Small Gardens

Townhouses, Units, Terrace houses all have one thing in common – small garden areas, courtyards or terraces. Don’t let the challenge of a small area cramp your style though. Small gardens can be fabulous retreats if you put in a bit of forward planning.

Small spaces can be a challenge for many gardeners who are used to larger blocks of land. They needn't be. Some of the most stunning gardens are no more than a few metres wide.

Small gardens

Small gardens, courtyard and terraces can be as small as the space between a house and garage or a side fence, or just a terrace on top of a building. They can also be quite large such as those found surrounded by large city buildings. Small gardens are common in inner city areas where homes are generally packed more closely together, and where garden space is limited, as with terraced houses. They offer an ideal usage of a small space that may not be big enough for use as a work or living area but can be turned into a decorative feature. Larger courtyards may have areas of lawn, but smaller ones are generally unsuitable for lawns and commonly make use of paving and garden areas instead.

Characteristics of Small Gardens

The protected nature of courtyards and terraces has both advantages and disadvantages.

They can provide protection from climate extremes, particularly wind, excessive noise or unattractive views. They can also be very private. The protection from strong winds in some cases may lead to poor ventilation or poor lighting.

Additionally, large areas of paved or concrete surfaces and brick walls may lead to heat build up or glare in the garden, which can be an advantage in cooler months but a real problem in warmer times. Some plants, however, will love this extra heat and reflection, for example Heliconias and Adeniums.

Water and drainage can be a major problem in courtyard gardens and terraces but with careful design and the provision of essential drainage this problem can be overcome. However, with a little imagination, water can become a feature through the use of small ponds, birdbaths, or even small fountains.

Some Design Ideas

The type of paving material chosen will have a major effect on the overall appearance of the courtyard. Glazed pavers and concrete slabs can create a formal effect, while bricks and stone will often give a softer, more informal look. Pavers can be chosen to match tiles and other surfaces used within the house, so that the courtyard blends into the house.

A feeling of space can be created by the use of painted landscape or garden scenes on walls. This can be further expanded by having the garden merge with the house (glassed entry areas and the use of indoor plants can help achieve this effect).

Lighting can be installed enabling you to use the courtyard at night and to highlight particular plants or features. Any cables should be hidden from view as much as possible taking care that careful they are not placed in a position where anyone is likely to dig. It is recommended that you consult a professional to design and install garden lights safely.

"Stepped" or irregular shaped walls, as well as irregular shaped garden beds, can be used to reduce the 'box-like' effect often associated with courtyards surrounded by fences or walls.

Keep the design simple by avoiding the temptation of using too many different types of materials or plants. If you use a lot of different colours and textures, the space can seem more confused and appear smaller.

Avoid active colours such as red, yellow and orange as these make small spaces seem smaller.

Use colours such as blues, whites, greens and purples to make small spaces seem larger.

Design and Function for Small Gardens

It is possible to combine design style and function together. In fact it is sometimes easier to combine these in small courtyards than large gardens.

In essence, this refers to utilizing the available space in a way that it may have multiple functions and above all is stylish in its design.

For example:

Using plants as espaliers along walls to function both as a fence/wall cover, and to provide colour and fruit. Citrus is great for this.

Removable shade cloth or canvas panels can be used over parts of a courtyard to provide summer shade.

Spaces or gaps can be left in paved areas to create planting spaces.

Plants may offer colour, scent, fruit, shape, texture and theme in the garden. Secateurs are an important tool for maintaining courtyard gardens. One or two plants let loose can quickly outgrow the available space.

Planting Ideas for Small Spaces

Careful plant selection can make the most of a limited space, and reduce the impact of problems such as glare and heat build up. Consider the following:

Shade trees (deciduous) can be used to provide summer shade and winter light. It is important to choose species that do not have an invasive root system, and that will not out-grow the garden. Do not over-plant your garden. Remember that plants can grow very quickly once established and you may find that you have no space left to move in yourself.

For courtyards that receive limited sunlight use shade-loving plants, such as ferns, begonias, clivea, fuchsias, impatiens and balsam.

Containers are a good idea as they can be moved. This will enable you to create changing vistas within the courtyard. Also plants in flower, such as annuals, can be moved to prominent positions, whilst other plants such as roses and hydrangeas that may not look so good at particular times of the year can be hidden in less prominent positions. Camellias, dwarf rhododendrons and azaleas make excellent pot plants for cooler sites, while palms, dracaenas and crotons, are good for warmer areas.

Hanging baskets are an excellent way to make more use of available space, and will make the appearance of the garden more interesting, offering something to see at different eye levels.

Espaliered plants and vines require very little ground space, and are good for small courtyards. They can be used to cover walls helping to merge them into the garden, and reducing glare and heat build-up. Espaliered fruit trees can be an attractive addition to the garden as well as providing fruit. Vines can be grown on pergolas to provide partial cover over the courtyard, or can be grown on trellis or wire framework to extend the height of surrounding walls to provide extra privacy or shade. Be careful to avoid creepers with invasive roots such as English Ivy which may damage fences or walls.

