While a sprawling backyard to roam in was once the norm, inner-city living has led our gardens to slowly, but surely, shrink. But small garden design needn’t mean uninspiring. There’s no need to say goodbye to the green leafy paradises of our dreams when you can take a small space – such as a courtyard, patio balcony or front yard – as an opportunity to get creative with maximising the outdoor space available to you.
Space-saving solutions, such as vertical gardens, statement pot plants and climbing vines, are all perfect for pushing the boundaries of even the smallest yard. All you need is a bit of imagination and these small garden design and landscaping ideas to transform a humble patch into an urban oasis.
1. SCREENING PLANTS
Bamboo is a favourite screening plant, but beware the species you choose. The bamboo used below is Bambusa textilis ‘Gracilis’ (slender weavers bamboo), a non-invasive, clumping variety.
“It grows 6-8m high and gives you maximum height and screening in tight spaces,” says landscape architect Sophie Greive from Think Outside Gardens. “It also has a rapid growth rate – from 1m high to 6m in 18 months.”
Sophie recommends planting one plant per 0.6m to 1m, depending on how thick you want the foliage. “Slender weavers remains green, with no yellow foliage over winter, will tolerate frost and is fairly drought-hardy once established, but it does like plenty of water in summer to look its best.” Stems can be left bushy for screening purposes or leaves can be trimmed back to bare stems to allow more light into the space.
2. USE THE COUNCIL VERGE
Tim met the brief by creating densely planted ‘islands’ of garden flanking a cobblestone pathway to the front door. Arching over the path are two established trees – a Poinciana and a frangipani – creating a shady canopy at the entrance. Plants underneath include Agave attenuata, Senecio mandraliscae, Japanese box and Zamia furfuracea.
“It’s a mix of vibrant, hardy and striking foliage of varying textures, repeated in an informal way to make an inviting entry,” says Tim.
3. CREATE LAYERS
The owners of this Federation home in Sydney’s inner west wanted a semi-formal front garden to complement the home’s pretty heritage facade.
“Mainly, though, they wanted a lovely space to look at,” says landscape designer Julia Levitt of Sticks & Stones Landscape Design, so she planted a layered garden of “soft and gentle” plants with mixed foliage textures.
4. MAXIMISE NATURAL LIGHT
“Consider the light at different times of year, as well as different times of day,” he says. “Select plants that thrive and adore those conditions.”
It’s also crucial to understand how the plant behaves over time: how big will it get? What are its water requirements?
“All plants can fail – they are living things. And that’s why it’s paramount to give them what they need and love.”
5. MIX AND MATCH
Layering plants of different heights and leaf sizes creates the illusion of space. The bluestone pathways of this Melbourne front garden by Inge Jabara are flanked by lovely layers of Portuguese laurel, English box, lamb’s ears, German iris and seaside daisies.
6. OUTDOOR RUGS
“Outdoor rugs can help give a space an extra warmth and introduce another texture,” adds Richard Unsworth. “We are now using them more and more.”
Not only will they add a stylish touch to your outdoor setting, but outdoor rugs can also be practical – preventing the pavers from getting too hot in the sun, or even covering up an old or regrettable paving choice.
7. CREATE A LEAFY CANOPY
The journey to the front door of this newly built house is through a lush side garden dappled with shadows.
A vertical canopy of leafy foliage adds drama to the side space that might otherwise have been simply a pathway, while also casting shadows and softening the heat of the sun.
8. MULTI-TASKING SPACES
With outdoor living and parking space both at a premium in Sydney’s inner city, people often seek maximum flexibility from their rear courtyard. It’s not impossible to have the best of both worlds, with an engaging outdoor dining space that can cleverly convert into discreet off-street parking.
Outdoor umbrellas on wheels can simply be whisked away, while outdoor rugs can be rolled up, and vertical gardens or potted plants can bring a conservatory-feel that wouldn’t be completely out of place parked next to your car.
Gallery: 6 pretty portable partitions and room dividers (House & Garden)
Recycled Material Room Divider
Temple And Webster Geometric Screen
9. VERTICAL GARDENS
Vertical gardens aren’t just totally trendy, but they’re a super convenient option if your garden is short on space. They can be grown indoors and out, in courtyards or on balconies. Wherever you put it, it’s sure to bring some wow to your wall.
Opt to style your vertical garden with ferns, edibles or flowers for whatever look you’re going for.
10. ROOFTOP GARDEN
This 9x7m rooftop in Sydney’s Bondi performs as the household’s ‘backyard’. Garden designer Adam Robinson was enlisted to create a multipurpose space that could be used for dining, lounging, cooking and as a children’s playground.
Around the perimeter Adam created large garden beds filled with soft, textural plants in all shades of green.
“Each plant’s texture stands out against the one next to it,” says Adam. “This approach makes the garden feel larger than it would if we’d just planted a hedge or a row of one plant.”
11. SPACE-SAVING IDEAS
Grant Boyle from Boyle of Fig Landscapes shares his top small garden tips:
- Maximise green space by utilising vertical surfaces or hanging gardens.
- Mix different foliage textures and colours to create interest: try combining fine-leafed species with glossy plants, or succulents with grasses.
- One large potted plant will have more impact than lots of small ones.
- Built-in seating will maximise ground space.
- A strategically placed mirror will amplify greenery and give the illusion of more space.
