How to plan a small garden – make the most of a tiny outdoor space

Make the most out of your tiny outdoor oasis with these small garden design tips and ideas

How to plan a small garden
Photography/Mark Bolton
(Image credit: Future)

What constitutes a small garden is debatable to homeowners yet chances are most of us have a smaller one than we would like. However, there are as many solutions as there are gardens to maximize limited outdoor space. And lest we forget – a small garden requires much less time and tools to maintain. With clever planning and thoughtful planting, even the most compact courtyard can create an incredible impact that is just as striking as a larger lawn or terrace. 

To create the small and idyllic garden of your dreams first think about how you want to enhance the outdoor space you have to suit your style of living without making it cramped or cluttered. Bold statements, vertical pitching, beautiful boundaries and optical illusions are all key elements to incorporate into your design to make it perfect for your needs. 

How to plan a small garden

How to plan a small garden

Photography/Mark Bolton

(Image credit: Future)

1. Be inspired to find your style

Even small gardens require in-depth research and planning at the offset to construct an attractive and practical space that looks beautiful all year round. Borrow inspiration by visiting as many open–gardens and public grounds as you can to get a feel of what you like. Yearly shows such as The Chelsea Flower Show or the RHS Hampton Court Palace Flower Show are full of small show gardens designed perfectly by landscape gardeners to get the most out of compact spaces so you'll be spoilt for choice with options.

Be it cottage hideaway, urban terrace or family haven, once you’ve decided on your preferred garden style making a mood board is a worthwhile idea to experiment with plant varieties, exterior paint colors and outdoor furniture options too. 

2. Survey and measure your plot

Whether you are starting with a blank canvas or inheriting a mature enclosure that requires a makeover, start your garden plan with a wish list and any note problems you may need to overcome. For instance, would you like secluded seating as well as a dining area? Could you fit in a pergola to break up a lawn and patio? Do you need to rectify poor drainage? Then, measure and survey your garden space to assess its possibilities. Look to where the sun lands during the day and take into account how areas might adapt throughout the seasons and years to come.  Envisage how your planting plan might mature or expire over time.

3. Pick out your garden design template

Depending on the size of your small garden a distinctive layout will set the foundations. Most successful gardens fall into three basic designs – circular, diagonal or rectangular. These can then be customized with planting and variations of these themes to personalize your space. Formal designs tend to have straight edges and symmetry whereas informal gardens are looser in style with curvaceous and sweeping edges. 

4. Put your plan to paper

It’s much less expensive to make mistakes on paper first so make a scaled sketch of the garden as it is and then add on your ideas as separate cutouts that you can layer up and move around. Or, search for an online garden planner that will allow you to input measurements and visualize your dream space with digital precision.

5. Create beautiful boundaries

Unfortunately, small gardens are often enclosed by walls and fences and generally overlooked so ensuring hard landscaping and boundaries are planned right can be as important as greenery. Look to ways of overcoming this conundrum. If the view beyond the garden is attractive make a feature of the boundary itself. Low-level fencing will reveal the outlook and create the impression your garden carries on and on. Traditional picket style or contemporary slatted fencing, rather than close boards, will let light stream through. And, why not paint the natural wood a bold color to enhance the sense of space which will make foliage pop out against it? Arches pergolas and trellises are useful for adding height and privacy from the outside world.

6. Prepare a planting plan

Hard landscaping and boundaries provide a garden structure but it’s the planting choices that offer character, shape and softness. Movement between foliage and boundaries will help your garden flow and bring the plants into the space rather than restricting them around the edges, which can enclose the space. Research height, spread and soil preference before you buy. Stick to a single color palette for a coherent scheme. Choose one or two complementary shades and pick out petal colors with painted garden furniture or outdoor cushions and rugs.

How do you design a small garden?

How to plan a small garden


(Image credit: John Lewis)

With today’s busy lives the garden is an extension of our homes no matter how tiny and so needs to be flexible. To create space for relaxing, entertaining and alfresco dining choose outdoor furniture that is mobile and can serve more than one purpose. 

Ian Ellis, Outdoor Furniture Buyer at John Lewis explains: 'If you are looking to make the most of your small space, buy foldable furniture for eating so you can easily put away or cover when not in use. The alternative is to choose something compact that can be used for casual dining and lounging, for example, small lounge chairs and coffee table.'

Look at creating a focal point or destination place; this can be a tree, water feature or seating that will give you a different perspective of the space once you are there.

How do you make a small garden look nice? 

How to plan a small garden


(Image credit: Lights4fun)

Optical illusions will add interest and maximize the space you have. They cleverly trick the eye to suggest the garden is larger or more densely planted. Decorative mirrors will reflect light and create an illusion of more space. Beds filled with tall plant varieties will add height and flowering climbers on trellis fencing and exterior walls will draw the eye upwards or outwards. Perhaps even painting a false perspective on an exterior could be of interest? 

Enhance the ambience of your tiny retreat by adding beautiful lighting to your garden. It’s an attractive and practical solution for changing the outdoor atmosphere. 

Wil Law, Partner & Home Design Stylist at John Lewis advises: 'Small gardens are a great place to layer lots of outdoor lighting, as you won't need hundreds of metres of lights to make the space feel magical. Hang lots of festoon lights overhead, wrap trees in outdoor fairy lights and have tea lights on any available surface to give a cosy glow.'

What are the best plants for a small garden?

How to plan a small garden

(Image credit: Future)

Less is more in small spaces, don’t be tempted to cram too much in. Instead, focus on a few larger pieces such as a pair of space-saving trees potted in large planters or grow a tall living wall on an obtrusive exterior wall to install height and lush colour. 

'Just because your garden is small, doesn’t mean everything in it has to be too,' explains Lynsey Abbott, Outdoor Living Buyer at Dobbies Garden Centres. 'One very large pot will add more impact than lots of small ones because it will stop the space feeling cluttered. A bigger pot will also house more plants, so you can mix and match with flowers and herbs that complement each other and your overall colour scheme.'

Thriving bedding choices for small gardens include those that are hardworking and offer striking color and shape.  Award-winning designer and BBC Gardeners World presenter, Mark Lane, says to: 'Mix it up with shrubs such as Vitex, Hydrangea or Cornus and you will have the perfect getaway. Small flowering plants such as Bidens, Tagetes, Coreopsis, or Crocosmia will add a splash of color. A narrow tree, such as Taxus baccata Fastigiata Robusta or the ornamental cherry Amanogawa, will also draw the eye upwards to the sky, making your garden feel bigger. ‘