John Richardson Gardens   Garden Design and Construction

Side gardens

This article looks at side gardens, the typically narrow route for wheelie bins, drains and other un-glamorous things one usually finds between the back garden and front yard. The good news is that it doesn't have to be this way and transforming an unexciting side area into a much-loved thing of beauty is achievable in most spaces by most people. All you really need is some imagination, a little (ok - a lot) of elbow grease and some careful planning.


Surprisingly, the best place to start planning your garden is not amongst that irresistible collection of beautiful things down at the local nursery. Of course that comes later, but for now there are just way too many distracting temptations, and impulse buying is undoubtedly the nemesis of good design.

Nor, I believe, is it useful to plan whilst staring down harsh reality in the very space you want to transform. Because, let’s face it, at this stage, the task at hand is so much more impressive than the plan you have to conquer it with. No, you need to incubate your ideas a little; at least until they’re strong enough to hold sway against the reality of the work to be achieved. The best place to start your campaign is definitely elsewhere, somewhere comfortable, with a pen, paper, magazines, books, plenty of time and an open mind.

First make a list of functional requirements of the garden. It should be simple, like ‘braai area’, or ‘compact veggie garden’, or ‘just for looking out the window at’. That type of thing. Once you have a list of realistic functions for the space, then the fun starts. Create a mood board (scrap book) of images, colours textures and ideas that you like. You will never find an image of a garden exactly the same as yours, so just have fun with it. If an image has elements that you like, put it in anyway – at this stage you’re just filling the basket. Harvesting comes later.

Now that you have a list of things you need on the one hand and a whole lot of things you really want on the other, the next step is clearly reconciliation, or if you like, design. Measure the space and draw it on a piece of paper. It’s is that simple. Many people aspire to beautiful gardens, but so few actually go to the trouble to draw it out. Yet this depiction of the idea on paper is the most powerful bridge between dreaming of a garden and actually making one.

The easiest scale to use is 1:100 because 1 cm on paper equals 1 meter on the ground but for small spaces 1:50 (2 cm paper equals 1 meter on the ground) is the most useful because it gives you plenty detail.

 Layout and structure

With very narrow, walled spaces it is best to create interest using textural, rhythmic and accentuating techniques that punctuate what is otherwise a monotonous beeline or flat boundary wall. These spaces are often viewed through windows from inside the house, so use colours, textures and a composition that goes well with the interior design.

Options increase dramatically with wider spaces, where asymmetrical and more free-flowing layouts become feasible. Generally, gardens are most structured closer to the house and become softer, looser and more natural as one gets further away, so side gardens are well-suited to bold structure and careful detailing.  Attention should go into how the floor, walls and any overhead forms fit together, as well as how they match up to your list of functional requirements. Space is of the essence, so be very specific and look for opportunities to double up the functional attributes of structures. Such as; using the wall of a water-feature as seating, building a fire-pit that can be fitted with a table-top when not in use, or a built-in bench that doubles as a mini tool-shed. Generally, when working close to the house, it is common practice to use strong edges to create clear delineations between the various forms. This will keep the space neat and easy to tidy up, which is important so close to the house.

 Borrowed landscape

If you’re lucky, this ancient gardening concept can make your tiny suburban garden feel like a private estate. Carefully study the landscape beyond your boundaries and see if any of it could have a positive visual impact on your space. The most obvious example of a borrowed landscape is a mountain or sea view, but it can just as easily be the neighbour’s trees, some street planting, a distant rooftop skyline, or even a municipal servitude that you can beautify. Taking into consideration any positive elements of the landscape beyond your boundaries can result in a better garden. And the bonus is - it’s for free!


Ironically, the best investment in a small side garden is often by starting with the house. Installing a door onto to even the tiniest of side gardens can transform both spaces immeasurably by allowing the flow of light, air and people between the spaces. Even where access to the garden is impractical, a floor-to-ceiling window makes a wonderful frame (or ‘picture window’) allowing visual access onto a carefully composed garden scene beyond.

