It may seem perverse to link the words ‘small’ and ‘space’ together, but unfortunately for most people who garden in central London, this is an all too familiar conundrum. Even more perversely, it doesn’t seem to make much difference how big your house is, the spaces aren’t necessarily any bigger – you just get six of them. However, even the smallest external space has potential. The real joy is that with access to light and water it is possible to enliven the flatness of the urban environment. Few things are more cheering than spring bulbs bursting through soil, or an exuberance of foliage and flower on a hot day.
Unfortunately the gritty reality is that basement lightwells, balconies and roof terraces can be daunting places to try and establish a garden and you should use all the weapons at your disposal. Let’s start with some practical considerations. How is the space to be used? Can some or all of it be easily seen from inside? What is access like? The links with internal spaces are often vital and should be exploited as much as possible. Make the most of views from important windows by placing pots, sculptures, specimen plants or other features on the same axis. Try and draw the viewer out into the space by giving hints of something just out of sight.
Try and create drama in a small space. Mirrors can add depth and mystery, especially if partly veiled by foliage. Use lighting, particularly uplighting, to accentuate features such as pots or sculptures. Strong textures (which work well in confined spaces) are much emphasised by carefully placed lighting. Try luxuriant foliage or slatted trelliswork against white or brightly coloured stucco walls. Water and light combine well together. Water features can be very dramatic in confined spaces, and these days there are all sorts of possibilities that take up very little space. The sound of trickling water can add to the ambience of a small terrace.
Lighting not only adds drama, but also extends the period during which you can use a garden. We often use firepits to add a strong focus; they are a great gathering point on cooler evenings and allow use of the garden well into the autumn. For roof terraces or smaller spaces, there are options fuelled by gel or by gas. Hot tubs are worth considering too; there is nothing quite like lying on your back in a hot tub looking at the stars – we did a garden in London’s West End last year with a hot tub that had a view of Green Park! There are even wood-fired ones for the more adventurous souls.
Don’t forget the surface you walk on. If you don’t want the upheaval of lifting the existing paving why not lay timber decking or thin porcelain tiles over the top.
Planting will always do better if it is rooted directly into the ground, but in many situations this is not possible. Give some thought to containers, as these are an important part of the ‘furniture’ of your external room. Don’t automatically go for terracotta, we often get timber containers made up, or you could try lead or ceramic. If working to a tight budget, found objects such as old zinc galvanised baths, buckets, or even lavatory pans can be wonderful. We have also used sections of air-conditioning ducts before as planters.
Horticultural considerations are of paramount importance. Remember the three basic needs of plants: water, light and nutrients. Consider installing a simple irrigation system -many of these are available over the counter at garden centres in kit form or can be installed at a reasonable cost by a competent gardener. Drainage is also important. Light is at a premium in courtyards and deep lightwells so choose plants carefully. Generally speaking, green-leaved plants will put up with lower light conditions than variegated or coloured foliage types. Reserve silver and grey leaved plants for high light positions. In really dismal conditions, rely on foliage rather than flower and pick plants well adapted to such conditions such as ferns. Pockets of colour can always be introduced with bedding plants. Compost should be of good quality and, if possible, replaced on a regular basis (every 2-3 years for example). On roof gardens you will also have to consider exposure. Use permeable structures, such as a close mesh trellis of horizontal battens, for shelter rather than solid screens such as glass; the more solid a windbreak is the more turbulence it will create. Seaside plants are well suited to these conditions. Combine them with decking and beach pebbles for a maritime feel. All in all, remember that the more you put into a small garden the more you will get out of it.