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How to make a small garden feel big – a beginner’s guide

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No idea where to begin with making the most of a small garden? We chatted to landscape designer Mark Lane for tips on maximising your outdoor space (and where to begin with gardening if you’re a newbie)

small garden

Maximising a small garden can be achieved, no matter your idea or budget. All you need is some expert help. 

It’s no secret that gardening has a myriad of benefits – and it’s not just us who see the benefits of greenery. Studies have shown that green spaces can lower levels of stress and reduce rates of depression and anxiety, reduce cortisol levels and improve general wellbeing.

What’s more, Tokyo and Exeter Universities found such robust evidence for the positive effects of gardening on health, they have been calling for governments and health organisations to promote gardening as a wellness tool. So an investment in your garden is, by extension, an investment in yourself.

But how do you curate your very own green oasis? Let’s turn it over to Mark Lane, BBC Gardeners’ World presenter, landscape designer and Stannah’s gardening expert. 

small garden
Image credit: Bergs Potter

How can you curate a garden if you only have a small space?

“Smaller spaces might seem daunting, but by keeping things simple and incorporating large elements, you can create a garden space that suits every need. By limiting yourself to two or three materials throughout the garden, you create a more cohesive look and feel,” advises Mark.

“Adding large-leafed plants, large pots and large-sized paving slabs in cohesive colours and hues can make the garden appear bigger than it actually is. Adding mirrors that reflect only greenery create depth and the illusion that the garden continues beyond the boundaries.”

What are the best plants for small gardens?

“The best plants for small spaces are large-leafed species such as, and forgive me for using some technical names; Fatsia japonica, Rodgersia aesculifolia, Gunnera manicata (giant rhubarb), Sasa palamata (broad-leaved bamboo), Asarum europaeum, Ligularia ‘The Rocket’, Aralia cordata and Brunnera macrophylla,” says Mark.

“Many smaller gardens tend to be in shadow a lot of the time, so you can add plants with silver leaves or white markings that will reflect light and make the space feel lighter and airy. Try Alexander’s Great, Big Ears and Valerie Finnis for this technique.”

Image credit: Mylands

What plants are easy for beginner gardeners to plant and care for?

“For novice gardeners, you cannot go wrong with hardy herbaceous perennials. These are plants that come back year after year, getting better and bigger every subsequent year. Just remember to divide your perennials every three to five years for maximum effect, and the ‘free’ divisions can be planted elsewhere in the garden or given to friends, family, or neighbours.

“Try plants like the false forget-me-not, Brunnera macrophylla, false goatsbeard, foxglove, verbena, lady’s mantle, golden marguerite, shasta daisy and stonecrop. For shrubs grow abelia, butterfly bush, Buddleja davidii ‘White Profusion’, flowering quince, Mexican orange blossom, rock rose and red-barked dogwood.

“Plant bulbs for seasonal interest and you can add dashes of colour here, there and everywhere. Good examples are tulips, daffodils, alliums, grape hyacinths and lilies. Just plant them and forget about them. After flowering, deadhead the bulb flower, unless you want to keep it to add texture to your garden (alliums make great examples), leave the leaves and stems to die down naturally and continue to feed with a high-potash feed, such as tomato feed, until the stems have completely disappeared,” advises Mark.

small garden
Image credit: Bill Amberg Studio x Knepp Estate

Any tips for socialising in a small garden during the summer months without it feeling cramped?

“The knack to making the most of garden spaces is to think of the garden as a multifunctional space,” says Mark. “Use folding tables and chairs that can be put away to one side to open up the space for social gatherings, drinks and parties. Alternatively, how about a table and chairs that fold down from the wall?

“Think of the outdoor space as a continuation of your house décor. Use colours and materials that tie the outside to the inside. This will make the space feel larger and give you that seamless ‘indoor-outdoor’ feel. Adding lighting makes any outdoor space usable during the summer and colder months,” he says. “Solar-powered string lights add mood and atmosphere. Just remember to have a bright wall light (perhaps on an outside switch) so that cleaning your much-loved garden is made easier.

“Living walls are a lovely idea and there are many to choose from online. The best ones for novice gardeners are those where you can just drop a potted plant into a hole/slot. This way, if the plant dies, you can lift it out and replace it without interfering with the other plants. Consider planting a mix of edible fruits such as strawberries, herbs like creeping thyme and oregano and ornamentals for colour.”

small garden
Image credit: Bergs Potter

What do people tend to overlook when curating their garden?

“Every garden, no matter its size, requires certain things to keep it looking its best. Every plant needs water and feed. Don’t just rely on the soil or compost to give your plants all the nutrients. Most shop-bought composts that contain feed only last for three to six months maximum.

“The more you water, the faster the feed is leached out of the soil. Topping up the plants with feed, watering last thing at night to avoid evaporation, adding a mulch (a biodegradable 10cm layer, such as bark chippings) to the soil to keep in moisture and deadheading your plants regularly will result in healthy, strong plants.

“When designing a new garden there is also the desire to add everything you can, but a lot of the time, less is more.”

small garden

Any other tips for novice gardeners?

“Plan as much as you possibly can!” says Mark. “Take measurements of your garden, taking note of where existing trees are, if there is a gradient in any area, where the sun falls and then transpose these measurements onto a piece of paper. Two centimetres per metre length will give you an easy scale to work with.

“Then consider what you want to put in the garden. There is no such thing as a no-maintenance garden, but by choosing the right materials and plants, you can create a low-maintenance garden. While it might seem easier to opt for artificial grass and plants, remember that these are made of plastic and do nothing for wildlife, pollinators or our pets. In a hot summer, artificial grass heats up and can burn the paws of dogs and cats, as well as human feet.

“What we see when a garden is finished is not the total amount spent. A lot of your budget will go on preparing the site, proper foundations, drainage and so much more – the things you don’t see! But the investment will carry on for many years later.”

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