A gem of a garden

The front garden of Number 11 in tawny and red tones

The front garden of Number 11 in tawny and red tones

Tiny gardens have not featured large on my radar. They are just not part of my life experience so far but they are a reality for many people, whether by choice or circumstance.

When your allotted physical space in life is to have only one of those smaller garden spaces, it is undeniably different. I stayed with garden writer and gardener, Robyn Kilty, in Christchurch. Her own garden which has been acclaimed as one of the best examples of its type, is huge in charm but very small in size.

If you are working in a small space, you can go the Ellerslie show garden way and produce a static scene which is primped and starched to perfection as if frozen in time. Show gardens leave me cold, personally, and the idea of creating and maintaining that in my own environment around my home is even less appealing. So you will need to look elsewhere for ideas on that approach. Try magazines because that is what you will be creating – the glossy feature look. It will probably be unchanging through the seasons and it will not usually have a specific sense of place but be more universal in style. To me, that is like making more housework outdoors because it will need tidying, dusting and vacuuming twice a week to keep it pristine.

I was far more interested in what Robyn was achieving – seasonal change, interesting plants with plenty of colour, texture and detail and a garden which invited you take a little time to enjoy it. But in small spaces, everything has to be thought out, carefully controlled and restrained. “If you get something wrong in a small garden,” Robyn said to me, “it is in your face all the time. You can’t ignore it or get away from it.”

It is a mistake to think that all plants have to be tiny to be in proportion. Sure, if your garden bed is only 3 metres long and 1 metre wide, you don’t want a plant that is going to spread to a couple of metres across. But if you keep everything itsy bitsy, you will end up looking as if you have planted a traffic island. You still need height and some plants with stature in their foliage to give grace and proportion. But you need height without width. You can still be bold in a tiny space.

You will probably end up having to prune and clip regularly to keep plants to their allotted space. Bold foliage may be fine but triffids you can do without.

It is not compulsory to have lawn. If you have grass, you need a lawnmower which will also mean a shed to contain it. Sometimes it is better to manage a little open space by paving and do away with lawn altogether.

Achieving some level of continuity is pleasing in any garden, no matter the scale. In a tiny garden, it might be by a little formality in design, by small groupings of the same plant, mirroring a planting on one side of the path to the other, or by very careful colour management. In late summer, Robyn’s front garden was in tawny autumn shades and red whereas her even smaller back area was featuring deep burgundy with just touches of pure blue and yellow to give it zing.

A touch of formality, careful colour choices and paving instead of lawn in a tiny back garden area

A touch of formality, careful colour choices and paving instead of lawn in a tiny back garden area

You have to be more restrained in a small space, even if you are creating a colourful or maybe flamboyant display. Every plant has to justify its place. The real gardening skills come in managing changes through the seasons, which make it all a great deal more interesting. Bulbs need to be used so they can star when in flower, but not look awful and scruffy when they are passing over. As one dominant plant passes over for the season (maybe a hydrangea that has finished flowering or a hosta that is going dormant), another nearby plant needs to be coming into its own. The challenge in a small garden is to make the whole area work for you all year, giving you lovely views out your windows, from the road frontage and from all your viewing points within the space.

Ever the practical type, I would find it hugely challenging to manage without the hidden areas “out the back” as we call them. If you have plants in containers, you need somewhere to repot them. You still need a shed or cupboard for tools and packets, even if your space is too small to warrant a wheelbarrow. Dealing with green waste would be a challenge without a compost heap. Yet if you have a small one of those, there will be trimmings and prunings that are too large for it. You probably can’t run a closed system in a tiny garden, recycling your own waste.

I am not ready to trade down on space, but when I thought about tiny gardens, I developed a new respect for the few I have seen where the owners have made them into something special. It is harder than it looks to do it well.

First published in the Waikato Times and reprinted here with their permission.