Five Small Garden Design Tips

Small Garden Design Tips To Make Your Space Work For You

I’m often asked “do you design small gardens” and my answer is always “of course”.  Size? not a relevant factor as to whether your garden will benefit from design.  Here, we’ll look at a few small garden design tips to help you make the most of your space.  In small gardens where space is at a premium it is all the more important and challenging to make the garden work from a practical perspective.  Form over function is an often heard adage when it comes to design in general.  It’s useful to consider our gardens in terms of lifestyle, answer the big questions in terms of practicalities; can i entertain six comfortably?  is there a spot to grow some veggies? and how can i store my bike?  Once we have a clear picture of what we need we can then turn to how it should look, reviewing the palette of materials we have at our disposal for both the soft and hard landscape.  A carefully thought out plan at the initial stages will later reap rewards…

Garden bike storage

Long gone are the days where you’d have to cram your bike into a cobweb festooned shed at the bottom of the garden.  Bike storage is now much more practical with a range of options on the market.  The Bike Shed Company offer both smart and secure solutions that can even incorporate storage or recycling bins.  All made from sustainable timber and available in a range of finishes.

Bike storage from The Bike Shed Company


Bespoke solutions will fit unique spaces such as around the bay window pictured above.

Green wall on a small scale

The popularity of ‘growing your own’  You don’t have to be green fingered or invest time and money in creating raised beds or a green house.  Lightweight fabric planters can be attached to a wall or fence and planted with edibles or ornamentals.  These planters available from Burgon & Ball come in a range of colours and at only 30cm wide and 50cm in height would be ideal for those with the smallest of spaces.

Burgon & Ball Verti Planter











Plant with strawberries as pictured here or a range of your favourite herbs.  Alternatively opt for a purely ornamental planting.  Choose evergreen perennial plants such as lavender or perhaps evergreen ferns for a shady spot.

Garden storage bench

Store away garden paraphernalia that is unsightly yet essential.  In a smaller garden these bits and pieces will be easier to spot and detract from the effect you are trying to achieve.  Garden storage benches with hinged lids are an ideal option where space is at a premium, not only offering a dedicated seating but also hiding away the watering can or storing garden cushions over winter.  Make them weather resistant by simply storing items in a water tight plastic box.  Or, if you are constructing your own bench, using marine plywood to create an internal lining or box, will keep it relatively water resistant .  The ply can then be clad in a decorative wood.

A low cost solution from Ikea









Small garden trees

Don’t try to squeeze too much in to your garden – this also applies to planting.  Numerous smaller plants in a small space rather than fewer larger species may create an overwhelming effect.  You may not consider a tree to be an option for a garden tight on space however, a small tree can have great impact in smaller spaces by creating a striking focal point.  A lower number of larger plants will be easier on the eye and easier to maintain.  When it comes to selection think of eventual size and habit of the tree.  Nurseries grow a range of  columnar and fastigate forms.  Feathered trees are an excellent choice having a central leading stem and shorter lateral branches.

Feathered birch tree in contemporary planter















A feathered silver birch makes a stubbing focal point throughout the year due to its striking white bark and sleek form.

Blur the boundaries

In a small garden fences and walls can seem imposing, defining the exact size of the space.  To make them recede paint or stain them with dark colours.  This may sound dramatic but dark tones recede and bright or paler ones advance, therefore choosing a dark colour will cause a boundary to retreat or feel further away.  Futhermore, greys and blacks make an ideal backdrop for the green hues of planting.


chris moss garden marcus harpur credit-3
Chris Moss garden, Marcus Harpur

This image perfectly illustrates the theory.  The wall painted a dark grey recedes and the light wood slatted screen in front advances.

I have tried to highlight a few ways in which a small garden can become something great with a little thought and planning.  You can see some of Iron Butterfly Design’s small gardens in the gallery.  Visit the Iron Butterfly Design Pinterest page for further garden design ideas and inspiration.

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Hedge opening

Leading you up the garden path: Five ways to create intrigue and exploration in the garden

There are numerous ways to switch off from the daily grind. Reading a good book can provide an important sense of escape from our day to day lives; the imagination let loose to roam pastures new, similarly our gardens can offer the same.  At a basic level, our gardens are sometimes physically large enough to allow exploration, however there are many alternatives to create a sense of discovery.  Whatever size space you may have, here are five suggestions for injecting a sense of intrigue and exploration into our gardens.


