The Beauty of Small Spaces

by Jason Brayshaw

Given that I reside in London, there is one thing most Londoners can agree on and that is space for housing, both exterior and interior, is limited. You have got to make the most of what you have. This may sound stifling to some reading this, but the opposite can apply here. Having a small garden space as your creative framework allows you to be not only creative but also economical and methodical in your conceptual thinking. It's about using the essentials and removing the clutter, because when you incorporate the essentials within a small garden you are capturing the essence of what is already there.  

Defining a small or large garden is subjective. However, most gardens, certainly in British metropolitan areas, are usually the same width as the house i.e. 5 metres to 8 metres wide and sometimes a little bit longer in their length. What I tend to consider first is how aesthetics compliment the garden's function and purpose and vice versa. Within the framework of a small space this can prove the most challenging for the garden designer - especially if the garden will be utilized by a family unit and not just a couple or individual person. Larger gardens allow physical room for change. As the garden grows its form evolves. With smaller gardens, if left unattended, the result would be clutter, confusion, and carelessness. Your approach and attitude to using limited space is the key to a beautiful and functional garden.

Once you have established your budget start with thinking about the garden's features and what you would like it to include. What would you like to see each day in your garden? In small scale gardens you can still create an air of mystery. Ideally you don't really want to reveal everything in your garden at once. You want to encourage visitors to see where paths may be leading. Most metropolitan and suburban terraces have a side lane within their yard separating them and their neighbour. A small garden that moves in that direction makes a small space seem larger and slows the journey as you wonder around. 

Include subtle focal points for visitors to focus on. This draws attention away from feeling you're in a small garden space not to mention adding to the mood of the garden. Focal points can be a sculpture or water feature, basically anything interesting that can make someone stop and observe. This will give the effect of your garden appearing larger. But do use sparingly. And if you do decide on incorporating a water feature choose one that is not splashy or sounds splashy. It may soon annoy you - not to mention your neighbours as well.

Take time to ponder the spatial elements of your chosen focal points. Less is more as the saying goes. People's imaginations are stimulated when observing a garden so let them fill in the dots!  If your small garden happens to be large enough to have a walking path, try to make it curve and wind so that you can create small sections or corners that show different plant and flower varieties. The relationship between your home's interior and exterior is another important concept to consider. By matching up the house's interior features with those outside this can produce the effect of both 'spaces' being extensions of each other. The kitchen (for example) compliments the patio, and the patio compliments the kitchen.

Look at what you already have at your disposal before going out and buying garden furnishings. Mixing old and new furniture styles can give your garden spontaneity as you think about what you would like to enjoy doing in your garden. Do want to entertain friends and family? Is it going to be a place to read or meditate? What kind of lighting do you want to incorporate, electrical or natural? If it is electrical will it annoy your neighbours and intrude on their garden? Have this worked out before you go about redesigning your space.

Don't be afraid to remove the lawn to make way for paving or partial paving. A small garden that features paving and less lawn can provide more room to be creative. For example, potted plants, urns of different sizes can look very striking. The colour of your paving will dominate the mood of your garden, so choose a colour that will compliment and embellish your garden's theme and setting. Check with your supplier too. Do they come in batches? Do they have enough? Consider all the options available to you. Paving may look cleaner whereby your main concern is removing weeds between the cracks, and it doesn't have to be the whole space. Remember, in a small garden, space is everything.

Testing your soil's pH levels to find out what kind of soil you have is crucial in determining what plants and flowers will flourish in your garden. It will be one of three varieties: Neutral, Acidic, or Alkaline. This is very important and oftentimes an overlooked requirement. Camellias and Azaleas will grow and prosper in acidic soil (i.e. a pH that is below 7.0). Don't lose heart if your garden soil won't accommodate to your favourite plant varieties. Discover what will work and keep being creative. Compromise leads to creativity. Aim for long-term plants to begin with that are smaller in size. They're better value for money and will eventually reach the desired size you are looking for.

Once you have established the look and feel of how you want your garden to be the last stage of planning is the planting. As far as small gardens are concerned each plant will compete for attention within the whole garden because small gardens concentrate the mind. I recommend your main plants to be reliable evergreens that will encourage interest all year round. If planting trees, consider also the texture of the bark or the changing colours of the leaves and flowers throughout the year. Consider also the perimeter of your garden i.e. the vertical surfaces, as these can work as supports for climbing plants and flowers. Fences, walls, garden shed vertical surfaces, even the tops of boundary walls can add dramatic texture and mood to a small garden. Raised beds and terraces (if your garden space allows it) can also provide additional space to display your plants where space may be lacking elsewhere. Remember gardens aren't just about garden beds; all varieties of containers from old urns, small tin wash tubs, and terracotta pots - with considered arrangement - will create stunning vertical textures to your garden's overall look and appeal.

Regardless of how creative you want to be, a small garden must display a balance between creativity and restraint. They are about the people who live in them not just a museum for your favourite plants. It requires self-discipline that will provide simple and uncomplicated solutions when designing or planting. In doing this it will allow ideas to work and grow as they arrive at a cohesive framework of both beauty and function.