Friday, 2 July 2010

Designing a small garden - part 4

This is the 4th (and final!) part of my thoughts on the design of small gardens theme.

The earlier parts are the 3 posts immediately before this one, and can be reached by clicking on these links ...

Part 1 - introduction to why small gardens need designing;
Part 2 - lose the boundaries, borrowed views & landscape, using 3 dimensions;
Part 3 - keep it simple, maximise space usefulness, optical illusions;
Part 4 follows - keep it interesting, growing for the table and utility issues.

7. Keep it interesting:

A garden space planted entirely with unchanging, neatly clipped, evergreen hedging can be a tranquil place to relax, but it will lack the seasonal changes which I think bring vitality to a garden.

A very small garden may not be able to sustain too many changes in form – rounded, conical, arching, cylindrical, horizontal-tiered, vase-like, etc – without becoming too “busy” and seeming cluttered, but changes of texture and leaf colour can add enough variety to ensure it’s not a boring space. Restrained use of flower “fireworks” and foliage changes can create seasonal highlights that keep the interest going.

If you’re using a small tree, try to get value from it with blossom, leaf colour changes and berries – take a look at Amelanchier, Sorbus or Euonymus – or try one with interesting winter bark, such as the Paper-Bark Maple (Acer griseum). Click here for more information on keeping your garden interesting through the winter.

A tree will also provide food and/or habitat for wildlife to add interest to your garden, especially if you allow some of the “hidden corner” beneath it to be old branches, dry dead leaves, or a “bug hotel” made from old bricks, straw, branches, etc contained in some wire or plastic mesh. These will certainly help support insects, birds and maybe frogs/toads or a hedgehog. This year is the International Year of Biodiversity - my post on this explains more about the importance of gardens to wildlife, and how to attract it to your space.

Don’t forget the value of the view out to your small garden from indoors – especially the night-time view, where “nightscape” lighting will be much more economical to achieve than in a larger garden! Click here for more information on garden lighting.

8. Growing for the table:

A small garden is unlikely to give you scope for a regular vegetable garden, but you can still produce some food – espaliered fruit (apples, pears, cherries, kiwi) grown against a sunny house wall; dwarf fruit trees in patio containers (peaches or nectarines); window-ledge containers for herbs, salad crops or stir-fry leaves; potato barrels, strawberry planters or tomatoes in hanging baskets.

Follow these links for more information on window ledge planting and edible flowers.

9. Utility issues:

Practicalities also need to be considered. Unless it’s a small front garden we’re addressing, you’ll probably need a washing line of some kind. Rotary lines are economical in space and can be removed out of the way when not required. Another discreet option is a retractable pull-out line with the spool fixed to the house wall and the extended end hooked onto another wall, well-fixed post, or (perhaps) a strong tree branch.

Waste bins / wheelie bins may need to be accommodated, but could be out of sight behind a hedge or trellis screen.

A compost bin is still a good idea, even in a small garden. If there’s not space to hide a conventional bin (ideally, a timber structure with air gaps rather than a closed plastic composter) there are ornamental “bee-hive” types – just Google “bee hive composter” for retailers.

Unless your garden planting is exceptionally drought-tolerant, plants will need watering in hot/dry periods, especially those in containers & hanging baskets. This is much less work in a small garden! A small garden also makes it very easy to include irrigation for patio containers/planters, hanging baskets and inset borders using a solid-walled hose from the water source taken around the periphery, with smaller tubes punched into the hose taking water to adjustable micro-sprinklers in the pots. These drip-irrigation systems from “Hozelock” are readily available at garden centres and DIY stores, are relatively inexpensive, and can be easily automated with a battery-powered timer at the water tap. Even better, but more expensive, are automatic solar-powered pumps attached to rainwater harvesting butts, such as “WaterWand”.

For collecting rainwater in a smaller garden, there are unobtrusive wall-mounted slimline butts such as the “Prestige” from waterbuttsdirect and others.

That’s the end of my article on designing a small garden - you can reach the other parts via the links at the top of this post, or by scrolling on down through my blog.

If you’re inspired by these ideas to have a more adventurous attempt at designing your small garden – great! If you’re daunted by it and would like some professional help click here to get in touch!

Designing a small garden - part 3

This is the third part of my thoughts on the design of small gardens.

The other parts can be reached by clicking on these links ...

Part 1 - an introduction to why small gardens need designing;
Part 2 - lose the boundaries, borrowed views & landscape, using 3 dimensions;
Part 3 follows, covering keep it simple, maximise space usefulness, optical illusions;
Part 4 - keep it interesting, growing for the table and utility issues.

Here goes ...

