Archives for February 2010

BIG ideas for tiny gardens [part 1]

This week we are looking at the more practical aspects of garden (yard) landscaping. There is always a lot written about how to tackle small gardens but what do you do if you have a really small garden? This was a question posed to me by one of our readers, Rachel Scott.

Rachel lives in Sydney, Australia and has two tiny outside spaces she wants to landscape; a very small courtyard on the ground floor and a small deck on the second floor.

A good discipline

You could almost say that a tiny garden is like micro-gardening. And in any micro environment every element is critical. Truth be told, every element in any garden is critical but on a micro scale you can see everything in one go, so it’s obvious if you make a mistake. With larger spaces you can disguise things, lead the eye where you want it to go. Not so easy in a tiny space.

Front Garden Before Landscaping

Before we get going, lets define tiny – Rachel’s main garden is 3 x 2m (nearly 10 x 6.5ft). I have only designed one garden that small before and that was for the front of my first house. As you can see from the picture, it was pretty uninspiring. I wanted somewhere to grow herbs and vegetables as I didn’t want them in the back garden.

I’d like to tell you that the design I came up with was inspired by lots of creative yearnings but it wasn’t. I was on a very tight budget of nothing, having not long moved in. I had a few paving slabs left over from the back garden and was given a mix of free samples and cobbles my father had tucked away. I laid out this odd collection of stone and then worked out how I could use it all on paper. I wouldn’t recommend anyone design like this as it isn’t the best method, but needs must sometimes.

The photo below shows the finished result. Virtually all the plants were edible except for the phormium and wisteria. The bays either side of the front door were covered in a wicker pyramid that grew runner beans in the summer. In the tubs I grew lettuce, carrots and onions and a sweet grapevine up the wall, it was a very productive tiny front garden!

Front Garden After Landscaping

What materials should you have in your garden?

Ideally, what I should have done was to choose my materials very carefully. I have a rule I tend to follow of no more than three different hard-landscaping materials. Which I did stick to here (gravel, paving & granite cobbles) but I think just two in such a tiny space would have worked better because it would be less fussy.

When you choose your materials they can either contrast with the environment or compliment it. The materials here all have a yellow tinge and therefore compliment the yellow of the front door. Had I used a dark limestone or slate, it would have created contrast.

Be careful choosing dark colours in small spaces, especially if you are low on light. It will make the area look darker and smaller if you are not careful.

Big isn’t always best!

If you use small sizes paving or cobbles, the area will look much larger. Your eyes will see the quantity which tricks the brain into thinking the area is larger than it is. Test it. On the photograph above, blot out the paving slabs with your fingers and then notice how much longer the cobble path to the front door looks without the paving at the sides to dictate the scale.

Go easy on the planting

Again, not a rule I’ve followed here because I had a very specific use for the space – I wanted as many edible things as possible. This was essentially a herb and vegetable patch that needed to look pretty because it was at the front of the house. Had I been designing it purely for aesthetics, I would have been much more careful with the number of plants.

As a rule of thumb, I tend to find in a landscape setting, two-thirds empty space to one-third mass, which can be plants or vertical features, works well. If you study the photo you will see its got too many plants and isn’t as comfortable to look at if I’d used slightly less. I got away with it because the plants are small and there is enough contrast between them that doesn’t swamp the eye.

The most important thing with tiny gardens…

Everything must earn its place. Every single thing you put into the garden must look good all year round and be in the right place. Just because a garden is tiny, you can still be bold and brave but you must keep things simple.

Hopefully that has given Rachel some ideas about her courtyard, but what about the roof garden? We will look at the ins and outs of tiny roof gardens next week in part 2.

Window boxes aside, what is the smallest space you’ve tried to create a garden in and what problems did you experience?

Need Help Designing Your Small Garden?

Check out Rachel’s step-by-step online small garden design course…


Does it take a carrot or a stick to produce a great garden?

Someone kindly(?) referred to this website as “porn for garden lovers.” As much as l laughed at that, it has made me think; are people just ogling and not actually doing? I want this to be a useful resource where you can come and get the tuition you need (move on from the porn analogy, if you haven’t already).

I thought if I did this website, offered free advice, people would get ideas and they would go off and make their garden* great. But it doesn’t seem like that’s happening.

Why Aren’t More People Designing Their Gardens?

Blog post tutorials are just too passive. As much as people are reporting they are loving this site and all the information provided, they are not going off and putting pencil to paper. The exception are the ones doing the online garden design course.

What’s The Key To Helping People Create Their Dream Garden?

There needs to be a big motivator. I’ve had an idea that could help provide this motivation. It came to me a couple of weeks ago, after I interviewed Anne Wareham for a new feature on inspirational gardens. She has created an amazing garden and isn’t a professional landscaper. So, if she and people like her have created great gardens by studying garden design, it shows what can be achieved when someone puts their mind to it. Trouble is, most people don’t do that.

