Making the most of small outdoor spaces

Gardening magazines and programmes often depict gardening in expansive country settings where all manner of styles and features can be accommodated.  However for many people living in towns and cities outdoor space is at a premium, sometimes awkwardly shaped, and often enclosed with extremes of sun or shade.  Much as I love visiting and reading about beautiful gardens in impressive estates, there is something fascinating about the challenge of accommodating greenery in much more limited spaces.  This blog focusses on ways to make the most of small outdoor spaces.

“Room outside”

The British garden designer John Brookes pioneered the idea of treating gardens as a “room outside”: an extension of the home designed to meet the needs and reflect the tastes of its occupants.  This is perhaps never more applicable than in the yards, alleyways, balconies and roof areas of towns and cities which are most human in scale.  The starting point should be consideration of how the space will be used and who by  – will it be for looking at, sitting in, entertaining, playing, or just walking through – and then planning around that just as you would a room within the house.

Linkages with the house can also be made by, for example, mirroring colours used in the adjacent room, using similar materials inside and out (e.g. wooden floorboards within, decking outside), even placing houseplants by a window or door inside to parallel those visible outside.  In a country like the UK, with its famously changeable weather conditions, it is likely that as much if not more time will be spent viewing the outdoor area from inside as spending time in it, so it is also important to consider what is visible from a window or door and where attention is attracted.

Borrowing and screening views

In some locations it may be that there are opportunities to ‘borrow’ elements from the surrounding area to enhance the feel of the immediate outdoor space.  For example, my own small garden backs onto a disused railway line which is now a cycle path and is lined with mature trees, providing an attractive backdrop.  We have a mature ornamental cherry tree (Prunus ‘Spire’) in our garden which links well with the trees outside of the perimeter, drawing them in and making them feel a part of the space.  Equally it may that there is a particular feature, such as an attractive building, outside of the garden boundary that can be ‘framed’ by carefully arranged planting to create a focal point.

Trees inside and outside the garden linking the space together

In many urban locations however it is likely that steps need to be taken to protect the outdoor space from less attractive aspects of the surrounding area and create more privacy.  This can be achieved by positioning large plants, or using hard landscaping features such as fences, walls, trellises or arbors to screen the space from unwanted aspects which are external to the space.

In the case of both borrowing and screening views consideration needs to be given to where the garden space will be viewed from and where seating areas are positioned in order to determine how planting and landscaping features can be used to best effect.

Three dimensions

In considering how best to use outdoor space it’s important not just to think about the footprint on the ground but also how vertical space can used.  Climbing plants can be trained up trellises on walls and fences, or over a wigwam support.  Wall mounted containers such as hanging baskets and window boxes can also be used, or even shelving added on which standard pots can be positioned.

Virginia Creeper (Parthenocissus quinquefolia) trained against our garden fence

It is also possible to create a ‘green wall’ by using a framework of containers populated with largely evergreen plants to create a dense patchwork of vertical planting.  This option would need to factor in irrigation requirements as plants can quickly dry out, particularly if they are in an exposed location.  However, specifically designed green wall systems can be purchased.  In all cases the load bearing capacity of the wall or fence in relation to the size and weight of planting to be used needs to be considered in order to avoid damage.

Integrating features

In making the most of small spaces it can also be helpful to think about how features may be created which have a combined use.  For example, in a small garden, where there may not be space for a shed, storage space can be a real issue (or in my case even when there is space for a shed!) so integrating storage for pots and other garden materials beneath a raised planter or a seat can be a way of addressing this.  Or maybe building a brick built wall for a raised bed to an appropriate height for it to also be used as additional seating.

An idea I have had for my own garden is to build a raised wooden planter next to the back door which has sufficient space underneath it to accommodate recycling boxes, and then plant this up with herbs.  This would deal with the issue of concealing the less than attractive refuse containers while keeping them in a convenient location, and provide easy access to herbs for cooking right outside the door.

Maximising planting opportunities

The amount of planting included in a garden very much depends on the attitude of the owner towards its maintenance.  If gardening is not your thing then it makes sense to keep planting to a minimum and select specimens which need limited attention.  However, in view of the fact that this blog site is focussed on urban greening I would promote seeking opportunities to make maximum use of space for planting.  As already mentioned using height is one such opportunity.  Others may include adding a ‘green roof’ to a shed, or a bike/bin store whereby the ‘roof’ is planted up in shallow, free-draining growing media with low growing alpine plants.  This makes an attractive feature of a storage area and provides an opportunity to grow some different types of plants.  Again load bearing requirements would need to be considered.

Wooden planter

Other options include the use of containers of various kinds, from those which are wall mounted mentioned earlier in this post to pots of various sizes.  In my own garden I have built three wooden planters which I use for seasonal planting including edibles such as salad crops and tomatoes during the summer.  The key with any planting is to ensure that the chosen specimens are suitable for the environmental conditions in that location whether this be sun, shade, damp or dry.

Overcoming limitations

Overall then, though outdoor space may be limited, there is no reason why this cannot be made an attractive place to sit or view from within the house.  With a little thought, there are many opportunities to make the most of whatever space is available, and indeed I have had a number of ideas for making improvements to my own garden even while writing this blog!

Further reading

Brookes, J. (2006) Small Garden, London: Dorling Kindersley Ltd.

Maguire, K. & Woods, T. (2017) Big Ideas, Small Spaces, London: Mitchell Beazley

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