4. Keep it simple!

In a small space it’s best to stick to simple, bold shapes – definite circles, rectangles & arcs, rather than serpentine, organic shapes which need space to allow one’s eye to follow their sweep. If the plot is an odd shape use the “lose the boundaries” approach, as described in part 2 of this series, to re-shape it so that the space within the planting has simpler, more definite geometry. This also makes it look thought about when compared to a patch of lawn or gravel “left over” from the shape of the other features.

Don't try to cram in too much - if each direction that you look in has several focal features competing for your attention, there's no restfulness and the whole thing becomes cluttered and feels cramped. Try to keep the main functional spaces open with low-level planting and features.

In similar vein, avoid too many variations in materials - “less is more”. Using the same basic surfacing throughout (i.e. the deck / patio / paths) will unify the space and make it seem larger than one which has timber & paving & gravel & brick & stone & concrete & grass, etc. This works in much the same way that having the doors open and the same flooring throughout a small house can make it seem larger.

5. Maximise the usefulness of space:

Do you really need that bit of lawn?

OK, you need a flat surface for practical usage like sitting and dining spaces, as well as the aesthetic purpose of balancing the planting masses, and a change of texture from deck or paving can add interest – but that can be achieved with gravel or slate chips or, better still, with a pebble/cobbles mix to give more interesting variation in texture - perhaps planted through with small ornamental grasses or perennials around a focal point boulder, bird bath or sculptural piece.

Grass is quite poor ecological value and takes a lot of chemical & water input to remain a good lawn throughout the year – as well as a lot of work.
It can become really tedious to get a mower out for a very small lawn!

In a small garden you may still have distinct areas – dining/BBQ, sun-lounging, shady seating for reading, chatting & socialising. You might achieve this with a very simple rectangular shape which has some parts “cut away” – this adds interest to the shape & sub-divides it to create the various functional areas. The cut-aways could be features such as a firepit or BBQ, herb bed, raised planter, water feature, etc.

If the space is really small, consider using “built-in” features, rather than free-standing ones, to keep the space open for movement and allow you to bespoke the size & scale of the features.

If the plot is long & narrow, or short & wide, setting the main rectangular shapes diagonally, rather than parallel to the house, can increase the apparent length of the shorter dimension. A long, narrow space can also be made to seem less like a corridor by using planting or trellising to partially separate sections of the length into “rooms”, perhaps with views framed through archways to focal features in the next room, so creating the “what’s down there?” added interest.

Do you really need paths connecting the areas, or could a path be “suggested” along the edge of a shape or by stepping stones? When planning the arrangement, remember that a narrow strip encourages brisk movement along the line, a wider strip is still “directional”, but allows a more leisurely pace of transition – whereas a squared (or circular) shape suggests a lack of movement, i.e. a resting place such as a patio.

If you have a flat, or shallow-pitched, garage, shed or house extension, why not consider a green roof (click here for more information) to add more planting space & ecological value?

6. Exploit optical illusions:

This is a biggy!

The directional effect of shapes described above can also work with materials, such as the laying patterns for brickwork / paving and especially for decking. The human brain is always looking for patterns and the eye will tend to follow linear features – so a deck with boards running across the line of sight will emphasize the width of the space, whilst having the boards running with the line of sight will emphasize its length. This effect is seen in clothing design, where striped vs. hooped patterns complement different figures.

Laying deck boards diagonally can make a much more interesting scheme, especially if combined with a change to the opposite diagonal on a split-level deck – and can serve to direct the eye to a focal feature. It’s also practical in that boards are cut obliquely to fit the edges so, if they aren’t perfectly square to the adjacent building walls, there’s no “run out” gap which looks dreadful.

Using horizontal linear timber strips instead of conventional square or diamond pattern trellis for screens also has this directional aspect and can “stretch” a short boundary.

In this example, grooved deck boards are used to give the same effect, and also provide unity with the decked surface.

Other optical “cheats” can be made using mirrors to create false windows or doors in walls which can add apparent depth and provide that “what’s through there?” appeal.

In this picture they are used in a semi-formal arrangement to break up a dark, unattractive boundary and add the impression of depth beyond.

They also work really well when the mirror edges are concealed by other planting, or within false framing (e.g. “perspective” panels), and the reflection from the mirror is another part of the garden space, not the viewer – i.e. ensure the mirror is angled slightly. A large mirror, perhaps with ivy trailing over it, at the back of an arch can make it appear deeper – more like a pergola offering a walk-through to another part of the garden space.

