Real garden: a small, hilltop garden is brought to life

Having initially been attracted to this small garden because it was low maintenance, the owners soon found themselves planting in earnest and it is now overflowing with blooms

small garden on hilltop with seating area
(Image credit: Suzie Gibbons)

When they first caught sight of the small garden to their future house, in the centre of the small hilltop town of Winchelsea, East Sussex, Sally and Graham Rhodda were not put off by its lack of features and planting. 

In fact, the complete opposite. ‘We were leaving a big plot that had taken a lot of work,' says Sally. 'Graham had just retired and we’d decided that we didn’t want to spend all our time gardening. 

'At first we loved the fact that the previous owners had made the small garden as low maintenance as possible.’ This sentiment did not last for long, however.

Read on to find out how Sally and Graham transformed the low maintenance plot, or find more inspiration on how to make the most of a small garden.

bistro dining set in a small garden

The small pink bistro garden set is positioned among the fragrant flowers

(Image credit: Suzie Gibbons)

‘Once we moved in, I was happy for about a month - and then I started to miss gardening terribly,’ Sally says. ‘So we took out some of the paving, and put in plants. Then the decking that covered the whole of one side went, and then some more paving… 

Under it all they found really good, crumbly soil, and before long they found that they were spending virtually every day out in the small garden. 'And loving every single minute of it,’ Sally adds.

Shady area in the corner of a small garden with a mirror

On the far wall, a mirror reflects light back into the shady end of the garden, which is planted with ferns and hostas

(Image credit: Suzie Gibbons)

The garden might have taken over their lives now, but there’s no question that it’s time well spent – there are so many points of interest. It is the clever use of colour that really makes this pretty walled small garden stand out, though. 

Individual borders have distinct colour schemes and single repeated colours link everything together, giving a sense of flow.

Find advice on how to choose a colour scheme for a garden.

small garden on a hilltop with colourful borders and brick paths

Sheltered by walls, the garden is protected from the worst of the weather of its hilltop position. Because the paths are quite narrow, keeping sprawling plants pruned back becomes essential later in the season

(Image credit: Suzie Gibbons)

‘We didn’t ever have an overall plan,’ says Sally, ‘we just tackled it little by little, using a different, limited colour palette in each area. The garden isn’t big enough for fashionable ‘drifts’ or a prairie effect, but three or five of the same plant makes a splash and one good geranium plant can have the same effect all by itself. 

When we find a colour combination that works, we then use it elsewhere in the garden, too, for continuity.’

container display in a small garden

A focal point in the garden is the container display that is changed every year. Tender plants, such as aeoniums and spiky agave, are over-wintered in the restored potting shed behind, which is also used for coffee breaks

(Image credit: Suzie Gibbons)

A major project in the small garden always follows one of their open days for the National Gardens Scheme

'The very first time we opened, though, someone said they hated that they could see some bare soil – that made me panic and we became a bit obsessed with packing plants in. We probably went too far the other way in the end, so in the last couple of years we’ve tried hard not to over-plant or to buy everything we like when we go to a nursery,’ says Sally.

rose arch and climbing roses at front of Victorian house

Roses clamber up walls and over frames near the Victorian house

(Image credit: Suzie Gibbons)

The garden is only about a mile from the sea and, although it is surrounded by high walls, the wind still whips through it thanks to its hilltop location, so Sally and Graham have to choose their plants carefully. 

Outside the kitchen door, there is a sea of pale mauve ‘Bill Wallis’ geraniums – chosen because they look good over a long period – as well as the lovely clematis ‘Blue Angel’ and the pale Rosa ‘Buff Beauty’. Clematis are then repeated around the garden – in fact, there are an amazing 30 different varieties.

Graham goes out every week from spring onwards to keep them trained in fan shapes, using soft string and vine eyes. One year, he didn’t tie in Clematis ‘Mme Julia Correvon’ and, as clematis have a habit of doing, it turned into a real tangle – proof, if they needed it, that it’s worth the time it takes.

‘Visitors also always comment on the display of planted containers – Graham reused some of the original decking to create a raised “stage” that now shows them off perfectly,’ says Sally. 

For more ideas for how to use containers successfully, see our advice on container gardening for small spaces.

rose 'gertrude jekyll' in a small garden

Lovely soft pink Rosa 'Gertrude Jekyll' climbs over a central arch in the centre of the small garden

(Image credit: Suzie Gibbons)

The colour scheme for the pots changes every year and is designed to have as much impact as possible. Meanwhile, the area that was originally decked has been laid with American bricks, found on sale in a reclamation yard. Having been artificially ‘aged’, they look as though they have been there for decades.

Find expert advice on how to find reclaimed materials for your home and garden.

hostas and ferns planted by tree in a small garden

(Image credit: Suzie Gibbons)

As a whole, the garden has the sort of timeless feel that makes you feel relaxed as soon as you enter it, and yet it remains fresh and vibrant thanks to the ever-evolving plant choices.

pretty flowers in a border

Vibrant Geranium psilostemon sings out in the magenta bed, alongside salvias, penstemons and dark Sedum ‘Xenox’. The brick path looks old, but the bricks have in fact been cleverly ‘aged’ from new

(Image credit: Suzie Gibbons)

Small garden planning advice

Sally's tips for a small garden include:

  • Take photos in high summer to remind you how much things will grow – otherwise the temptation is to pack in too much in spring, when the borders can feel a bit bare at first
  • You can have plenty of colour in a small space but be careful how and where you use it – larger areas of one colour will make the garden feel bigger.

Green man sculpture on wall in small garden

The couple found this ‘Green Man’ sculpture in a quirky shop and he now moves about the garden. ‘Something will start to grow over him so we often have to relocate him!’ says Sally

(Image credit: Suzie Gibbons)
  • In a small garden everything counts, so it all has to look good for as long as possible – average won’t do!

teaming borders in a walled garden

The iridescent blue of a delphinium looks fabulous with Penstemon ‘Garnet’, orange California poppies and silver artemesia

(Image credit: Suzie Gibbons)
  • Be ruthless and cut back as much as you need to so that paths and borders don't get overcrowded – with some herbaceous perennials, like geraniums, cutting back produces mounds of fresh new foliage that looks lovely in its own right

rockery in small garden

Despite its relatively small size, there are so many areas of interest in this garden, including a little rockery complete with an unusual bird bath in the shape of a head (and a resident toad)

(Image credit: Suzie Gibbons)

More gardening advice & inspiration

Small Spaces Month:

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Rachel joined the Period Living team six years ago after freelancing on a range of titles covering everything from homes and gardens, history and arts to wildlife. As the magazines Content Editor, she still gets to enjoy all of these things handily packaged together (one way or another) in the pages of Period Living. She loves her Victorian home, but is wrestling with making its cracks, quirks and draughty bits work for a family home.