Dwarf trees can create the image of a much larger garden. There is a huge range of dwarf conifers that would be suitable. Dwarf fruits, such as some of the citrus or dwarf apples, such as the 'Ballerina' range are not only attractive, but make excellent plants for containers or small beds, as well as providing excellent tasting fruit.

For long, narrow courtyards, such as entry areas, ground cover and low growing plants can be grown to spill over paved walkways to soften the long straight lines of the pathway, and to reduce the visual effect of distance. Statues or other features can also be placed at either end of the courtyard to create a focal point which also reduces the visual effect of distance.

Different shades of colour will also change the eye’s perception of space, with lighter coloured plants widening the space.

Where there are overhanging, or taller, plants in neighbouring gardens you can arrange your plantings by merging your plants into them, and not hiding them, to give the appearance that they are part of your garden, creating the feel of a larger garden.

Tall, bushy plants can be used to create 'walls' around a courtyard instead of solid fences or walls. This can help improve ventilation and can be a lot cheaper than solid fences.

Small growing plants and plants with small foliage are ideal in small gardens. They make the garden look slightly bigger due to their small scale. Large foliaged plants tend to dominate a small area and look too big. In a small confined courtyard it is better to use Murraya paniculata ‘Min-a-Min’ rather than the more common larger leaf version of the same plant

Dwarf version plants are also better suited to small areas. For example, the compact ‘Paradise’ Camellias are better than other forms of Camellia in confined courtyards. Small sized plants are perfect for hedges and topiary work in small garden areas.

Other garden elements

Other elements can be used to highlight particular areas of the garden, courtyard or terrace, and they will change and complete the garden appearance.

Scale refers to the size of the area you are dealing with and how it relates to the other items in that space. For example in a small garden the scale will necessitate similar small scaled items to suit the space. In a large space, one would preferably place large sized items. In a small area it is important to place items that fit is size and scale to the rest of the garden.


Tables and chairs take up a lot of space and should carefully be selected to suit the space available.

A long narrow area will best utilize a narrow table, ideally placed against one side perimeter. This allows good access beside the table.

A small round or square table is suited to courtyards and balconies where space is limited.

Remember that when a person sits in a chair, they take up much more space than when the chair is empty and access around the chair is more restricted. So, don’t underestimate how much room you’ll need for each person sitting at the table.

Some small areas may be better suited to a simple bench or bar at which you can sit and eat at rather than a complete table and chair set.

Identify the importance and regularity of outdoor entertaining. If you rarely have people over or sit outdoors, then outdoor table and chairs may not be a wise investment.


Outdoor heaters can greatly increase the use of the area. Portable outdoor heaters are readily available from garden centres, hardware shops and barbeque shops. They include cherimas (mexican wood heaters), brassieres (metal frame block heaters) and oven-like barbeques. Modern alternatives are gas or electric outdoor heaters.


A single statue can make a wonderful statement in a small garden but it is important to remember that big is not necessarily the best. On the other hand, small statues can look fussy or simply may not be very noticeable. Choose carefully as the wrong statue can make your garden look bad taste.

Structural Shapes

Ornamental balls, pyramids and shapes are available for the home landscaper to brighten up or to add an architectural element to the garden.

Gardens in Containers

Container gardening has the advantage that they can be easily moved around to suit different seasons or decoration needs. They can also be easily transported when moving house.

Pots and Tubs

These are easily transported with little effect on the plants they contain, as long as they are not allowed to move around during transporting resulting in damage to the plants, and/or pots, or dislodging the growing medium. It is important when in transit that they are not wind blown as this can effectively strip moisture from leaves and stems resulting in severe de-hydration and eventual plant death. Large tubs, such as half-wine barrels, can be a great way to grow larger shrubs, or even smaller trees. It can also aid in keeping them compact. Plants suitable for barrels include citrus such as lemons, mandarins or cumquats, dwarf apple (e.g. Ballerina cultivars) and stone fruit varieties, some tropical fruit trees, etc.

Hanging baskets

Hanging baskets are ideal for growing plants in small spaces. The vertical garden achieved with hanging baskets can provide sprays of pendulous foliage and flowers and can give a small area a lush jungle feel. Plants in hanging baskets can be readily transported, and are a great way to create the appearance of a more established garden at eye height, particularly until other plants have grown tall enough.

Hydroponic Gardens

Many small, portable, home hydroponic systems are now available. They can be easily disassembled for transport, or may be small enough for two or three people to lift and place in a trailer, or a moving van. They can also be installed in large terraces in city flats. 


As you can see, there are countless variations for landscaping small areas, and many will suit the taste of the more exquisite gardeners.

Article by John Mason, Principal, ACS Distance Education (Australia and U.K)

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