Small Town Garden Designs

Probably the first priority of the city gardener is an enfolding greenness. Many gardens in cities or suburbs are small plots, allocated randomly by builders and planners to apartments or houses in densely built-up areas, with unattractive surroundings and often poor soil. However small the plot may be, it is there, and the owner has the opportunity to use it for the simple pleasure of growing plants, as well as the more complicated territorial pleasure of making his or her own mark. In either case, the need to shut out the surroundings becomes a priority; to create an illusion of one’s own tranquil green space in which no one can trespass and where surrounding buildings can be ignored.

There are different ways of tackling this. Concealing surroundings can be achieved physically, by screening with either fencing, walling or plants, or alternatively by psychological methods, where the attention is distracted from the displeasing to the alluring. In many cases a combination of both will achieve the aim.

To create your city ‘island’, you do need to take a good look at the surroundings to assess what should be concealed. It may not always be possible to achieve this completely; a tower block, for example, is not the easiest thing to hide. However, if you create a beautiful and arresting garden it will captivate attention, and the surroundings then cease to be relevant. Yet it is still more reassuring to mask an unpleasing locale completely if at all possible, and the first garden described here is a very good example of this.



small garden - before image This house and garden are in an urban residential area. Initially the land at the back was undeveloped. However, a new estate of closely packed town houses was planned which would affect the view enormously and also reduce any prospect of privacy, as the houses were to be only a few paces from the back fence.

These photos  show the garden as it was before work was started. One, taken from the house (on the left), shows the rectangular shape clearly, emphasized by the line of snow along the fence. When the housing development materialized, though not unattractive, it completely dominated the view.

small garden - after image

The second photo (right) shows the uncompromising and bare rectangularity of the plot.

All of the neighbouring properties on either side of this house had exactly the same size and shape of garden, which ran in parallel towards the proposed development. It was a real challenge to see what could be done to make this space both private and personal, as well as screening it from all the surroundings.



After surveying the nearly empty site and thinking about what, if anything, could be saved for use in the new garden, the owners and I realized that only the mature neighbouring trees which overhang the side boundaries could serve the scheme well. These would be influential in as much as they dictated where new trees could not go. But they were also an asset, as they could be incorporated within the new plan. Often a design can benefit from surrounding planting by linking the plants within the garden to those outside, obscuring the actual line of demarcation that is the real boundary.

The notion of ‘borrowing’ landscape is not new. Japanese garden designers were great practitioners of this skill, which is known as shakkei. Originally, country views of mountains and hills served as a backdrop for great country gardens like those around Kyoto, but as the space allocated to houses decreased, just as it did in the west, this art was refined by careful planting which shut out the city and focused upon intimate views of distant hills wherever possible. In this garden there were no distant views, but the neighbouring trees could be ‘borrowed’ on the shakkei principle and provide an apparent continuity of planting pattern.

This idea was taken further. At the far end, where the new houses were to be built, there was plenty of room for new trees beyond the boundary of the garden. The owners approached the developers and gained their permission to pay for and plant some silver birch (Betula pendula) within the new development and behind their own fence. This fitted in well with the landscaping of the estate, so the developers were pleased to agree.

The garden owners then planted a group of white-barked Betula utilis var. jacquemontii within their own boundary, and the two groups created an instant visual link.

The birches are deliberately not identical, as the new garden was to be planted in a very considered way. The silver birches outside, now thriving amongst the new houses, are the wild European silver birch which is tough and reliable and needs no special care. Betula utilis var. jacquemontii, on the other hand, is not indigenous and comes from the Himalayas. It is a less pendulous tree, being rather stiff in habit, but it has a most dazzlingly white bark. A group of three were planted at the far end of the garden about 2.4m (8ft) from the boundary, where they look as beautiful in winter as in summer.



phormium cookianum variegatum in front of vine-clad pergola The plan was then drawn up with simple abstract shapes. Certain requirements were very important. The owners were determined to lose the geometry of the rectangle. They also wanted to create a framework which would to conceal the boundaries all year round, so the external, bounded shape of the space was to be ill defined and of little consequence. Instead, the green rhythms of the interior were to create tranquillity, a virtue which underlies many of the world’s great gardens.

The plan showed the actual layout which provided the ‘bones’ of the design. Ideas of dividing the space into two quite separate units were considered but then rejected, as the house is part of a tall, unbroken terrace of similar properties and greater unity and harmony could be achieved by making a very simple shape flowing from it without interruption. Nonetheless, there are actually four linked areas in the garden. An area for sitting in peaceful contemplation looks out from beneath the vine canopy of the pergola on to what are virtually two triangular, but ‘organically’ shaped, spaces, bonded together as one. They almost divide the garden on the diagonal. The sense of space is unspecified, and by implication greatly increased.

