How to design your small garden : professional tips to optimise the space

Mis à jour : févr 26


When we are eager to enjoy our new outdoor space as soon as possible and ideas are starting to take shape in our mind, it’s tempting to jump right into the garden and start working! We often forget that we need to start with a design, a step that needs to be done properly in order to combine our needs and wishes with a coherent and realistic vision of the space.

Taking the time needed for the design step is even more important when there is just a small space available and we want it to be functional, beautiful and enjoyable to live in.

Design of the 'garden of scents' ©NR Landscaping

design before work


1. finding inspiration


Start your project by collecting pictures and creating a database. You can find images online by using keywords (eg. Google image, www.gardenia.net, Pinterest, www.houzz.fr ...), in landscape architecture magazines (eg. Extérieur design, Les plus beaux jardins, L’art des jardins et du paysage…) and in garden design books.

At this point, collect any pictures that you like, even though some may be unsuitable for your space or your budget.

It is important to keep an open mind to stimulate your creative process !

You can :

  • focus either on a specific garden style (eg. Japanese, Italian, French, English, zen, SW American…)

  • or pick images you like : an exercise which will help you discover your personal style and thus create a unique outdoor space.


The images you have collected should then be analysed from an architectural viewpoint. Review masses and spaces, colours, materials, lines and perspectives in order to identify themes. Note that plants, furniture and decorative elements should be selected in the second phase as they ought to relate to the style which emerges from the initial design phase.


If you have chosen an eclectic selection of images, try to identify what the pictures have in common. What are the dominant materials and colours ? Are the plants in groups or isolated? Have you chosen mainly curved paths or straight ones ?


If you have focused on a specific style, research the key points for success in this genre by using specialist books. You can then select plants which are adapted to your soil and climate to achieve your chosen look.


Image analysis: Zen style, black and white, warm brown, wood and mineral dominate, straight lines, the gaze converges towards a central element (fountain), architectural elements (fountain, stones, plants) are isolated from each other. ©NR Landscaping

2. making an inventory


It is now time to write down the answers to a few key questions. Some are specific to you and those who live with you, and others to your space and its particular characteristics. The more thought you give to the identification of the potential and limits of your space, the more accomplished and coherent the finished results will be !


You :

  • What do you want to achieve ? What sort of atmosphere do you want to create ? What will the space be used for ?

Maybe you want to be surrounded by greenery, or create an edible garden, or an evolving space full of colours and shapes ? Or an area to entertain friends ? Or a play area for children ?

  • How much time do you have for garden maintenance ?

  • Will you be in residence during the driest months ?

  • What is your budget ?

  • Do you have the required skills to bring your project to fruition ? You may need to do some training or call in professionals for some jobs.

Your environment :

  • What are the main existing features (hard landscaping, mature trees, special plants) ?

Note that it is often easier to work with existing elements rather than to clear everything out. This may save you time, energy and money. For example, rather than removing an existing concrete slab, you can hide it with wood decking, or an outdoor carpet.

  • Are there any accessibility problems ? This may influence the kinds of heavy equipment that can be used.

  • Is there a power outlet and water supply nearby ? Will they be adequate for the needs of the construction work and later for irrigation and for garden lighting ?

  • What is the orientation and exposure to sun ? This will influence the use of space and plant selection.

  • What are the climatic conditions ? This also will influence plant selection and may require the inclusion of hard landscaping to ameliorate problems such as excessive wind or to direct rain water away from the area.

  • What kind of soil do have ? This will influence plant selection.


Do not be discouraged if you have listed lots of problems. Better to identify them at the beginning and some may turn into advantages !

For example, the Japanese maple (Acer palmatum) is a key feature in Japanese gardens. It flourishes in cool acidic soils and has deciduous foliage which becomes red-orange in autumn. If your soil tends to be chalky and dry you can substitute a Montpellier maple (Acer monspessulanum) or a terebinth (Pistacia terebinthus), both of which are deciduous and have wonderful autumn colour. With appropriate pruning, you can even shape them like a Japanese maple.



3. Drawing a plan


If you don’t already have a garden plan, you can search for your plot, free of charge, on the cadastre website. This site provides simple tools to precisely measure lengths and surface areas.



Start by drawing the basic shape of your plot. Mark edges, paths and walking routes, openings (doors, windows, gates), the orientation of the plot and existing structural elements such as trees, fences, walls and ponds. Then place tracing paper over this base and add ‘bubbles’ to represent the elements you wish to introduce to your garden. This will allow you to try out different combinations of the various elements (decking, barbecue, playground for children, dog kennel etc).


Once the layout is settled, produce a scale drawing using the length measuring tool on the cadastre website. Remember to photocopy or scan the plan before going further. Next, position all the elements precisely on the plan. This step is useful when calculating the quantities of hard landscaping materials and plants your project will require, and for selecting the correct size of furniture and decorative elements to fit the space.


Detail of a planting plan ©NR Landscaping

It may be necessary to create a planting plan, or to produce more detailed drawings for complex features. A planting plan is used to quantify the number and types of plants required and to position them correctly.


You are now ready to start work !




Specific advice for small areas


If your space is small, the design should take into account some of the following architectural ideas.


1. For elements with a strong visual impact opt for those with A thin or narrow aspect

Trees with a thin trunk, a light foliage and a small adult size are the best for small areas. ©Garden Club London

Slim and light furniture are the best for small areas.

2. Liberate ground space by using vertical space for features

Use trellis to grow climbing plants on a wall. ©NR Landscaping

Put plants in hanging basket or on shelves to liberate ground space. ©Søstrene Grene


3. Use modular furniture which has more than one function or adjustable dimensions


Let the indoor furniture used in urban studios act as inspiration. Custom-made constructions are a good way to make the most of small spaces, but they require either handyman skills or the budget to call in a professional.


The wooden bench is custom-made, and include a plant container and a storage box under the seat. ©NR Landscaping

The wooden bench is custom-made, and include a plant container and a storage box under the seat. ©NR Landscaping

4. use corners


Make good use of space in corners.

5. Add a miror


A mirror lengthen the visual field and bring light to dark places. Be sure to position mirrors carefully to ensure they do not become dazzling at certain times of day! ©Garden Club London

6. Compartmentalise the space


©Aralia

Compartmentalise the space, and provide structure through elements of high visual impact, for example, a broken or curved path, fencing, trellised panels, multiple level terraces and repeated vertical or ground features.





©Garden Club London

You can use plants, hard landscaping materials or decorative elements to create these effects. Not being able to see the entire space in one quick look gives the illusion that the space is bigger than it really is.


7. Create curved paths



©Stangeland & Associates

Long, receding perspectives do not work in small gardens. Create broken or curved paths rather than straight ones.













Further reading


GOODNICK Billy, Yards, St. Lynn’s Press, 2013. KINGSBURY Noel, New small garden, Frances Lincoln, 2016. MALLET Robert, Envisioning the garden, W. W. Norton & Company, 2011. REID Grant W., Landscape graphics, Potter, 2002. YOUNG Chris, Encyclopedia of garden design, DK, 2017.

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