Mirrors will always need to have a rigid surface to mount them on, both to protect them from cracking and to prevent movement in the wind - so a free-standing mirror needs at least 12mm marine-ply backing, attached to well-fixed posts. If the reflection is to be seen from some distance away (e.g. from inside the house), make sure it’s very optically flat – slight ripples in the glass produce only minor distortion when seen from a few feet distance, but give a “hall of mirrors” nightmare when seen from 20 or 30 feet!

Another optical trick is using a series of vertical poles where the gap between them reduces along the run, and/or, the poles themselves reduce in height & thickness. This produces a very exaggerated perspective which makes the depth along the run look much greater. If you use this beware of the distorted look when viewed from the opposite direction!

Wall murals may not provide realistic illusions, but can certainly improve the view of a close, uninteresting, neighbouring wall.

Making good decisions with your planting can also help in this optical illusion field.

Bright colours such as orange, yellow & red “advance” – i.e. they seem to jump out at you, so the object appears closer – useful for “shortening” that long, narrow, corridor space. Conversely, muted colours such as blue, mauve, silver/grey and pale green “recede” – making the object appear further away. The effect of colour also changes with the daylight – oranges, reds and yellows “sing out” at dusk, especially when there’s a good red sunset.

Texture has similar visual properties – small-leafed plants provide a “bland” uniform texture which recedes, whereas large-leafed plants with a more open, architectural form advance, making them good focal points. Judicious use of these characteristics, blending in a few advancing features against a receding background can give a greater sense of depth to the view and add to the illusion of space.

The other parts of this series can be reached by scrolling through my blog, or by clicking the links at the top of this post.

Thanks for persevering!

Thursday, 1 July 2010

Designing a small garden - part 2

This is the second part of my thoughts on the design of small gardens.

The other parts can be reached by clicking on these links ...

Part 1 - an introduction to why small gardens need designing;
Part 2 follows, covering lose the boundaries, borrowed views & landscape, using 3 dimensions;
Part 3 - keep it simple, maximise space usefulness, optical illusions;
Part 4 - keep it interesting, growing for the table and utility issues.

Following on from my introduction about why small gardens still need to be designed, here are my first 3 guidelines for anyone who wants to do the design themselves, or to understand some of the thinking that a professional designer will do for you:

1. Lose the boundaries:
Some people think that having borders planted with medium-tall shrubs would “shrink” the available space and feel claustrophobic, but such planting can hide the walls / fences so that the boundary no longer exists – and if there’s no visible boundary your imagination will let you perceive the space as being bigger, not smaller. This can work particularly well if your neighbour (on the other side of the wall/fence) has planting which is taller than your own ... which leads on to ...

2. “Borrow” outside views & landscape:
If there’s a fabulous view outside your garden, you don’t need me to tell you it's OK to break the first guideline and not to hide it – instead, you can organise planting & features to minimise the barrier (fence, etc) between your space and the view, and to “frame” the view to enhance the feeling that it’s part of your visual space. In the classic large estate gardens, the usual device for separating the formal gardens from the pasture land or deer park beyond was the “ha ha” – a wall which is at ground level on the viewing side (formal garden) but which is at the edge of a ditch on the pasture side. You probably won’t be able to do this, but the principle of a near-invisible boundary could be achieved with basic post and wire mesh fencing.

Of course, great views don’t have to be the rural idyll – cityscape views can be sensational too – especially if there’s some interesting architecture, maybe a river, bridge or city park, or even some kinds of industrial architecture to look out on. After all, that’s one of the reasons why rooftop gardens are popular with city dwellers.

If you’re part of a suburban estate, with nothing worth looking out on, your “views” will need to be within your garden space and you’ll probably want reasonably high walls or fencing for security & privacy – but you may still be able to “borrow” bits from outside your space.

Does your neighbourhood have trees that you can “adopt” by visually linking them to your plan? Concealing the boundary fence using shrubs or small trees within your garden to sweep the eye up to the neighbouring trees will bring them into play as part of your scheme.

3. Use 3 dimensions:
As just noted in guideline 2, pay attention to the vertical space.
Use a small tree (or, if space permits, a group of small trees, or a multi-stem tree), with under-planting, in as deep a border as you can make, to gain maximum use of planting space. With the exception of very thirsty trees such as Poplar and Willow species (which are far too big for a small garden anyway), a tree that’s of a size to be in scale with your garden is unlikely to cause damage to modern 1-metre depth foundations – but, if you’re concerned about the proximity of a tree to your house or garage, get some professional advice from a qualified designer, tree surgeon or tree nursery.
If a tree isn’t possible, use pergola or screens to support climbing plants, to add a shady spot or to create depth through the light and shade patterns. Make use of tiered pots or planters to gain height and attention for smaller plants.

Please scroll through my blog for the other parts of this series, or use the links at the top of this post.

Thanks for dropping by!