Town Gardens. Small is Beautiful.
Graduate Landscapes has added a new garden designer to the team, BEN GREEN. Here, he explores the particular challenges of designing for those smaller urban spaces and town gardens
What is exciting about the challenge of designing a small town garden or outdoor urban space?
It's very exciting to think about how you can create a beautiful green oasis from a small urban space that may have been, previously, very uninviting and part of the excitement is knowing that the potential for transformation is huge. Detailing is crucial - to maximize space you have to consider every design feature, decide whether it’s really necessary, and if so, ask yourself is it in the right place?
What are the new innovations around designing for smaller spaces that you can't wait to try out?
New systems for fire-pits and fire-tables that require liquid fuel rather than bulky gas bottles or difficult mains installation allow us to design really cool looking seating areas around a fire for evening entertainment in small spaces and close to buildings. Garden lighting is improving all the time with efficient LED systems. Using LED strips under or on top of features is getting easier and more affordable to install. These allow you to create a subtle glow around the base of a built-in bench for example to give a very classy finish to a design project.
How important is the hard landscaping in a small space?
Very. Very. Very. The design detailing in a smaller space needs to be absolutely spot-on. For instance, the size and layout pattern of paving slabs; regular sizes in a coursed pattern looks more modern, while a random size and pattern will look more traditional. Also sawn natural stone with small joints and a coloured grout between slabs works well in an urban setting. Lining up joints to match interior tiles is a detail that really makes a difference in a small space.
How important is the planting in a small town garden?
With less space for planting, what you decide to plant is very important. For maximum impact large specimens are good, but you need to think about just how big the plant (and its roots) will become, especially if you are planting close to pavements or buildings. ‘Greening up’ spaces where there’s lots of hard materials helps soften the look of the garden from the house and the use of evergreens gives planting structure even in the winter when perennials have died back, but the view from inside is still important.
What are the more common mistakes town garden homeowners make?
Ironically, scaling everything down to a smaller size in a small garden can make the space seem even smaller and so the opposite is true which means using larger plants - and also bigger paving units - reduces the ‘Lilliputian’ look. Don’t push a lawn or terrace right to the boundary at the expense of planting space as this only serves to further highlight the limited outdoor space you actually have.
Where do you look for and find your own inspirations for designing smaller gardens?
I look to both architecture and interior design. Designing a small garden is just like designing a room where you need both functional features and living space. And colour schemes and materials can be borrowed from the house to give a unified looking home indoors and out. Using the architecture of the house for scale and ‘line’ is important. Mirroring the size of parts of the building with the size of a new patio for instance. Lining up planters and steps with doors and windows is both practical and gives a sense of order and calm - a much appreciated quality in a busy city life - in those areas closest to the house.
How important is colour?
In an urban setting a garden is often a useful bit of extra space to the house. Taking cues from the interior design by replicating or contrasting colours helps unify the whole home. Small highlights of brighter colours can visually ‘lift’ a garden and therefore the mood of the space; colours can come from planting, but you have to remember that flowers are transient so the most important colour is always going to be green. And as I mentioned before, evergreen planting is very important to an urban garden to give structure in the winter when perennials have died back.
How do you capture the genus loci of an urban space?
Taking advantage of what we call the ‘borrowed landscape’ (genus loci) in a small urban spaces requires some imagination. For instance, a tall brick wall of a neighbor’s house could be seen as a negative aspect, but could be used to grow climbers or a fixing point for well-made trellis work. Careful positioning of plants to screen overlooking windows or ugly buildings can also frame views of nearby specimen trees or attractive architecture. You shouldn’t try to hide the fact you are in an urban setting by growing too many tall screening trees as this will create too much shade (and won’t endear you to the neighbours), but rather celebrate it by highlighting something positive. Take your design cues from surrounding materials and architecture by using local stone or brick which will discreetly help ‘place’ a garden in context to its locality.
How do you use verticals in a smaller space?
Living walls are a fantastic invention for smaller town gardens where space is tight, but perhaps you have a lot of vertical room. Plant species can be tailored to the aspect of the wall and can be made up of many different plants or just a few for a more modern architectural look. They require quite a lot of specialist maintenance though so shouldn’t be taken on lightly. For an easier life suitable climbing plants tied to a stainless steel trellis cable system can look fantastic too.
Describe your perfect town garden design - imagine you are sitting in that garden and describe it
The perfect town garden for me would be a space of green calm with different ‘rooms’ for entertaining and relaxing. A small seating space with a comfortable and stylish outdoor lounge in which I could unwind, surrounded by small trees for screening and lush under-planting. The sound of a water feature would help mask the urban background noise and subtle uplighting amongst the plants, plus dappled lighting in trees would make the space usable through into the evening.
Gin and tonics on tap would be great as well!
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