1. Views & Vistas:

At Hidcote Manor in Gloucestershire a series of views and focal points are created within the garden by the use of tightly clipped hedges.  Pictured below topiary bookends in the form of two birds form an initial focal point, they then frame the view beyond of a pool and beyond that another dramatically high yew hedge features a doorway opening to an open lawn.  As humans we have an inherently inquisitive nature so by creating this series of views we’ll be physically drawn through the space. If you have a relatively small garden one technique to create a view is to highlight something beyond the boundaries of your garden.  Perhaps there’s a distinctive building in the distance or a field beyond.  Revealing this view or vista could be as simple as removing lower branches of a tree or considering an alternative to a solid, full height boundary fence or hedge.


hidcote manor









2. Hedging or screens:

The humble hedge, in recent years, has been elevated to a more deserving position. Hedges do not have to be limited to the boundaries of our garden and grown for privacy but can offer a solution for division of space.  In a rectangular garden, planting a hedge at ninety degrees to the side boundaries could block some of the garden from view.  By not having the entire garden on show at once will encourage the urge to explore.  For instance plant an evergreen hedge at mid-height and you provide a foil for the planting in front and perhaps a space behind for seating that’s sheltered and a little more private.  By repeating hedging new, distinct areas can be created with different atmospheres from one to the next.  Alternatively hedges don’t need to be solid – a carefully placed opening cut into a hedge forms a window with which snatched glimpses of the garden beyond can be grasped.

Hedge opening









3. Winding path:

A straight path by its very nature will draw us down its length without the desire to pause or relax our pace; by introducing dynamic curves to a pathway, areas of the garden can be temporarily concealed from view with strategically placed planting. Movement along the path will be at a more relaxed pace. Scented planting may cause us to linger – whether it be lavender edging the bed or a Philadelphus with its arching branches laden with orange scented blossom.  Create a path relatively simply and quickly using a gravel or other aggregate alongside a retaining edge such as timber or alternatively using clay pavers, as pictured below.


clay paver path











4. Sculpture:

Sculpture and art in the garden, in my mind, should be approached with caution. However, there are an increasing number of artisan’s creating works both grande and petit to suit any outside space and budget in a myriad of materials.  Carefully placed sculpture can really enhance a garden space in its own right, and in relation to its surrounds.  Helen Godfrey sculpts both animal and human forms in galvanised wire.  The human sculptures have an ethereal quality, you can view her work here.  Continuing the theme of wire sculpture, courses offering tuition are becoming available around the UK.  Pictured below ‘Boxing Hares’ by Susan Nichols of Handmade Wire Sculptures.












5. Explore the world of plants:

In smaller gardens the entire space may be visible from the interior of the property without even stepping out into the garden.  Using larger specimens in a small space can create great impact and drama and shouldn’t be shied away from.  Fast growing plants may help us engage with our gardens as their rampant growth can be captivating.  The beautiful golden hops, Humulus lupus, a vigorous herbaceous climber, make a dramatic impact, putting on up to 6m of growth in the summer months.  Grow something you can enjoy through more than one of your senses – love to cook outside in the warmer months? Why not grow edibles, perhaps juicy tomatoes to go in your barbecued burger or herbs to spruce up a salad.  Grow borage and use the flowers to decorate your summer tipple of choice.


It is surprising how easy it is to be bitten by the gardening bug.   We should all be encouraged to become more open minded with our gardens,  the same creativity we are not afraid of exercising in our interiors, can and should be used outside to great effective giving us far more rewarding spaces.

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Model Eco Home Revisit

Taking a break to enjoying the sunshine in Bristol today I strolled by the model Eco Home featured in February. I never tire of seeing the dramatic change, through the seasons, a garden can display. The model Eco Home is a prime example of this. The herbaceous perennials temporarily absent were now taking centre stage, including cottage garden favourite Red Valerian (Centranthus ruber). Annuals such as Love-in-a-mist (Nigella damascena) were in full bloom, while herbs bordering the path such as mint (Mentha species) were romping away.

The change in hard landscaping was also dramatic. The corten steel panels spelling ‘Recycle’ that in winter had looked very striking were now enveloped, and somewhat bought to life, by the surrounding planting, the beautiful patina of the metal more visible in the Spring light. The clay paver path looked great with the planting flowing over its edges.