Where Do You Start With Landscaping Your Garden?

One of the main reasons people don’t do anything with their garden is because they don’t know where to start and get overwhelmed. They don’t know if they should do it themselves or hire a designer. If they do it themselves, they might muck it up. But if they hire a designer, what happens if they don’t like what the designer comes up with? Either option could be an expensive mistake. So maybe a few plants get put in, or the garden just gets left, with a vow to do something one day.

A Perfect Solution?

I think having a ‘roadmap’ to follow would be a big help. One that shows you how to either work with a landscape professional successfully or point you in the right direction on what you need to know to be able to design the garden yourself. But that’s not all. So I’ve set up a course that will guide people through the process and they can show their finished results if they wish. See The Great Garden Formula Home Study Course page for more details.

What’s Your Excuse?

Whatever the reasons are for not having done something great with your garden, tell me what they are. I have a few ideas on what the roadblocks are, but I don’t know what your blocks are. Even if the blocks are something outside of what would be considered a garden problem; tell me.

And if you’d like to see the ‘roadmap’ I’ve created then do come and attend one of our FREE Fast Track Garden Design online classes…

Register on this page:

Why You Can Create a Better Garden Than a Designer

I admit that is a statement I was never expecting to make. I’ve been designing gardens professionally for the last eighteen years. It’s how I earn my living. I charge people a fee to convert their ideas and lifestyle aspirations into a beautiful garden. So, why after so many years in the business have I come to the conclusion you’d be better off doing it yourself?

Well, we are going to have to go back in time by the measure of two whole weeks to answer that question.

Two weeks ago I interviewed Anne Wareham to kick start a new monthly feature on Inspirational Gardens and the people behind them. I knew very little about Anne before the interview; turns out she’s not a trained garden designer. She’s self-taught from books and studying gardens intensely. That’s quite something when you look at what she’s achieved in her garden.

Are Garden Designers Really The Best Option?

Whilst researching for my interview with Anne, I came across an article by Tim Richardson, who writes for the Society of Garden Designers. He wrote a while back, that most of the iconic or outstanding contemporary gardens have not been created by professional garden designers. He commented that if he was a garden designer he would be somewhat miffed by that fact.

Upsetting News for Garden Designers?

No, I don’t see it that way. For me, it’s not a true comparison. It is like comparing a book to a film. No matter how good the film is, it is an abbreviated version. A filmmaker simply cannot fit every detail and nuance into a movie. Also, there is less room for your own interpretation. It’s all been laid out for you; the intimate co-creation that occurs between author and the reader is very hard, if not impossible to recreate in a film.

I feel the same is true between the difference someone can create in their own garden, with the necessary studying and time on their side, and calling in a garden designer. I’m not trying to do myself out of a job or knock my profession. It’s simply a case of time and practicality. A professional designer will see a client and garden they’ve never met before, for one or maybe two hours. In that time they have to assess the personality of both client and garden.

In that one brief experience, that single moment in time defines the designer’s entire experience of that garden. The designer will not have seen the transitions of the seasons. They are unlikely to have witnessed the play of light around the garden from dawn to dusk. They won’t have ‘lived’ that garden in the one or two hours they were there.

For me, designers offer a translation service for those who can’t and don’t want to speak the language of their garden. Considering the short amount of time we see the client and garden, I think designers do an amazing job. It’s no easy task to get inside another person’s mind and dig out their dream garden. Very few people are able to articulate exactly what they want. It takes a truly skilled designer to create a garden that not only ticks all the boxes for the client but delivers more than they ever thought possible.


I notice the difference between the book and the film. I feel that professional designs can have a somewhat precise and almost clinical nature to them. A flatness, if you will. They miss that spark of true magic that is created by someone that lives and breathes their garden. And add to the fact that gardens are not static objects; they mature and change over time. Try as a designer may, you can’t think of everything that might happen in a garden for the entirety of its existence with one plan, the garden needs to evolve over time.

Not Really Something Professional Garden Designers Want to Admit To

So, if the best gardens haven’t been done by designers, then my belief that homeowners are more than capable of doing their own garden, with the right training, is not only justified, if anything, I’ve underestimated what can be done by non-professionals. Think about the exciting possibilities that exist if people put their mind to consciously creating their gardens…

Should You Employ A Garden Designer?

Not everyone wishes to employ a garden designer, which is fine, but so few people actually do anything with their garden. And fewer still take the time to learn the principles of design to do it well. Why is that?

I have a few thoughts on why, and I think I have come up with a plan to help address the situation… FREE online garden design classes…

And if you’d like to attend one of our FREE Fast Track Garden Design online classes…

Register on this page:

Inspirational Gardens and the People Behind Them [part 1]

We are getting back to gardens this week after the frivolity of last week’s Honest Scrap Award. This is the first of a new monthly-ish feature on inspirational gardens. I’ve chosen this first one to get the ball rolling, then all subsequent gardens are chosen by the person I’ve interviewed, which should, I hope, make for an interesting journey for us all.