The photograph (above right) shows the new garden layout clearly. The eye is drawn to the distance, though the end of the garden is unclear. There is at all times an awareness of breadth, as the abstract shapes of the grass make maximum use of the real width of the garden. In places the edges of the lawn come to within 30cm (Ift) of the fence. Where this occurs, massed evergreens such as the bamboo Sasa veitchii and scrambling ivies conceal the fence. (As this bamboo is invasive it must be contained below ground by a slate ‘wall’ or some similar hard barrier). So green grass meets greened fence, and the boundary melts away.

At the far end a 2m (6ft) wide service area is gravelled and allows plenty of space for composts. This is completely invisible from the house, being screened by Viburnum tinus, Eleagnus ebbingei and a clump of the relatively uninvasive bamboo Arundinaria murieliae. Two metres beyond this, ivy- and rose-clad trellis 2.4m (8ft) high adds to the privacy. This hidden service area is reached by the stepping-stone path as it curves around out of sight from the house, thus increasing the suggestion of further unspecified space beyond.

The path actually bisects the garden on the diagonal. It is laid very carefully and ‘sidesteps’ to the right where the narrow neck occurs, between the two garden areas. Here I must mention that the garden owners had lived in Japan for some years. They had no intention of trying to create a Japanese garden, but were very keen to remind themselves of the beauty and spirit of the great gardens of that country. Detailing the path was extremely important and was carried out over a period of days, with discussion and reference to photographs brought back from Japan. A stepping-stone path was chosen because it would not be too dominant. It was important to avoid laying the stones in a straight line; in Japan the pattern can relate to the flight path of birds, which can be slow and elegant or quick and darting, but here the aspirations were more modest — yet a gently expressed zig-zag, dictated by easy walking, did fit the requirements well. The stones chosen were of different sizes and shapes, some dressed and some not. Two long, straight stones preceded by a square set at 45° worked very well, as they move the action sideways when encountering the further grassed space.

The owners also derived much pleasure from siting a Yukimigata lantern below the plum tree. This was done with a certain amount of humour, as they are very well aware that this is not a Japanese garden, but they found it irresistible. Equally agreeable is the careful training of a blue conifer, as learned when in Tokyo; a blue picea is being gently trained on a bamboo frame with carefully tied knots.



Some Japanese influences are again evident in the planting. The great white cherry (Prunus Tai Haku’) balances the plum. As mentioned, bamboo has been used in several areas, paeonies provide both flower and foliage, wisteria climbs the balustrade and house walls, small pines create structural form. The sacred bamboo (Nandina domestica) has a place and, of course, there are acers. Linear patterns are taken up with irises, sisyrinchium, grasses, day lilies and liatris. Beneath the Betula wilts var. jacquemontii are hostas, ferns, Euphorbia robbiae and Lamium maculatum ‘White Nancy’. Foliage and form dominate, The shrubs around the boundaries create green walls, and against these dwarf pines, clipped box, a white shrubby potentilla, some pale roses, small fuschias and, at lower level, spreading junipers maintain a very lush, largely evergreen environment.

looking back at the house view - before Like the simplicity of the layout, the plants have been chosen to blend in with one another. There is a very limited colour range. In fact, it is very nearly a totally, but not a uniformly, green garden. Some pastel flowers and a few bluish or variegated leaves add subtle colour, but the restricted colour range adds greatly to the tranquillity and peace of the whole.

The owners have visual flair and add annuals in pots, moving them around as the herbaceous plants go past their best. Usually these are white marguerites, which light up corners and announce ‘summer’ in this all-year-round garden. Containers with phormium can look particularly striking.

Regarding the garden as a whole, the owners value the changes of the seasons, from the greening in spring to the flare of autumn, and when winter frost covers the grass the dark pattern of the stepping stones takes over a dominant role and becomes the dramatic focus.

At all times, these garden lovers have continued to care for their green space with discriminating affection. What is beyond the perimeters is now irrelevant — the photographs show that this is truly an island of its own with very personal touches.

The photograph below right shows the view looking back towards the house, and it is interesting to compare this with the `before’ photograph.

looking back at the house view - after The ‘neck’ of the garden, where the stepping stones move sideways, is marked by matching Viburnum davidii specimens. Foliage can be seen climbing up the steps, wisteria on one side and Parthenocissus tricuspidata on the other, blending house with garden. The pergola is visible, extending the geometry of the house out over the paving to the garden. It supports a magnificent Vitis vinifera ‘Purpurea’, thus also linking the foliage down to ground level.

The photo below shows the view from under this canopy, framed by the simple but strong timber structure of posts, rafters and beams, and the mellow sound of wind chimes adds to the rustle of the leaves. This secluded, loggia-like pergola provides dappled shade in the hottest part of the garden and from it the view is green, enclosed and private.


sitting within the pergola

06. June 2011 by Dave Pinkney
Categories: Gardening Ideas, Small Gardens | Tags: , | Comments Off on Small Town Garden Designs


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