Small space: big ideas08 August 2019 Robin Powell
Courtyard and balcony gardens are less forgiving than suburban gardens.
A big garden can ramble a bit, drawing you past a bit of a dead patch with the lure of the something great glimpsed just around the corner. But in a small garden everything is on show, all the time.
So those tired potted plants that have outlived or outgrown their containers nag us with their sad faces. The impulse purchases pile up near the tap or the back door in a dispiriting way; the paint chipping off the furniture has turned from rustic to ruined. There’s nothing for it, but to start again with a fresh eye and new inspiration.
On this terrace, the custom-made planters are scaled up. The central planter is large enough for a pair of mature dwarf date palms, two prized sculptures and supporting planting. In cylindrical pots of matching colour cloud- pruned junipers offer a contrast of shape and texture. Photo - Nicholas Watt
For most of us a small garden makeover won’t mean changing anything expensive, like the flooring or walling of courtyards and balconies, but simply re-dressing the space with new plants, and perhaps some new containers, a fresh coat of paint, and a cushion. For inspiration we turned to Richard Unsworth, whose design business, shop and book, all called Garden Life, are a storehouses of great ideas for small spaces. See how you can work a few of his top tips into your own small garden space.
Simple works best in a small space, says Richard Unsworth. This courtyard is about eating outdoors, and the black and white tones of the dining table and chairs are echoed in courtyard floor and in the black and white pots and hanging lanterns. Photo - Nicholas Watt
Scale it up
Richard reckons the number one mistake that home gardeners make in putting together a courtyard or balcony garden is in choosing small features to fit the small space. Small plants and furniture only make the space appear smaller he says. Instead, he advises, make a big gesture. Use a couple of big pots with big plants to give the space structure, then fill in the structure with smaller pots. Also consider how are you going to use the space. Do you need a table and chairs for dining, or could you eat inside and use the space for an outdoor lounge or one really great chair? Once you have the structure sorted, balance the hard and soft elements, making sure that there is not so much hard floor, wall or pot surface that the space feels unwelcoming. Use hanging or climbing plants to soften walls, and trail plants over pots to soften their edges.
Garden by Garden Life. Photo - Nicholas Watt
Small spaces look best when there is a certain amount of coherence and repetition in the materials and the plants used. But where does that kind of discipline leave us plant lovers! We know that the mass of little pots featuring our current treasures looks a bit of a mess. And yes, it’s hard to look after and a nightmare to sweep!- but we can’t help our urge to collect and our need to nurture. The solution, says Richard, is a display table.A handsome, or suitably rustic, table can be used to create an ever-changing display of treasures: plants we have recently fallen in love with; much-loved sculptures; a few precious rocks or shells or other found objects. A display table solves the collection problem – it looks good, is fun to arrange – and is easy on the back.
This is an especially stunning display table, anchored by the antique Sri Lankan brass ornament whose arching shape is mirrored in the frame of flowering star jasmine curving around an arched French door, but the idea – a careful composition of pieces and plants to nurture and love - is one that is easily replicated at home. Photo - Nicholas Watt
Too many different materials and plants crammed into a small space is dizzyingly busy, but the strict minimalism of all-matching pots and a limited plant palette is dull. Richard advises a careful blend of textures to keep everything balanced but interesting. Choose plain containers as a base –perhaps matte dark lightweight and cheap fibreglass – and contrast them with a few unusually shaped terracotta pots and perhaps a striking bronze or ceramic container filled with something eye-catching. Likewise put some coherence into structural or screening plants, then mix up textures in the rest of the planting, contrasting soft and hard, filmy and sharp, big and small.
The different textures of grey pots, side table stools and sofa cushions form a harmonious background against which the textures of succulent, strappy and bold foliage plants stand out, complemented by coloured soft furnishings and the sheen of a burgundy ceramic jug. Geo screens hide the car space and the neighbour’s wall in this inner west terrace courtyard. Photo - Nicholas Watt
5 great plants for balconies
Magnolia ‘Little Gem’ is a popular choice for small gardens, but beware – these evergreen beauties don’t like living in a pot for long. Better long-term choices are citrus and olives.
Sanseveria, (let’s not call it mother-in-law’s tongue!- is great value in shade. ‘Mason’s Congo’ has big fat speckled leaves; S. stukyii has long cylindrical spires of grey-green leaves; and ‘Silver Sword’ has striking blue-green foliage.
The rush-leafed bird of paradise, Stelitzia juncea, is hardy in a really exposed spot, including blasting westerly sun. It tolerates dry spells and general neglect and only needs to have the faded flowers removed.
Tough and beautiful, Stelitzia juncea. Photo - Nicholas Watt
Rhipsalis, donkey’s tail sedum, purple or variegated tradescantia, and Dichondra ‘Silver Falls’ are all good hanging from pots to curtain a wall, or trailing over containers to soften the edges.
Chinese star jasmine, Trachelopsermum jasminoides, is hard to beat for wall covering as it takes full sun or full shade, is covered with foliage from top to bottom and has flowers too.