A small garden is beautiful but keep plans under control

  • Designing a garden: the deck area can be a mix of brick, stone or wood, using one medium to “mark out” the footpaths (Photograph submitted)

    Designing a garden: the deck area can be a mix of brick, stone or wood, using one medium to “mark out” the footpaths (Photograph submitted)


A thing of beauty is not always a joy when it is labour-intensive. A mistake often made in the initial stages of design is not giving enough consideration to aftercare or maintenance.

Poor maintenance can, by its very nature, create labour intensity, especially when the design concept is also questionable.

This is just as, or even more, important when working with small spaces, which can highlight vagaries of poor planning.

When thinking landscape, plants invariably come to mind (without them it would be difficult use the word garden), however, unlike other features, they are not a static entity.

It is therefore important to consider a concept that includes the various features that will be used, eg plants, stone, gravel, brick, wood, statuary, furniture and water.

I have not mentioned grass as, on smaller properties, it can become a labour-intensive element.

When considering the various elements within the design concept, the juxtaposition of each can create the interest and intent as to the scale and placement.

Each element has its own character — be it leaf shape, colour or texture — and each comes with the opportunity to harmonise with its neighbour.

Small gardens will require plants that can be controlled and that will not outgrow the area.

Contingent on the area, the use of small trees would be recommended, eg Parkinsonia aculeata (Jerusalem thorn), lagunaria patersonii (Norfolk Island hibiscus), Sabinea carinalis (carib wood) or Eriobotrya japonica (loquat).

Shrubs should also be of a compact habit to reduce excess pruning, eg Leucophyllum frutescens (Texas sage), Crassula argentea (jade plant), Salvia leucocephala (white-headed sage), Codiaeum variegatum (croton).

Grasses need to be cut back hard every year and can make bold statements, if placed correctly in association with other architectural plants. Consider thysanolaena maxima (tiger grass), which requires a good space to show off, or Pennisetum setaceum purpureum (purple fountain grass).

Herbaceous plants having a sword-like foliage offer a variation on leaf shape; consider Dietes bicolour (African iris), Agapanthus africanus (lily of the Nile), Sansevieria cylindrica (African spear) and Liriope spicata (lilyturf).

I am not a proponent of planting large material against the house but prefer the “garden” be viewed from it.

This allows brick or stone to be used around the walls while drifting into the body of the garden space.

With an open palette to work with, scale out the area on graph paper at a ratio of one-eighth of an inch to one foot, keeping in mind the size of the area.

Do not forget to review the orientation of the proposed garden, as this, to a degree, will dictate plant selection, ie exposure to wind, salt spray, sun and shade.

Determine the size of planting area(s) and mark them in; the deck area can be a mix of brick, stone or wood using one medium to “mark out” the footpaths.

With the placement of the beds and pathways, follow through by putting containers/urns or similar around the deck using spaces between windows to highlight large urns and slim containers.

Use areas of gravel between brick/stone and place squat pots to make a statement. Tall containers with narrow openings should be left “as is” simply to put focus on the container.

In a modern setting, create a rill which runs and vanishes throughout the deck and is recirculated.

Raised planters of timber create an organic feel to an area, but ensure they are in scale with the surrounding area; in larger areas consider eight-inch square rail ties with a slight step back at each riser.

I would not use anything less than four-inch square lumber as the visual impact can be lost.

Small can be beautiful and practical. It should also, if designed correctly, be more cost-efficient in its maintenance; there are times when a big spend will, in the long-term, be a good investment.

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Published Oct 25, 2018 at 8:00 am (Updated Oct 25, 2018 at 8:48 am)

A small garden is beautiful but keep plans under control

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