01 Oct 2013

Creating Eden in a small garden


Christine Wilkie is an award-winning garden designer whose inspirational design caters for gardens of all shapes, sizes and budgets. Christine speaks exclusively to i-build, sharing her top tips for creating idyllic gardens within limited spaces.


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When it comes to gardens, few of us can boast rolling acres, especially in small city gardens where space is usually at a premium. The trick in these limited spaces is to exploit every inch of available outdoor space and the key to achieving this is through effective design. A well-designed small garden will transform the space, making it feel bigger, more usable and more inviting in equal measure.

Every successful garden project starts with the design brief: a detailed conversation between you and your garden designer to discuss overall ideas for the space, how you plan to use it, suitable materials, garden features and planting styles. If you have a small or awkwardly-shaped garden then design is essential to ensuring you get the most out of the available space.

Start by considering how the garden is to be used, so that it complements lifestyle, the interior and the wider surroundings. Think of the garden as an extension of the living space, the so-called outdoor room. Considering the space in this way makes it much easier to visualise how the space will work. Our summers are notoriously unpredictable, so it’s worth thinking about the visual impact of the garden when viewed from inside the home too.

It is important to retain simplicity. Clean lines, strong shapes, bold colours and architectural forms are unwarranted within a small garden. Every detail not only counts, but is magnified; less is most definitely more in a limited space. Opt for large, statement-making containers and avoid cluttering space with lots of twee plant pots. A pond may be out of the question, but a self-contained, low-maintenance water feature, such as a water table or stone obelisk, will work wonders. Add some strategically-placed garden lighting and you have a water feature that doubles up as a garden focal point, day and night.

Outdoor lighting extends the use of the garden into the evening, as well as creating a garden tableau at night that can be enjoyed from indoors. When it comes to garden lighting, subtlety is the key - gentle lighting to accent, highlight or add drama, avoiding harsh security lighting.

Soften with plants

Plants should be carefully chosen to provide year-round interest and to complement the style of garden. They serve to soften hard landscaped areas as well as adding visual interest, height and texture. Opt for evergreens so that nature is displayed all year round. Fragrance is also important in a small space. If you want to encourage wildlife into the garden include plenty of nectar-rich plants and ensure succession planting so that insect-life has a rich food supply throughout its lifecycle. Add interest to dull walls with some wildlife-friendly wall art, such as a colourful bee hotel, or pre-grown panels of vertical greenery that can be planted directly into a border or raised bed.

A small sloping garden actually offers great creative potential. Steps and retaining walls can be designed to create impact and interest in their own right, while hard landscaping materials can be used to accentuate differing ground levels. Raised beds and low retaining walls can be built in a myriad of materials. At the lower end of the price spectrum, they can be constructed from planed oak timber sleepers, or rendered and painted concrete block work. Alternatively, you can opt to clad the beds in a variety of materials suitable for outdoor use, such as the latest range of lightweight textured ceramic tiles, pebble tiles or natural stone products.

Low-maintenance is key

Last but not least, don’t forget the garden’s boundaries. Fencing is probably the quickest and easiest way of creating a boundary, and is considerably less work than maintaining a hedge. However do be aware that the choice of fence panel also impacts the garden style. If you have to stick with what you’ve got, either because it’s a shared boundary or for budget reasons, consider disguising them with evergreen climbing plants or trellising. Or paint them in a colour that makes them virtually disappear into the background. Luckily, there are a growing range of desirable panels and trellising on the market that complement a contemporary garden scheme, ensuring that the boundaries add to, rather than detract from, the overall garden style.

I recently had the challenge of designing within a small, triangular-shaped plot, whilst integrating an existing garden summerhouse. The small, south-west facing garden measured approximately 11 x 6m, but narrowed to just 4m at the rear. The client wanted the garden to flow seamlessly from a newly-built orangery, creating an easy-to-care-for garden with a ‘wow’ factor.

Low-maintenance is often a key requirement. One of the most high maintenance elements, whatever size garden you have, is a lawn. This is particularly so in a small garden. Unless you opt for one of the growing number of artificial products on the market, a lawn requires regular care and attention to keep it in tip-top condition. In a small space, a badly-maintained lawn can soon turn into an eyesore. So, it was agreed early on in this project that the existing lawn should be removed completely. In its place contemporary paving was laid on an angle to increase the sense of space.

The choice of paving and laying pattern can have a major influence on the overall garden style. It’s worth taking time to consider the various paving options available to achieve the desired look and feel. As this was to be a contemporary garden, we used smooth sawn sandstone paving in a buff colour. Selecting a paving stone that complements the interior flooring helps to create that seamless link between inside and out. This approach works particularly well if you have modern bi-folding or sliding doors.

You don’t need a large garden to introduce the element of water as a key feature. With this garden, water has been incorporated in the form of a bespoke water wall. The wall features a stainless steel water blade and the wall itself is clad in quartzite tiles transforming it into the main focal point in the garden. The fact that it is a vertical structure also reduces the amount of space it occupies relative to the visual impact it delivers. To accentuate the feature by night, lighting was submersed in the base of the pool to uplight the wall, with LED spotlights in the adjacent paving.

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