Veddw House Garden copyright Charles Hawes

  Garden Design Elements

My inaugural Inspirational Garden is Veddw House Garden in   Monmouthshire, South Wales. The garden has been created by   Anne Wareham and her husband Charles Hawes. Anne is a garden writer for newspapers and magazines. She is also a garden consultant and is involved with ThinkinGardens, for  people who want more than gardening from their garden.  Charles is a professional photographer and has very kindly  allowed me to use his photographs of Veddw House Garden for  this article.

I’ve only recently discovered Veddw House Garden (shame on me – I should never have cancelled my Gardens Illustrated subscription!). I’ve been really impressed by the creative and clever layout of the garden. It is obvious how much energy and thought has gone into it. What impresses me most about this garden is its creators; neither Anne or Charles are professionally trained garden designers. They have created this garden from scratch. Anne started it with a spade in her hand. It’s a two-acre garden. That’s quite an undertaking for anyone.

Veddw House Garden copyright Charles Hawes

Where Do You Start To Create A Garden Like This?

I asked Anne where and how she got started on this amazing garden. She told me the first thing she did was to clear it. The overgrown trees and shrubs were removed and this enabled Anne to see the garden properly. Most people are too afraid to take things out and totally start again but for Anne this was a necessity not an option.

Having a two-acre garden to develop from scratch is a big challenge and a scary one at that. I was very curious as to how Anne went about transforming her garden, when, in her words, she knew absolutely nothing about creating a garden. She did something that is obvious, yet so few people do it…

You Can Do What Anne Has Done Too

She studied gardens, in depth. Anne went to every garden centre, nursery and open garden she could. She read books, magazines and totally immersed herself in all things garden. She asked a lot of questions. Most people tend to do some of those things but not all. Anne stuck at it until she understood what makes a good garden. It’s not about what plants you use. It comes down to what shapes you create before you add the plants.

Veddw House Garden copyright Charles Hawes

A Curious Design Method…

I wanted to know about Anne’s design process. Does she sit down with a sheet of paper and plan it or could she see it in her mind? I was expecting her to say she could just see it all in her mind but that couldn’t be further from it. Anne is like many people, myself included early on in my design career, she can’t visualise how things will look. If you’ve read the blog post I did a while back on visualising your garden, you’ll know that it’s not as important a skill as you would think.

Anne’s design method is born out of her curiosity; she will think of two or three different things and wonder how they would look if she puts them together. So the only way to satisfy her curiosity is to actually go and do it.

The Problem With Focusing On Plants

Iris sibirica Veddw copyright Charles Hawes

Anne is passionate about good structure in gardens (and I mean REALLY passionate about it). One of her pet hates is how easily seduced people are by plants. Too much focus on plants and the garden becomes an incoherent mess. As a nation we are plant obsessed and it is all too often to our detriment. Mention your plant collection to Anne at your peril!

An Inexperienced Gardener

Before Veddw, Anne’s experience of gardens was limited to a small London garden and before that a tub of herbs she’d grown from seeds on the flat roof of her flat! So if you were thinking that it’s impossible to create a great garden without a lot of garden experience, you’d be wrong. Anne and Charles started the garden in 1987. They’ve developed it one section at a time. A garden like Veddw doesn’t happen over night, it evolves over time.

View across grasses copyright Charles Hawes

Anne’s Top Tips:

If you are starting a new garden, mulch as much as you can to keep the weeds down. Think about structure in your garden and read, read, read everything you can on gardens. You must educate yourself as much as possible. Her last tip is to go with the lie of the land, especially if you have countryside views. It’s important your garden sits well in its surroundings.

Visit This Great Garden

I do hope that if you are ever in South Wales, you will go and see Veddw House Garden for yourself. It’s open to the public on Sunday’s from 2-5pm June-August. And whilst you are visiting you may as well take a look at some other wonderful Welsh gardens. There is a fabulous book available (which features Veddw among others) called Discovering Welsh Gardens by Stephen Anderton, photographs by Charles Hawes.

I’d like to thank Anne for taking the time for the interview, especially as she’s facing a deadline for her new book ‘The Bad-Tempered Gardener’ for Frances Lincoln, which should be available early next year.

Veddw House Garden Copyright Charles Hawes

Your turn?

If you can get a good understanding of how garden design works, then creating your own fabulous garden is definitely achievable. I hope seeing Charles and Anne’s garden has inspired you to tackle your own garden in a creative and thought provoking way. Gardens can be so much more than just a place to put the shed, you don’t need to be an expert to do it but you do need knowledge.

I’ve certainly been inspired by my conversation with Anne. Veddw House Garden is proof that if you put your mind to it, you can create something amazing with your garden. In fact she’s inspired me to take action to help people do just that. I’ll write more about the idea our conversation sparked in the next blog post…

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