Small garden ideas for year round enjoyment

small garden ideas

With limited space it can seem difficult to come up with ideas for a small garden. Whilst you might want to get the most out of your limited space you don't want it to end up looking untidy or crowded.

Your garden is a valuable space that gives you a place to relax and unwind in a natural healthy environment. An outside area that is dominated by fencing, hard landscaping and a lawn is not going to inspire you or offer any sort of benefit to wildlife.

Luckily it is relatively straightforward to transform your tiny garden into a lush year round outside space. A place that you can enjoy outside when it is warm enough and something you can admire when it's too cold to spend any time outside.

Easy small gardens for everyone

When I first started gardening I wanted to fill the garden with mature plants and trees to create an oasis. An escape from the noisy, polluted word where I could relax and listen to the birds whilst taking in the greenery.

I quickly realised that unless you have a large budget to buy mature plants it will take a long time to achieve your goals. I also didn't want a garden for just part of the year and stare out at bare twigs and soil for half the year. If you live in a temperate climate like the UK winter can be a dull and dreary place, I needed something that didn't look dreary in winter.

Fast forward a decade and I've learned a lot. A lot I wish I knew earlier that would have saved a lot of time, hassle and money. So I hope I can help you jump start your journey to a fantastic small garden that you can enjoy no matter what time of year, without a big budget and will help and attract wildlife, reduce pollution and make you a happier person.

Simple garden ideas

Don't get big plants or trees. Mature specimens give you that instant impact and that's fine if you have more money than time. Instead wait until you have more experience with your garden so you can make those sorts of decisions later on when you will be better placed to make those more costly decisions.

The more mature the plant is the more difficult it is to get it established. I've found that the most successful plants are the ones that self seed and grow without any input from me and small plants that have plenty of time to establish as they grow.

It's easier to move smaller plants successfully and as smaller plants cost less your budget goes further and it doesn't hurt as much when you lose one. You'd be a lot more upset if the mature specimen you spent hundreds on last year doesn't survive the winter.

Maximising your garden space

It's up to you how you want your garden but it's best to think about how you are going to use the space. You might need a lawn for the kids to play on or an outdoor dining area or maybe a spot why you can relax outside in nice weather without being overlooked by the neighbours.

When I am sitting out in the garden the plant line around the edge of the garden obscures the surrounding buildings giving a scene of privacy and it's like being in the middle of an oasis.

In really hot weather its nice to spend some time in a shaded area where the taller plants and small trees shade you from the direct sun. Conversely in the colder months when you want to make the most of the sun a sun trap is a great place to spend time.

You'll need to work with the space you have so keep in mind where the sun moves across the sky and which areas of the garden get the most sun and areas where in winter where no direct sunlight reaches it at all.

It's important to consider these things now as it will be more costly and time consuming to make changes later. So you might want to use that shaded area for shade loving ferns or an area that gets relentless summer sun can be reserved for more drought tolerant plants like an outdoor yucca plant.

Climbing plants for walls and fences

making the most of your vertical space creates the illusion of more space, crams in more greenery and allows you to cover up bland walls and fencing. It gives the garden some height without having to plant trees that may be too big for a small space.

I could suggest a myriad of interesting and colourful types of ivy would do this job but they have a few disadvantages. I think Ivy is great, there are some many different varieties and they can cover walls and ground space very quickly and cheaply. However many varieties can be invasive and difficult to remove from fences and walls so for our small limited space, front or back garden am not going to recommend them.

Ceanothus, California Lilac

I've grown a number of varieties of Ceanothus over the years and in the UK appear to be reliable and widely available. There are two evergreen types available, the low growing ones and the varieties that grow to around 3 metres or more. We want the latter as it need to grow to at least cover a six foot fence or wall.

Varieties such as Ceanothus 'Concha', Ceanothus impressus 'Puget Blue', Ceanothus 'Cascade' but avoid the smaller low growing ones such as Ceanothus griseus var. horizontalis 'Yankee Point' as they will never cover your fence.

ceanothus covering wall in small garden

Ceanothus will support itself so will not need to be attached to the wall or fence and it won't cling to the surface potentially causing future problems. You just need to trim back the plant to keep it the height and the thickness that you require.

The only thing you need to be aware of is that most California Lilacs flower in spring, usually the beginning of May in the UK so you want to avoid cutting it back prior to that or whilst it's flower simply because you will lose the flowers.

Ceanothus generally produce dense displays of blue flowers in spring which is another reason I recommend this plant rather than an ivy. As well as being visually stunning for you it will also attract insects such as bees and provide them with a food source.

So as you can see from the picture it is a great low cost way of covering a fence or wall. It can be easily trimmed to keep it in shape, will provide a green wall all year round and provide a fantastic floral display in spring.

Instead get plants that are tree like in structure, grow fast enough to reach a decent height but will stop or can easily be maintained.

Dense planting

dense planting in a small garden

Cramming in as many plants as possible into a small as possible space may sound counter-intuitive but it has many benefits. Take our example mentioned previously of growing Ceanothus against a wall. You could have left the plant to its own devices and let it cover more ground but our aim is to maximise the use of space.

By cutting back the plant growing against the wall or fence so it is about 30cm in depth gives you enough density to hide the wall. It means that if you have a narrow planting space you can add other plants in front of the Ceanothus.

So the total area is 1.5m wide and 0.5m deep and I have crammed it full of plants, but not just any plants. By using plants with different colours, different foliage and of different sizes it gives the illusion that there is more growing in the small space than there actually is.

In the space we have a small Trachycarpus Fortunei, a rosemary at either end growing through the Ceanothus, Coronilla, two different types of Cordyline and lowest of all to the ground there is Euphorbia and Iberis.

With all these plants growing close together it means there is less chance of weed invading the space so less weeding going forward. With so many plants jam packed into such a small space the competition for water and nutrients means that the plants will not grow as fast and so less need for ongoing maintenance.

Trees for small gardens

small ceanothus tree in a small garden

It's nice to have taller plants or small trees in the garden to create some shade and add some height. For the smaller space it is best to avoid trees that are too aggressive and would require too much ongoing maintenance. So whilst it might be niche to have a Eucalyptus with it is grey/blue foliage it would grow to fast and too big.

Ceanothus makes a nice small tree then can be pruned into shape and offers impressive spring flowers. To do this means that you need to remove the lower branches to create a trunk and let the canopy form its natural mound shape.

You end up with a small tree that won't outgrow your garden, has small leaves that form a dense crown and provide all year long greenery and a dense blue flower display in spring.

You also have the ground area around the small trunk to fill with other plants making maximum use of the space. Your garden looks more established without the cost and complications of a potentially larger tree.

fatsia japonica small garden tree

A standard Fatsia japonica which is a low cost plant that is relatively fast growing but will likely remain somewhere between 2 and 3 metres. A Fatsia adds new growth every spring, the older lower leaves remain so what I do is remove these before they die and fall off naturally during the summer.

The leaves of Fatsia japonica are quite large and so offer a complete contrast to the smaller darker green leaves of Ceanothus. Removing the lower leaves produces a canopy giving you a shrub that looks like a small tree.

The foliage is quite large but there are far fewer leaves making this a plant that requires minimal attention in summer and can be left the rest of the year. As the Fatsia takes up little ground space you have the entire area underneath to plant up.

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