 Boundaries and screens

There are two approaches to boundaries in small garden spaces. One is to try and disguise them with planting and the other is to use their prominence as a feature in the design. Planting solutions in small spaces have limited capacity to screen unwanted features, mostly because the planting itself takes up space and light. Techniques for screening in narrow spaces include: the pruning techniques of espalier, pleaching and pollarding, the use of self-adhesive and twining climbing plants, wall planters and, of course, the latest phenomenon in horticulture – the sublime, if not somewhat technical, vertical garden. All require judicious pruning and maintenance.

The second approach includes an almost inexhaustible list of non-vegetative options, governed only by the particulars of site, budget and the imagination. It doesn’t take much to break up the visual impact of an overbearing feature and even subtle changes in relief can make a big difference. Even the effect of the most dominant wall can be mitigated using the layering techniques of texture, colour, relief and lighting on all, or part, of it.  Options include relief sculpture, mosaics, latte panels, trellis, water features, LED lighting and others. Often the combination of two or more methods is the most effective.

Where screens are required within the boundary there are many wonderful materials that can be used to create privacy, windbreaks or demarcate space without compartmentalising it. Everything from glass block walls, Perspex screens, pole dividers, canvas awnings, steel mesh, airbricks, louvered timber and a whole lot more can be employed with great success.

 Plant selection

Planting for a small garden space should be selected the same way you choose furniture for your living room – functional and specific. For the most part less variety is better. Climbing plants are especially useful because they give you vertical accent and cover without intruding in on the space. And the requirement for supports presents a great opportunity to introduce architectural or styling details to your design. For example, stainless steel cables for a modern look, or trellis with finials for a more classic appearance. A small tree is great for creating a canopy, in a small garden. Choose deciduous rather than evergreen. Deciduous plants provide shade in the summer and conveniently loose their leaves in the autumn to allow the winter sun to come streaming in.

Ground covers and small shrubs carpet the floor of the garden and selecting a few, richly textured, un-fussy species that knit together well, will keep maintenance to a minimum. For more minimalist spaces, strongly-textured aggregates like river-boulders, rock shards or stone chip lend a clean, contemporary feel with very little upkeep necessary. In small spaces it is best to keep eye level planting to a minimum. Cluttering up the mid-story planting can only make the space feel smaller. For planting at this level, choose plants that are visually permeable, so that you can see the garden areas beyond them, even if it is only a wall.This creates a layered effect, which makes the garden seem larger as the eye momentarily rests on the foreground elements before reading the forms beyond.

Fragrance is a wonderful detail in any planting scheme and there are a number of plants suitable for small gardens. Plant them near a window, door, or seating area to enjoy their wonderful scent as often as possible.

 Smoke and mirrors

Many gardens are created as representations of other places, just look at the partiality for creating themed gardens, such the English, Tuscan, Zen or even ‘indigenous mountain gardens’.

But for some it goes way beyond that! For these imaginative gardeners their garden is like a stage - a personal theater in which to escape the daily grind, where trickery, illusion and a suspended disbelief unite to facilitate a sense of place that is part real, part make-believe and a whole lot of fun. In these fantastical places theater techniques offer traction to the imagination and take us off to faraway places by just stepping out the back door. Here one finds murals (also known as Trompe-l'œil,) that evoke particular scenes, mirrors that reflect parts of the garden back at the viewer (thus magically creating depth and space from a blank wall), false perspectives that can make a short space seem longer, wider or somehow more inviting, as well as a range of clever lighting techniques that add to that theatrical touch.

Whatever you may have in mind for your side-garden space, the good news is that small spaces offer more affordable and useful rewards for the efforts (and expenditure) of the keen homemaker, certainly more so than larger gardens, and arguably more than many other aspects of your property.  Just remember, every square meter counts and a little planning goes a long way. 

Happy gardening!





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Posted: 3/28/2014 (5:17:46 AM)

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