- Think about how big the plants will be when fully grown: you don’t want to overwhelm the area.
- Try to provide a habitat for local wildlife – hardy natives such as Banksia ‘Birthday Candles’, grevillea and Callistemon (bottle brush) are ideal.
12. DIAMOND CLIMBERS
In this garden, star jasmine is trained to climb up a grid of stainless-steel wires to soften the surrounding architectural features.
“It also makes the courtyard feel more enclosed,” says the designer, Jane Jones of Jane Jones Landscapes. The wall is painted Dulux Monument, to make the wall visually recede and the green foliage stand out.
13. MINIATURE MANICURED GARDEN
When short on space, clearly defined structure, geometric shapes, repetition and a largely evergreen planting palette are the hallmarks of a formal-style garden and can add drama and make a statement in a space without it looking overcrowded or cramped.
14. POTTED OUTDOOR PLANTS
- Choose the best-quality potting mix you can afford. You get what you pay for and a quality potting mix will help your plants grow better for longer.
- Potted plants lose moisture much more quickly than in-ground plants so monitor moisture levels regularly. If the top layer is dry and dusty, it’s time to water; if it feels moist and sticks to your finger, leave it a day or so. Self-watering pots are a great idea as plants will draw on the water supply as needed. Reduce the amount of moisture loss by applying a few centimetres of fine bark mulch.
- Well-fed plants look healthier, are more productive and are also better able to resist pests and diseases. You can either use liquid plant foods on a regular basis or controlled-release fertilisers that release nutrients slowly over time. Choose a method that best suits your gardening style.
15. FEATURE PLANTS
With its slender trunk and arching fronds, the Australian tree fern (Cyathea cooperi) makes a stunning feature plant.
“It thrives in tropical to subtropical conditions, full sun to part shade, in well-drained soil,” says Richard Rimell from Quercus Gardens.
16. CREATE YEAR-ROUND APPEAL
Janine Mendel from Cultivart shares her tips for making your garden look great all year round:
- In many small gardens, the plants will be in full shade in winter and full midday sun in summer, so select plants that are able to withstand a variety of conditions.
- Similarly, choose plants for their ability to look good for as much of the year as possible with little or no down time as they’ll be permanently on display. Introduce colour through foliage as flowering plants often have only a fleeting moment of glory.
- Consider how each foliage texture and colour looks with its neighbour.
- When it comes to trees, select small species or those that are able to be pruned and shaped without compromising their form if they grow too large.
- Spend time on soil improvement and maintenance so all plants will thrive.
17. CHOOSE HARDY SHRUBS
Miss Muffet’, a hardy shrub with a naturally tufted shape, glossy green leaves and fragrant cream flowers in spring.
“This is a fabulous bedding plant for small gardens,” says Janine. “It looks good all year-round and can withstand sun or shade.”
18. WORK WITH AN UNEVEN SURFACE
When Perth landscape designer Janine Mendel of Cultivart Landscape Design was asked to create a series of pocket gardens around a contemporary home on a steeply sloping block, she decided to use the change in levels as a cue for her garden design.
“Steps and level changes take up valuable space in a small garden, so it’s important to use this in both practical and aesthetic ways. This design allows for people to sit on the walls and steps, creating a semi-enclosed sitting space visible from the covered alfresco area.
19. ENTERTAINING AREAS
Carolyn and Joby Blackman of Vivid Design designed a timber screen for this outdoor dining space in Melbourne to “provide a sense of cocooning”.
An ornamental grape has been planted to climb the pergola and form a canopy.
“Using vertical spaces is quite critical in small spaces,” says Carolyn. “Try not to fill up the ground space with plants that are too bulky or bushy. Use climbers that give leafiness and aim to create canopies which will have the effect of a living umbrella,” says Carolyn.
20. STYLE WITH STEEL
“I love corten steel because it has a slim profile, unlike other materials,” says Janine. “It weathers well, blends with the natural landscape and is a striking foil for plants.”
21. TIMBER SCREEN
Create a private sanctuary by using spotted gum to create a screen from the road.
22. ADD GREENERY
Even a little greenery will bring joy into your life, says Carolyn Blackman from Vivid Design. “Having plants in your life lifts the spirits as well as provides the sensory benefits of movement, perfume and colour.”
Carolyn recommends positioning plants to create an ethereal light quality around your home. “We all know the feeling of sitting under a tree in a park and enjoying the soft, dappled light. As garden designers, we try to recreate that feeling in even the smallest gardens we work on.”
23. MEDITERRANEAN INSPIRATION
Dry climate, shade-tolerant plants, including dwarf date palms (Phoenix roebellenii), pig’s ear (Cotyledonmacrantha), Sansevieria ‘Mason’s Congo’ and agave, planted in a bespoke aluminium ‘collar’ are ideal for creating a garden inspired by modern Mediterranean gardens, for a touch of holidays at home.
24. AWARD WINNING COURTYARD
Tropical beauties in varying heights and foliage colours create points of interest around this courtyard, which combines a barbecue area with sitting and dining zones.
Key plants are Australian tree fern (Cyathea cooperi), Ctenanthe setosa ‘Grey Star’, Blechnum ‘Silver Lady’, Philodendron ‘Xanadu’, Alcantarea imperialis ‘Rubra’ and a Bangalow palm under planted with gingers and Calathea. Neighbouring plants – bamboo and a Phoenix palm – complement the planting palette.