Planning a Small Garden Design

By comparison with the lavish way in which one can approach the planning and design of larger gardens, the smaller plots that are so much more familiar these days present special limitations — and a special challenge.

The house itself will necessarily influence the style of the garden, both back and front. Boundaries are more visible and confining and need special attention. They will also affect the design. Particularly in the attempt to create vistas.

Another factor that will affect design is the growing needs of a young family. It is seldom a satisfactory compromise to allow a young son to use two precious shrubs as goal posts, and yet. The needs of budding footballers, tennis players and the like in the family must be catered for, and this is far more difficult in a small garden than in a large one. The damage done by pets, particularly by dogs, is also far more noticeable in a small garden than in a large garden. Anyone trying to create a garden with young children and/or pets around might philosophically accept the fact that some damage will be sustained — possibly by both parties.

The smaller the garden, the more important it is to answer two vital questions: What do you want from your garden? How much work do you want to put in? The really enthusiastic flower man may want to turn over large spaces in a somewhat confined area to his pride and joy. A retired couple, on the other hand, may want a pleasant haven that does not aggravate a lumbago condition by enforced hard labour.

Design is also affected these days by the enforced factors in the development of large housing estates. Many developers have what can only be described as a mania for complete uniformity with open plan fronts and squared off backs — often with the same sort of fencing.

It is therefore necessary to look closely at the problem of ‘clothing’ or hiding these boundary fixtures — which can give the owners of smaller gardens a real ‘don’t fence me in’ phobia.

You may also be faced with hiding a neighbour’s cabbage patch or washing line clearly visible through a chain-link fence. And, of course, you will want to achieve some degree of privacy from overlooking property.

At the same time, if the garden next door is an established one, you will do well to take account of those of your neighbour’s plants and trees that are visible from your garden — and use them in drawing up your own planting schedule.

These will all need your attention in weighing up where you are siting taller trees and shrubs which affect the outline of your design. One word of caution. Forest trees are generally not advisable in these confined areas. There are many subjects more suited to smaller gardens.

An evergreen shield of Cupressocyparis leylandii is an ideal subject for a background. It can be cropped and topped at the desired height. Where wind is not a problem, Chamaecyparis lawsoniana will make a good eight-foot screen and is easier to control for height.

Once you have established your needs, the planning can begin.

Again, there is no single answer or master plan that can be applied to what will be a thousand and one different situations. The basic principles, however, remain the same.

The outlook to the garden is likely to be confined to the front and back, with little or no side garden. It may be a long slim plot or a short, fat one. So the task of creating a sense of space and distance, and of establishing pockets of interest which are not immediately visible at first glance, becomes more difficult.

As with the creation of larger gardens, it is necessary to draw up a plan of the design. To say, as some do, ‘I will plant as I feel fit’, without working to basic plan, often produces a garden which is not only unsightly — but also means more work in the long term. In fact, the more thought you put into planning on paper, the less hard work you will have to do in the garden in the long run.

Before starting planning the garden you need to look closely at the site, weigh up the aspect — ie. Assessing to which points of the compass the garden is exposed.

Open aspects, for instance, will require screening and breaks from the biting winds, from north and east. It is also important to take into account which points of the garden will be put into shade by buildings or trees. This is not to say that you should avoid causing shaded areas — these can themselves help add depth and beauty. But you should exploit those situations that you find in your garden.

Sites which are exposed to a westerly aspect are favourable to plants which are only just in the ‘hardy’ classification. Southern aspects are to be used to the fullest extent with an abundance of plants which crave for the sun. Southerly aspects are suitable for all the most popular plants, like roses, dahlias, sweet peas, vegetables and so on.

Sites facing the north are more likely to be prone to lingering frost pockets and generally lower temperatures.

Easterly aspects will get biting winds. So bear all these points in mind as you draw up your plan.

Note, too, other problems such as poor drainage. Wind tunnels and so on, so that remedial action or precautionary measures can be taken as the garden takes shape.

As already explained in the section on larger gardens, it is usually desirable to have a paved area around as much of the house as possible, with paths leading off to outbuildings, gates and so on. These will be installed before the major part of the garden development gets under way.

You can leave the ‘walking’ paths — those that take you around the garden — until after you have established the basic plan of the garden.

Looking from the house out, a focal point is necessary as you prepare to paint the garden picture.

At a suitable point about three-quarters of the way down the garden, perhaps at a curve in the lawn, try to establish a fixture that draws the eye, a specimen shrub, for instance, like a magnolia, a maple, or a group of medium-high conifers. Or perhaps a pergola over a secondary ‘sitting out’ area; or an arbour or portico. It is around some feature as this that the rest of the garden can be created.

The aim even with smaller plots is to give the impression of space. In general one should try to round the corners of the boundaries, softening the harsh, fenced-in corners with flowering shrubs, or with a screen or pergola hiding a vegetable patch. At the other extreme do not fall into the trap of cutting out too many island beds in the lawn. They merely tend to destroy any sense of space that might be created by the lawn. One or two bold island beds are all that a small garden can take.

So what is the design solution to the formal rectangular plot, of say 100 feet by 40 feet, which is about the average size of new gardens today?

After establishing your focal point the major item to consider is the lawn. It creates what garden designers call the open centre — a usually level area of quiet around which the garden can flow. The greenness of the grass acts as a foil to the colourfulness of flowers.

Avoid at all costs square or rectangular lawns. Try to create instead a lawn with pleasant curves, perhaps accentuated at a convenient point by a row of small, slow-growing conifers, or a selection of low-growing shrubs that will tend to hide part of the garden from a first-glance.

The curved lawn will lead the eye away and save some of the features for a second look.

The front part of the lawn should be kept open, to give the impression of space. The curve is perhaps best brought in at about the middle of the lawn with a mixed border and shrubs cutting well into it — but not hiding entirely the remaining part of your garden. It may even be possible to create a second garden, part of which should be visible from the first. But, of course, this becomes more difficult in smaller plots.

If you follow this plan you will have, from the house looking out, first an open space, then an eyecatching feature midway down the garden, with perhaps a path curving round one side of the lawn, part of it going beneath a pergola.

You will need to draw in on your plan at a fairly early stage — usually after deciding the shape of your lawn — the permanent features such as a rockgarden, a pool or pergola.

You can then lead your paths to and past these features and try to make part of them hidden from the general view from the house so that the element of surprise is introduced.

Consider also using these fixtures to hide inescapable garden eyesores — such as compost heaps, which are bound to be more clearly visible in the smaller garden. Trellis can be used effectively to hide eyesores and to divide small gardens, but do try to use it to train plants that give some sort of year-round foliage. A huge trellis full of sweet peas looks marvellous in summer. And a bank of runner beans even has its merits for looks and as a shield. But both would look awfully bare in winter.

Imaginative planting of individual or small groups of conifers and shrubs will also help to hide part of your garden from first glance. The division of the garden into two or more sections, or terraces, is the aim in most designs. But, of course, this is not always practicable in smaller gardens that exist today. Try it if you can.

The pitfall to avoid in trying to make your garden look larger than it really is, is not to overdo the creation of these vistas or overcrowd your garden with tall and bushy subjects and special features. Simplicity is often the rule with confined spaces. Don’t try to have more than one or two features. If you do you will end up with a cluttered mess which will be the complete reverse of your intentions.

A curve cut into the lawn, for instance, may not be entirely feasible with a short fat plot. So try and get away from the formal look imposed by the boundaries by making the lawn circular or oblong, with perhaps an island bed in the centre.

05. September 2011 by admin
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