How to Garden Anywhere

Some outdoor spaces aren't even big enough to hang out in. But they can still be beautiful.

Mirrored Wall Reflects Light in Garden

Mirrored Wall Reflects Light in Garden

A mirror on the rear wall of this small space is a trick to reflect the plantings and make them appear to be twice the amount. Two yellow stemmed bamboo plants appear as four by reflection.

©2009, Dorling Kindersley Limited

2009, Dorling Kindersley Limited

The juxtaposition of buildings in towns and cities leaves many people with small, awkwardly shaped and often unappealingly located spaces, which, though visible from inside their homes, they cannot or have no inclination to use as an outside room. Any such dingy yard, narrow passageway, or deep well can be transformed from an area from which the eyes are hastily averted to one that is a positive pleasure to look at.

Decorating Small Spaces 

There are many ways of bringing tiny spaces to life. Restricted light and difficult access often make gardening in the traditional way impractical, so instead of decorating your space just with plants, consider using colored paint, mirrors, sculpture, trompe l’oeil effects, and artificial light. 

It is important that the ground plan of your garden space should bear a relationship to surrounding structures, so start by looking at the paving. See if there are any architectural features on surrounding buildings that can be linked to the style of the paving—Victorian polychrome brickwork, for example, might suggest multicolored floor tiling. 

Your next task should be to make the best use of the space by making it eye-catching. Using sculpture is one of the most simple and effective ways of anchoring the eye in a space. Make sure that whatever you choose (be it a Classical stone statue or a modern abstract piece) has visual strength and is not dominated by its surroundings. Introduce the type of feature you might envision in a more open space, but go for as large a scale as you can to make the effect. 

Plants are seldom visually strong enough to assume a sculptural role, nor in many cases are they a practical proposition where light is poor and their location makes regular maintenance a problem. However, given reasonable growing conditions, a gnarled fig tree might work, for instance, as long as the structure of its natural form is visually linked to the ground pattern and surrounding structures.

Tricking the Eye 

Trompe l’oeil is an effective way of disguising reality and introducing a theatrical feel to a limited space. The Renaissance Italians were masters at providing amusing diversions, not only in their gardens, in the form of statues, but also visual tricks painted on their walls—a tiny monkey peering through a balustrade, or someone waving from an upper window. Similar techniques can be used to add an element of fun and magic to a space visible from your home. Paint can be used in a simpler way, too.

Colored walls can bring light and vitality to the most unappealing of spaces. Painting a space outside the same color as the room from which it is seen will make a strong link between the two. The reflections from strategically placed mirrors can trick the eye, too, making a space appear larger, or lighter, or to obscure an unwanted view. Artificial lighting is an effective way of enlivening a space that is dull during the day and giving it a magical touch at night. 

Alternatives to Planting 

If growing conditions are too poor for real plants, or if the amount of space limits the number of plants you can grow, why not paint some on a wall? Alternatively, you can decorate your space with cut flowers arranged in a simply shaped container. Dried flowers can be striking, too, and can be left in situ for longer.

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