the eye.
“Also, if you keep it simple, it’s much easier to get it right,” says Martin. “Some people try to fit too much into a smaller backyard because they still have the mentality that it should have the same facilities as a bigger one,” he says. “But you have to be realistic and strike a balance within the space, otherwise you’ll end up with an overgrown mish-mash.”
Adds Ian: “A small space should have one main focal point from inside the house to draw your eye and, hopefully, body into the garden. Once in the outdoor space, a second less obvious feature or focal point can be a pleasant surprise and create further interest or detail. Again, the key is to keep the space as simple and uncluttered as possible, so if the garden can’t handle two focal points, don’t push it.”


Increasing the sense of space

Bigger pavers that are lighter in colour will help to create more of a spacious feel than darker colours in small sizes or narrow shapes. Using various tones of one colour will also be more appealing, creating a sense of flow from one area of the garden to the other. Having bold, contrasting borders or decorative inserts into an area of paving tends to break up a courtyard or garden into sections, which can make the whole space seem busier and, hence, smaller.
If you do want to have contrasting colours or add some visual interest, introduce curved shapes and patterns rather than long, straight lines. A curved colour insert in a paved area — or even a curved screen, curved garden bed or curved seat — slows the eye as it travels around the garden. A straight line, especially a bold one, tends to make the eye travel straight to the end of a garden, which can make a very small space seem a little smaller.
“Another trick is to give the garden a feeling of depth. We can achieve this in two ways,” says Ian. “The first is to use low retaining walls at varied heights. The best height for retaining walls or fixed planter boxes is 450mm from floor level. “If built from solid materials, the wall can then be used as additional, informal seating when guests arrive. This brings people into the garden, also allowing them to interact with their surrounds rather than simply “look” at the garden.


Effective use of plants

“The second way to create depth in a small space is to use plant material more effectively. In narrow garden beds, the best way to go about this is to create tiers or to layer the plants. Essentially, the foremost planting, that is, the plant bordering the garden bed, should be grouped into a wall of green. Whether this plant is fashioned into a clipped formal hedge or an informal hedge will be personal choice.
“Behind this first tier there needs to be a second plant, in the mid-ground, that grows taller than the first. Finally, a tree or taller screening plant can be used behind the initial two layers to go higher again.”
Don’t be frightened to place a tree in a courtyard, says Ian. Just do your research to ensure the root systems will not impact on the surrounding landscape when the tree is fully grown or the canopy will grow too wide for the available space. “In choosing your plants, the less-is-more approach should be adhered to,” he adds. “One or two different-coloured flowers should be your rule, and add interest to your tiered planting by varying leaf textures and even colours.”
Maintenance is a big issue for small backyards. Our busy lifestyles present the challenge of finding low-maintenance plants that don’t require much water or care. Evergreens and native plants work well in cramped areas if you look after them properly, but the best place to start is your local nursery. The staff will be up to speed on which plants will suit your needs and you will be surprised by the long list of attractive, low-maintenance plants now available — many of them especially bred to grow in compact spaces or containers.


Levels and traffic flow

Making the most of useable space is a must for small backyards, which in most cases means sticking to a single level. “The more levels you introduce into a backyard, the less useable space you have as you break it up into smaller parcels. However, it is nice to create some differentiation, with raised planters around the edges to add interest,” says Martin.
Also be sure to consider traffic flow when designing a small plot. This is increasingly important with the smaller backyards because the more cramped and less user-friendly your outdoor area, the less time you’ll spend there. This is why built-in furniture and elements such as barbecues work well in small spaces as these elements hug the perimeter, meaning they’re not obstructing access points, and they maximise the use of the space.
“Think about how you want to use your backyard; it will be one of the most highly used parts of the home, so bear in mind what you want to be the most accessible part and which facilities you will use the most,” says Martin.
Privacy is another essential ingredient when designing for small urban spaces. Many smaller backyards and courtyards are overlooked by surrounding properties, which reduces the amount of privacy in your own home. To create a secluded retreat from your neighbours, Martin recommends using smaller evergreen trees to create a mesh of leaves or tall screens — perhaps timber slats or natural reeds — to keep out prying eyes.


Use lighting and colour

“Lighting is also really important because it helps to extend the view from the inside to the outside and integrates the two areas, which is a big part of lengthening the area,” Martin says. He also proposes adding a centrepiece to the yard, whether it is a table, water feature or piece of artwork as it makes the whole area exist around the object. “It is always nice to give your backyard a bit of character and hearing running water, especially in summer, is a really nice touch.”
Use of colour is key, says Ian. “Coloured walls will ‘move’ a garden in one direction or another. For example, a deep, narrow space should be tackled with a light wall at the rear to draw your eye immediately. If one of the side walls is painted black, the result will be that this wall will ‘disappear’ into the background.
“Finally, if the opposite side wall is lush green planting, a coloured feature wall or a blend of the two, this will make our long, narrow space look wider. Black fences in any garden, big or small, will highlight plant material and relegate the fence to the background.”


Give yourself some luxury

People are spending more on their backyards and are becoming more adventurous with their design selections as they embrace the many benefits of socialising and relaxing out of doors. “We are becoming a more affluent society,” says Martin. “Houses are becoming more detailed and people want to extend that luxury to the outdoors.”
So, while your outdoor area may be lacking space, there is no reason you need to go without. “We have been able to fit outdoor kitchens, built-in barbecues, pools and spas into small backyards. Looking at it, you think, you’ve got to be joking, but with proper planning and efficient use of space, we seem to make it work,” says Martin.
Updating your outdoor area, no matter how big or small, will add value to your home and keep it in line with the market, but Martin says the design must complement the architecture of the home and the interior décor of any rooms that open on to the garden, be as flexible as possible and be a pleasure to spend time in. And functionality is critical, too, says Martin: “The best-designed small backyards and courtyards are those that have been designed for comfort and are easy to use.”



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