When considering a garden’s seasonal change, thought should be given not only to the planting but also the hard landscaping materials we use. Whether it be the colour we paint an external wall or our choice of paving material. For instance a wall painted a bright hue may look fantastic in the summer months but dreary for the remainder of the year when light levels are lower. The visual impact we want to achieve may be a factor, perhaps we want our garden to have a high in Summer and are not worried that plants will die back in the colder months. If we want a garden that sustains its appearance then the quantity of evergreen plants used could be higher, or shrubs and trees with a structural framework could be included; a multi-stemmed cherry for instance could display ornamental bark, blossom in Spring and have a structural that provides year-round architectural instance.

I’ll certainly return again in high Summer to see what’s new.

Create eco home Bristol


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Chalkboards in the garden

Childrens’ gardens and outdoor play, not forgetting adults!

Do you have children and want your garden to tempt them outdoors? Perhaps include exciting play options that aren't just off-the-shelf? Not prepared to hand over the garden 100%? There are a number of creative ways to cater to both adults and children alike without too much of a compromise and certainly no garish plastic. Whether your garden is extensive or on the small side there are a number of unusual and interesting ways to appeal to tiny tots and tumbling ten year olds. Read on for 5 tips for enjoying a child-friendly garden:

Adult-free retreat:

Children sometimes want to have a space to call their own and they will often seek-out their own private hidey-holes that could be as simple as finding a space amongst some shrubs or behind a hedge.  Its easy enough to make temporary features that can be utilised in good weather.  This could be a bunch of cardboard boxes that becomes a fortress or erecting a tent or teepee in the garden.  You may choose to nurture your child's inner hobbit however with this playhouse by Muddy Putty with its curved roof and circular door, a perfect little space to really let the imagination run-free.  Available in two sizes the largest measuring 2.5m in width it's large enough for adults to climb into.  It also ticks the boxes where sustainability is concerned. It uses British softwood in its construction and so the carbon footprint will be relatively low.  It comes as a easy to erect flat pack and so you can feel proud in the knowledge that you've helped to create a fab plays space for your child. The use of natural materials mean it should compliment a garden setting but by planting around within textuaral plants such as ornamental grasses and perhaps positioning boulders around it you could really create your own shire setting.

Creativity & Interactivity:

Chalkboards are a great way for children to express their artistic side. In the garden a chalkboard can be attached to a fence or wall, the board can be constructed from durable marine ply and then painted with chalkboard paint. Alternatively you could paint a section of wall to create an out-sized canvas. Slate paving can double-up as a surface for scribbles; sawn slate paving has a smooth surface and has the added benefit of feeling great barefoot.  For those small ones intrigued by all things of a wriggly persuasion, keep them entertained with a beastie and bug hunt. Our gardens are as much about fauna as they are flora and you can encourage interest in this by giving children the mission to find and identify your garden's creatures.  An old favourite of mine was making perfume from scented petals and foliage.  Plants such as lavender and roses are ideal for this and devising different concoctions.


Perfect for beginner garderners with short attention spans, sunflowers seeds are sown in a matter of minutes.  Then the fun comes from charting the weekly progress of your very own sunflower.  Give your children their own patch to experiment with, they can create their own mini garden in a box or container, giving them the flexibility to re-invent again and again.

Appeal to the senses with textural, scented, colourful or edible plants.  Easy to grow edibles include herbs such as mint, thyme and oregano, for fruit and vegetables strawberries, radishes and salad leaves are reliable.  For something soft to the touch try lamb's ears or an ornamental grass such as Pennisetum.  For both colour and scent Sweet peas are ideal.

Shared space:

Indulge your child-like side with something both you and your children can enjoy together. Whether it be an attractive swing that hangs gracefully from a tree or a hammock you can both climb into. Hammocks come in all shapes, sizes and materials, some robust enough to support two adults and can be purchased with a stand or hung between trees or perhaps posts or sleepers set into the ground.

Take that board game outside and supersize it. Dominoes, Connect Four and Snakes and ladders are amongst the many of games on the market today.  Playing the old favourite games outdoors has the added benefit of more active play and also encourages the less sporty of children, who might not have much interest in scooting and cycling, out into the fresh air.   

Hidden delights:

Your childrens' play things need not be on display at all times.  With some careful planning a range of features can be easily accessible but out of sight when not in use.  A sandpit for instance can be stowed away under decking, a hinged or removable lid providing access.  Kid's got too much bounce?  A sunken trampoline is an innovative way of including a trampoline without something huge dominating your garden and killing the grass beneath.  Screening can also be incorporated into the garden giving children the sense they are hidden from prying adult eyes while said adults can keep a craft eye on them.  Screening can be in the form of both soft or hard landscaping or a combination of the two, whether it be a bamboo hedge, slatted timber screen or planters potted with ornamental grasses.

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