16 top tips for making small gardens feel bigger (and better)

Got a tiny plot? There's lots you can do to improve it. Follow our expert advice to make your small garden feel bigger – and function better

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If you're committed to small space living – either because you're renting, living in a big city or just love the tiny country cottage you've found, chances are your garden is on the small side, too. So how to make the most of a small garden? Follow our tips to make the most of yours.

1. Less is more in a small garden

Narrowing your wish list of what you’d like in your dream garden is vital, explains garden designer Kate Gould: 'If your wishes and expectations won’t ever squeeze into your space, you will always end up with a garden that falls short of the mark, so consider the elements you really want and weigh those against items that you might be able to do without.'

Huge features in a small garden will dwarf the space and make it feel cramped. Instead of a large garden water feature, for example, a modest wall-mounted spillway or spout will be more in proportion. Likewise, an outdoor dining set to seat four people, rather than 12, will work better visually. But don’t miniaturise everything, such as pots, plants and paving, as oddly this will make it feel smaller still.

2. Create a clever layout to maximise space

(Image: © Leigh Clapp Photography)

Simplify your scheme keeping the layout bold and striking with room for garden furniture as well as circulating space. 

Try visual tricks, too,’ says Chelsea Flower Show gold medallist Paul Hervey-Brookes. ‘It’s a mistake to think having an expanse of large paving will create the illusion of space. Often it emphasises the smallness. Create mystery and the illusion of more garden by concealing part of it. Our minds always want things to be bigger, and if you can’t see all of your plot at once, it can double or triple in size in your mind.'

Don’t overcomplicate the layout and garden design details. Fussy curves and intricate hardscape look odd in small gardens and will always make them feel smaller. Instead be bold, and remember the maxim ‘less is more’, especially in awkwardly shaped gardens. Where space is tight, you simply won’t be able to accommodate everything, so be prepared to compromise. This may sound obvious, but is often forgotten as enthusiasm for an idea takes over.

3. Introduce different levels

deck with seat under a pergola

(Image: © Carole King)

'Use different levels; going down into a seating area makes you interact with the garden from a new perspective,' continues Hervey-Brookes. A simple change of level adds interest to any design, but introducing more vertical planes will also make a garden feel bigger. One step is relatively easy to introduce, especially with decking; however the riser (the vertical face) should never be taller than 20cm — 14–16cm is ideal. If you’re planning for more than one step, the tread should be no smaller than 30cm, but ideally no deeper than 50cm.

(Image: © Leigh Clapp Photography)

4. Cultivate a kitchen garden

You can still cultivate fruit and veg in a small kitchen garden, even in the most compact of spaces. ‘Mix them in with flowers in the beds, or plant in pots on a terrace,’ adds Hervey-Brookes. ‘Make the most of a small patch by cultivating crops you love.’ Runner beans and peas on upright frames can be incorporated with sweet peas for an abundant display, and make use of vertical space.

5. Bin the lawn – create zones instead

Japanese style garden designed by Sara Jane Rothwell Garden Design

(Image: © Marianne Majerus)

'Tiny garden? Bin the lawn and go for additional paving , laid diagonally from the perspective of the house to create a visual trick of making the space feel bigger. On a budget? Go for cheaper, light-coloured gravel in sunny spots, and bark in shade,' advises garden designer and horticulturalist Matt James. 'Quality artificial turf is also an option; you’ll cut maintenance time in half and, with no need for a mower, free up precious garden storage, too.' Desperate to keep a lawn? Invest in size-appropriate tools, such as lawnmowers for small gardens.

Dividing a garden – regardless of its shape – into a series of rooms using planting, wooden trellis or freestanding walls will help to hide what’s on the other side of them. This obscures the actual size of the space, making the whole area feel much larger. If the garden isn’t all revealed at once, this creates a strong sense of anticipation, too — piquing curiosity about what lies beyond.

6. Small garden? Think big

Container plant pots

(Image: © Maayke de Ridder)

'Small pots, small plants and small paving units will make a small garden feel busier – and therefore smaller. Think big, even if space is tight,' continues Matt James. Keep pots and planters in the same style using multiple sizes in complementary shapes to maximise impact and create a cohesive garden scheme, too.

(Image: © Leigh Clapp)

7. Think tall, too, in a small garden

(Image: © Leigh Clapp Photography)

Use neighbours' walls, the side of the garage, and fences topped with trellis to grow climbers. Hang baskets, fix window boxes full of trailing plants to the house wall and plant tall, but narrow, trees or canopy trees on boundaries. Potted bamboo can be a good substitute if you're renting. All this will exaggerate your garden's size and pack it with greenery, too.

8. Grow a container garden

Spring garden container display

(Image: © Ryland Peters & Small)

Talking of large pots and planters... they're perfect for cultivating a low maintenance container garden in a small space. Plant bold, textured leaves and contrasting forms that look good both in daylight and at night to maximise the amount of time the garden can be appreciated.

9. Use space-enhancing material and plant colours

Path in small garden

Where possible, use reflective and light-coloured materials as they will make the space feel larger. The same goes for plants: choose light, bright colours and your small garden will feel larger.

