Dos and don’ts of planning a town garden

Careful planning and zoning is essential when designing a small urban garden

Careful planning and zoning is essential when designing a small urban garden - Credit: Getty Images/iStockphoto

Garden designer Kate Gould explores the challenges involved in laying out a small garden

A small garden in London designed by Kate Gould

A small garden in London designed by Kate Gould - Credit: Archant

Working as a garden designer near central London about 60 per cent of my work is undertaken in urban situations. These spaces, with all the added complexities they bring to the creation of a small garden are often the most interesting and challenging to design. Most small gardens or more particularly town gardens, come with added baggage; things to consider when designing the garden that are above and beyond a clients wish for the space and even beyond the overall aesthetics. Town gardens have to be practical spaces and there is a point where design meets the practicality of its ongoing care, it is at this point you know that you have created a really good small garden that will be used and enjoyed for many years to come.

Small gardens have to work hard to look good all year. They may be the only private outside area that a client has to relax in and with the current trend in modern architectural design are increasingly viewed through large contemporary glass doors or picture windows. Often viewed from room’s that have daily use they therefore have to provide something of interest all year round. This ‘all season interest’ relates to both the hard landscaping which realizes the design and the soft landscaping which should always be designed with plants that span the seasons. The hard landscaping should be constructed from materials that can take the shade, although it is asking a lot of a stone or wood not to naturally turn green with algae in areas of low light. The power of nature can only be defied so far but with careful selection of products the ongoing maintenance of the scheme can be minimized. Think low maintenance, rather than no maintenance and a happy balance will be achieved.

In towns it is rare for a garden not to be overlooked on two or three sides by other properties which not only raise issues of how to create privacy but can also shade the garden and limit the planting palette. Adjacent trees and overgrown shrubs can have invasive roots that in time render even the best laid paving uneven, so defining the extent of hard landscaping in the garden in relation to the surrounding planting is very important. Some shrubs with extremely fleshy and juicy fruit can permanently stain natural stone and Laurel in particular with its blue-black fruit causes violent purple results on paving. An area of loose aggregate or dense shrub planting under something like this would be worth considering.

Small town gardens, even if attached to large town houses often have very limited access for importing materials and plants. This lack of access must be taken into consideration early on in the design process and thought must be put to the future of the garden and its ongoing care at this time too. There is no point designing a lawn in a small back garden if there is no side access. A lawnmower carried though a house on a weekly basis (often over very beautiful light coloured carpets and furnishings) is not an ideal situation, no matter how careful the gardener. If you have ever tried to get grass stains out of clothes you can imagine the result on a cream rug! The same goes for materials in to the site to actually build the garden. Sometimes, if time and money are not an issue then permission to use a crane can be sought but this is an extreme option and it is quicker, simpler and more economical for the client to simply design the garden in a way that materials can be carried safely and cleanly through the house.

A small garden in London designed by Kate Gould

A small garden in London designed by Kate Gould - Credit: Archant

Although it sounds very much doom and horticultural gloom for small gardens, it is not. They are often the most fun to design and the most pleasing to see grown on and still looking good after years of use. The success lies, as most things in the planning. Assess the site well, define areas for privacy and spaces for hard and soft landscaping, create integral storage and a space for outside cooking, think hard about the planting and what you want to achieve and the garden will come together as a well designed whole and give years of pleasure as it grows and matures.

Kate Gould is an award winning garden designer with more than a decade’s hands-on experience transforming gardens of all sizes and a regular exhibitor at the RHS Chelsea Flower Show where she has been awarded three gold medals.