Plants and Ideas for Small Gardens

The vast majority of us live in towns and cities, where space is at a premium, and consequently we have small gardens. These present a number of particular problems which are considered here, together with some imaginative solutions. They show how successful and creative you can be with even a tiny awkward-shaped yard.

At this stage we should perhaps look at small town gardens because they frequently pose special problems to the designer. There are numerous external factors that will influence any design and these must be looked at first.

One of the most familiar kinds of town garden lies at the back of old terraced property, probably with a party wall going down either side and finishing up with a dividing wall between your own plot and the garden of the property backing on to you. This may mean that the buildings overshadow each other’s gardens and suitable plants must be considered for shady areas. You may also have a wish to mask any unpleasant property that is nearby if you have the misfortune to be overlooked by commercial premises.

The other main style of urban garden is one on an open estate where there may well be a covenant restricting fences being erected in the front of a property and so the front garden has to be open plan. If the estate is on entirely open virgin land you do, of course, have a complete opportunity to start from scratch. You can make a virtue of this and plant appropriate trees and shrubs.

There are practical problems that can be encountered. There may be old foundations in the garden which have to be removed, or more cleverly, incorporated in your garden design. Similarly manhole covers, access to dustbins and garden storage may need different treatment in small town gardens because light and space are at a premium.

Service areas for a garden, such as side entrances, are often unsightly and so these should be screened as best as possible with either natural hedging material or trellis work or railings which can form supports for attractive climbing plants.

If your garden is going to be used a lot and is really too small to use a mower, then crazy or formal paving, brick or gravel can form a good hard surface. This can be broken up with small shrubs and ground cover plants to relieve the Harness of this type of surface. If, on the other hand, there is going to be very little wear and tear on the ground, then a camomile lawn might be considered. When walked on gently, it exudes a fragrance that is pleasant and requires relatively little maintenance.

You will also want to consider whether the house and garden are well placed to spend some time eating out in the summer months. Have you allowed yourselves sufficient shelter, sun and a pleasant outlook so that you can relax on your patio or terrace?

Seaside town gardens suffer particularly from salt spray damage and wind, but there are quite a number of plants that will tolerate such conditions. Some suggestions are given below:


This is just a small selection to encourage the gardener who has been put off by wind and salt-shrivelled species. Your local nursery will suggest others. These are particularly good for small gardens.

Armeria maritima – Sea thrift. There are several named cultivars of this evergreen perennial that forms tufts of leaves in sandy soils and which produces a round pink flowerhead on a short stem.

Elaeagnus x ebbingei. An evergreen shrub with grey-tinted foliage, silvery flowers and red or orange fruits.

Eryngium spp. A large genus of herbaceous perennials. E. maritimum is the sea holly. Silvery green leaves and bright blue flowers.

Hebe. These are the shrubby. Most veronicas and most species do well by the sea. Wide range of flower and leaf colour. Not all are hardy.

Hippophae rhamnoides – Sea buckthorn. A most attractive grey shrub that grows well on the edges of salt marshes. Orange berries are produced if planted in mixed groups with male and female plants.

Lavatera maritima – Mallow. This is not as robust as some so requires a warm sheltered position. The pale lilac flowers are produced from midsummer to late autumn.

Limonium latifolium – Sea lavender. Has evergreen foliage and produces long sprays of light violet blue flowers in summer.

Nepeta x mussinii. Catmint, so-called because cats are reputed to love it. It forms a loose grey-foliaged herbaceous plant with blue spikes in summer.

Spartium junceum. An informal broom that produces long sprays of fragrant yellow pea flowers.

Tamarix spp. Several tamarisks have naturalized along southern coasts of Britain. They form loose shrubs of fine foliage which carry sprays of light or deep pink flowers, in early summer.


A patio is a hard-surfaced area, usually at the rear of a house, in which the householder can relax. Town patios often make up the entire rear garden and growing space is accordingly limited. This means that a good deal of ’artificial’ gardening has to be engaged in to create an effect. The problem with a patio is that because the space is usually small, the more features that are included the more fussy the area becomes. Great care, therefore, must be taken in the choice of containers and shrubs and it is my firm conviction that, if possible, all containers should be of the same or complementary design or material. Clay pots are now made in various sizes and come fairly large but experience with them has proved that they are not always, as claimed, immune to frost, so my preference is for wooden containers, stone or glassfibre. Another way to keep your patio un-cluttered is to keep your planting to a narrow range of colour and species.

The basic plan with most patios is to provide background shrubs, even small trees in containers, which have the advantage of being moveable. These are then supplemented by annuals and bulbs throughout the year. Patios can be sun traps and so plants liking hot, dry conditions are happy here. If you have a sunny patio, consider erecting a pergola and training climbers over it. The golden hop, Humulus lupulus ‘Aureus’, is one such and the summer flowering, scented jasmine, Jasminum polyanthum is another.


This is where a gardener’s ingenuity comes to the fore, as there are many subjects that are suitable for planting in containers that are not always immediately obvious. The following are some suggestions:

European fan palm, Chamderops humilis looks spectacular in a large tub.

Golden privet, Ligustrum ‘Aureum’ has pretty green-gold foliage.

Hydrangea hortensis The summer-flowering hydrangeas are excellent for late flower in blue or pink.

Rhododendrons Any medium-sized rhododendron can do well in a container, the evergreen species providing some ‘bulk’.

Camellias Choice is personal, but I recommend ‘Donation’ as a splendid modern hybrid. Camellias provide flowers at a thin time of year in January.