A gloomy space will always feel less claustrophobic if natural light is reflected into it. In tiny, enclosed areas, light-coloured paint isn’t the only option for brigtening things up — surfaces that reflect light, such as sparkly granite and quartzite, are more appropriate than dark blue-black slate or limestone. Polished steel pots and plants with glossy foliage, such as the Japanese aralia and hart’s tongue fern, will also help bring in a little light. Glass tables and balustrades are reflective, too, and being translucent, don’t take up much room visually.

Solus Decor Water Bowl Scupper

(Image: © Solus Decor)

10. Use colour to visually enhance your garden

Light, cool-coloured paint shades will make a small space feel larger, whereas bright, hot colours and darker shades will have a dwarfing effect. The same applies with plants. Pale pink, soft blue and primrose yellow flowers recede into the distance, so position on garden boundaries to evoke depth. Bold blooms and foliage in sunshine yellow and bright orange act in the opposite way, drawing attention. They will have a foreshortening effect on boundaries, so make them centre-focus instead. White acts in the same way by drawing the eye, particularly at night, so position carefully.

11. Include a mirror

Large mirrors on walls, perhaps covering one side completely, can visually double the size of an awkward or irregularly shaped space. Importantly, make sure that the reflection doesn’t show the bin store or an unattractive collection of drainpipes. Instead, angle mirrors slightly away from the house or main viewing point by fixing a thicker timber batten down one side so that the mirror reflects more visually pleasing plants.

Always try to hide the mirror’s edges to further enhance the illusion. Close-knit trelliswork fixed tight to the wall around the outside of the mirror works well — for uniformity, perhaps cover the rest of the wall with it, too. Alternatively, train climbers up to do this job; but you will have to wait a while for them to grow to a suitable size. For safety, acrylic mirrors are preferable to glass.

12. Hide boundaries

(Image: © Leigh Clapp Photography)

In basement gardens, boxy new-build plots and short, sloped gardens – notably those slanted towards the house – boundaries can really draw attention to the limited size of a garden. Packing boundaries with plants works on the principle that if you can’t see them, then you can’t tell how big the garden actually is.

Free-climbers, such as common and Boston ivy, and climbing hydrangeas have good covering power and tolerate shady walls and fences. Depending on the style or theme, partner them with tall-but-thin clump-forming bamboo, such as umbrella or Chilean, as both bring height but take up little width. Unlike fat shrubs, it’s possible to plant shade-tolerant ferns and perennials underneath, too. In warm, sheltered gardens, Musa basjoo bananas, tree ferns and the Chusan palm are good and won’t grow to giant proportions. For instant impact, buy big specimen plants if your budget will stretch.

13. Borrow scenery

Nothing makes a garden feel bigger than embracing a fine view beyond. Use similar colours, shapes and plants to claim the wider landscape for yourself. Likewise, don’t prune back plants that spill over from a neighbour’s garden, especially trees. Instead, consider merging them into your own design, perhaps by repeating similar specimens elsewhere. Again, the garden will feel much bigger because the boundaries have been blurred.

14. Use varied textures

(Image: © Leigh Clapp Photography)

Like colour, texture can create the illusion of depth and distance. Fine-textured plants, such as many small-leaved shrubs and ornamental grasses, fade into the background, whereas bold-leaved plants, such as banana or ornamental rhubarb, draw the eye. Position fine leaves in the background and coarse ones in front, to create the impression that the space is deeper than it actually is. This trick works particularly well in shallow, sloping gardens.

15. Play with perspective

(Image: © Leigh Clapp Photography)

A classic design trick to make a small garden feel bigger is to play with the perspective, essentially deceiving the eye into viewing the space differently. With long, narrow gardens, try to lead the eye across the space instead of allowing it to travel straight to the end. This will help to make the garden feel wider and more spacious. Using an angular design, set at around 30 or 45 degrees, works well. Alternatively, alter the orientation of the paving, or position the main focal point closer, or just off to one side.

Gardens that are wider than they are long can be tackled in exactly the same way, so try to pull the eye across the space rather than allowing it to simply focus on the back boundary. This trick is particularly effective with short-but-wide gardens that slope down to the home where the rear boundary is all too obvious and may well appear to ‘loom’ overhead. Also, position larger elements – plants, boulders and pots, for example – in the foreground, with smaller ones in the background. As the distance between them appears longer, this creates an illusion of depth.

16. What not to do in a small garden

Don't:

  • Mix and match too much; too much clutter will make the space feel busy.
  • Buy plants on impulse; stick to your scheme to ensure the overall design is not diluted.
  • Buy furniture that isn’t useable all year; a small garden needs to look dressed at all times, so do consider all-weather cushions. It also saves on having a shed. Worst case scenario: invest in folding furniture that can be neatly stashed when not used.
  • Use materials that need constant cleaning; all small gardens, especially town gardens, are prone to dirt from pollution, so consult a stone merchant to select a stone that works for you and your expectations.

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