In gardening, as in life, small is not simple

From backyard to bonsai, patio to planter, hidden corner to driveway verge, small gardens are as much a state of mind as a definition of size.

A small garden can be a selection of pots and planters in the corner of the stoep, or a small English garden next to a driveway. It can be on a sunny window sill in your kitchen or an elaborate three-dimensional space that draws the eye in an up. It can literally be three small topiaries set in gravel, leading the eye from here to there.

Shade and sun, height and spread, hard and soft textures will all add to both the challenges and the satisfaction a small garden will give you.

However, a small garden is not the same as a simple garden. Planning a small garden versus a bigger garden is like packing a small valise compared to a large suitcase. You have to plan so much better to make sure everything you need is in there.

First you have to look carefully at the space where your small garden will go and consider what you have and what you want.

Water and sunlight

Your first consideration is whether there is water. There is a big difference between opening a tap and using a watering can. If your space is difficult to water, go water-wise and stick to succulents and hard surfaces such as wood, pavers or gravel. A small garden can also have a variety of non-growing main features – a wooden bench or birdbath, a wind chime or interesting piece of driftwood.

Does your ideal spot get enough sun all year round? We all know north-facing is good and south not so much. But many small garden spaces are tucked next to a wall or under a tree that blocks the sun. You may have to use extremely shade-loving plants or use planters that can be moved according to the season. You may need expert advice on this, unless you are prepared to plant and see what survives the year.

How do you see your garden?

Where is the space and how will you view it? A closed corner is only seen from a narrow arch on one side. Your focal feature will be constant and you can vary the surrounds with seasonal texture and colours.

However, a narrow strip between patio and garden fence will add different challenges and opportunities. You will be able to view it from two or more angles. This will allow you to have multiple focal points, with the house on one side and the garden fence on the other providing interesting variations as background. These backgrounds can be used to enhance and add interest to your view.

What will you use your garden for?

Is your garden space to sit in? A shady nook under a compact pergola can provide a perfect spot to read a murder mystery, while a couple of small chairs and a tiny table can be perfect for a winter sunshine tea or summer gin and tonic sundowner.

If your garden will have kitchen herbs in it, make sure these are easily accessible. You won’t always need a path. Sometimes a strategically-placed small paver will give your foot a perch as you lean in to snip.

Up and out

Where possible, go up in your small space. Even an ugly cement wall can be painted or covered with ivy to make a great backdrop. You don’t have to do full paint effects, often you simply have to hide the background with a neutral colour to bring your garden to life.

But your background wall need not be flat and boring. Put up rustic shelving or interestingly-arranged hanging pots to give it depth and character. Raised beds can give a wonderful terraced feel, or give definition to a more formal garden.

Extend the flow of your house from inside to out and back again. Imagine an old Morris chair sitting comfortably on the stoep next to a painted pathway leading the eye past it, down the step onto the garden path. Or the same ground cover strip hopping up the stairs from the garden.

Choosing your plants

Your choice of plants will be vital to the success of your small garden. You want texture, but this texture has to remain in context. You don’t want to lose the very small next to the much bigger. Your feature plants will most likely have bigger leaves than the supporting growth, but try to keep the gradation smooth. For example, the front verge can be a low ground cover interspaced with pavers. Then you can start getting height with a bulkier plant, which will be the bridge to your focus.

You can also create interest by using similar-sized plants with differing textures and/or colours.

Starting your small garden

The time to start is now. Measure the space and draw it on a paper in appropriate size squares. Create your focus, be it a plant or other feature. Get and set your non-growing structure. Take it from there.

It takes time to plan and build the perfect small garden. Most likely it will never be finished. But that is part of the joy.

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