Herbaceous plants In general do fairly well, but taller specimens should not be considered as they need too much support.

Lilies Grow very well in pots – they can be placed anywhere to look effective.

Phormiums Have an architectural attraction and with their varied foliage are useful easy patio plants.

Annuals Such as petunias and antirrhinum can be used as ‘fillers’ or planted in wide containers on their own. Fillers for containers can be considered on the same basis as bedding out – planting wallflowers and polyanthus for spring display, followed by summer annuals and the late-flowering annuals such as Rudbeckia ‘Marmalade’.

Where patios are constructed on delicate sites, where weight is a problem, then a peat-based growing medium should be used in the containers. These can be purchased from any reputable garden centre – if the growing medium needs to be ‘open’, that is provided with a little more drainage, then perlite is a medium that is lightweight and helps in this respect. Be punctilious about feeding and watering plants in containers.


Many balconies are windswept and unable to support large specimens of plants, so choose hardy annuals or low-growing perennials. One or two small shrubs will give you an attractive evergreen background if the balcony is large enough, but leave yourself space for splashes of colour. Bulbs can play quite a part in this style of gardening, with early flowering crocus and iris, followed by the dwarf tulips and narcissi. A practical point that has to be taken into consideration for both balconies and roof gardens is easy access to your plants for watering and weeding. Another important factor is drainage.

There is nothing more devastating than to have water pouring through your own ceiling or a neighbour’s, and so ample investigation is essential before any planting is begun. Take advice from a good builder or consult the local authority if you plan any structural work.

A roof garden can have artificially created beds while a balcony is usually too small, and so roof gardens can look more like natural gardens with careful planning. Trees obviously need careful thought because of the wind factor and root spread which may not hold the plants in place.


Basement gardens can provide much charm and pleasure. Your main problem is likely to be too much or too little sun, for most basements are either sun traps or are shaded by buildings. If you have a bright basement, you might consider building a pergola to provide a sun filter, and choose plants which are reasonably drought resistant. If, as is more frequently the case, you lack sun, then if possible, paint walls white to reflect the light. Remember not to block access to drainage by your planting and don’t construct raised beds against a house wall. Sheltered from die wind you can enjoy die best of inside-outside patio living so you may want to buy some comfortable garden furniture.

Basement gardening is necessarily restricted by space and rather artificial, but these restrictions do not have to stifle your creativity. Ideally you want to have somewhere, perhaps inside, where you can propagate plants to provide seasonal colour. Otherwise you will need to replace flowering displays from time to time. Contrasting foliage and interesting climbing plants will offer you more lasting interest than if you aim only for colour. Train your climbers, feed and water them well as the lower stems tend to become bare as the upper ones search for light. Ingenious planting round the base of climbers in tubs can disguise this effectively.

In the autumn you can plant tubs with wall- flowers and bulbs but do not have entirely bulbs and wallflowers. Choose short varieties of bulbs or they will become long and leggy. Tubs planted up with snowdrops and crocuses to precede dwarf daffodils and narcissi are a wonderful harbinger of spring. Camellias and azaleas are good subjects for tubs too with hostas and begonias planted round the edge. Continuity of flower is obviously desirable and following on from die bulbs and wallflowers in the spring you can have bedding plants for the summer. Busy Lizzies, pansies and fuchsias do well in tubs and can provide several months of colourful bloom. If you live in the centre of a town, the protected environment might enable you to get away with some house plants on your patio, such as the heather Erica canaliculatus which is found in florists around Christmas time. Likewise, some of the chrysanthemums may provide a splash of colour through-out the winter.

It is largely a question of experimenting and being adventurous to see what will work for you. Basement gardens generally require a good deal of maintenance for plants to stay in good condition. If your time is at a premium, choose hardy evergreen and foliage plants. Consider enhancing your basement with ceramic tiles, a sculptural wall plaque and trellis work.


A long, narrow site does not have to look long and narrow unless you want it to, but a thin garden looks thin if you design along the boundaries.

You might devise borders that intrude across the centre of the garden to stop your eye part of the way down, together with a feature such as an upright shrub, conifer, statue or arbour suitably clothed with climbers. Even an urn with flowers tumbling down out of it may form an arresting sight which gives an illusion of width. Rather than plant trees along the boundaries, bring them into die garden to give a bit of height in the centre. Tuck taller plants into the backs of the borders and do not leave them bare. There is nothing worse than looking into a border and finding hollows. In a long, narrow strip you might like to dispense with grass or merely retain a circular or irregularly shaped piece of lawn. A curving path disappearing into a shrubbery, or a woodland end to the garden with spring bulbs planted underneath, make the garden look dense and luxurious, widening it to the onlooker’s eye.

The choice of plants for a narrow garden is important. Avoid tall, upright trees or shrubs as this accentuates the vertical line. ‘Architectural’ plants with large leaves should broaden the borders.


The plants you choose should be interesting as well as appropriate in size. Ascertain the final spread and growth of the mature plants of particular species or cultivars.

Acer palmatum – Japanese maple. Selections have both leaf and colour variations and are sufficiently slow-growing.

Buddleia These shrubs require some attention because not all are hardy. Average height 2.75m (9ft). Prune well in April.

Caryopteris x clandonensis A very attractive grey-leaved

02. May 2013 by admin
Categories: Featured, Garden Management, Top Tips | Comments Off on Plants and Ideas for Small Gardens


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