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…




Rachel Mathews
Rachel Mathews

Professional international garden designer for over 30 years. My mission is to de-mystify garden design and make it easy for people to successfully design their own garden - without needing to spend a fortune!

    6 replies to "BIG ideas for tiny gardens [part 1]"

    • Sherice

      Oh wow, what a difference some good gardening makes to a bland front patio — your before/after pics are great inspiration to what can be done even in the smallest of spaces. It’s an inspiration!
      .-= Sherice´s last blog ..7 Beautiful Blue WordPress Themes – Free for Your Blog =-.

    • SusanJ

      This is beautiful Rachel! I’m so inspired! And I liked what you said about “in a small space everything earns it’s place”. I have a huge yard but a small deck, and I’ll apply your advice there.
      .-= SusanJ´s last blog ..The Myth of “I don’t feel like it” (Part I) =-.

    • […] last week’s blog post we looked at how to tackle a tiny courtyard garden for reader Rachel Scott. This week we are going to look at the second part of Rachel’s […]

    • Jamie

      Some good information here – but “go easy on the planting” is just impossible for me I’m afraid!!

      • Rachel Mathews

        LOL – yes I know that one, I have to curb that impulse all the time!

    • Small Garden Design Tips

      […] very useful trick is to use small size paving. The smaller the slab, the larger the quantity you will need to fill an area. Your eyes will trick […]

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