Other people's gardens

5 tips for designing small gardens

Think big. This is the number one piece of advice for designing small courtyards or balcony gardens from garden designer Richard Unsworth, who lectured at the Royal Botanic Gardens Garden Design Series. The rookie error in designing small garden spaces is getting the scale wrong, he says. Unsworth, from Garden Life, designs big and small spaces and while scale is important in both, choosing small pots, small plants and small furniture will only make a small space appear smaller. Better to keep it simple, bold and scaled up.

“Of course, you need to understand the constraints,” he admits. “It’s no use buying a big pot or plant that you can’t get onto an apartment balcony because it won’t fit in the lift; or having a big table that you can’t get around. In fact, you might not need a table, if there is one just inside. You might be better off with a big plant in that space.”

Garden by Garden Life, photo by Nicholas Watt

In a recent design for a new apartment in Balmain, Unsworth and his team designed an oversized, square, planting box to divide the space on the large balcony. It’s painted in metallic bridge paint to match other large containers on the deck and is planted up with a softly textured mature dwarf date palm, Phoenix roebelenii, and a range of hardy succulents, with the client’s treasured Buddha nestled into the planting.

Garden by Garden Life, photo by Nicholas Watt

The cohesiveness of repeated plants and surfaces make for aesthetic harmony in a small space, but Unsworth turns his back on minimalism in favour of textural contrast in plants and pots to keep a small garden interesting. On the Balmain balcony, the feathery palm contrasts with stiff succulents and crisp-edged balloons of a cloud-pruned juniper, while the bridge-grey pots are matched with the roughness of hand-thrown terracotta and the sheen of antique brass. And because there’s no fun in minimalism for the plant collector Unsworth also likes to include a display table. “On a great table you can arrange all the plants you love in a collection of pots and tinker as much as you like.”

His take-home message for small garden owners: avoid itty-bitty gestures; make a bold scale statement; balance the hard and soft elements; and show off your treasures. Oh, and there’s one more thing – a small space garden operates on a different time scale to a large garden. A large garden grows and develops and is at its peak years after it’s planted, but that’s not the case with a small garden that just gets tired. Potted plants run out of puff or get too big for their spots and materials show wear and tear. In a small space there is nowhere to hide. So there’s only one thing for it – give yourself permission to start again!


The final lecture in this year’s RBG Garden Design Series is by Michael Bates, on June 16, Royal Automobile Club, 89 Macquarie Street, Sydney, 6.15pm, $75, Bookings: 02 9231 8182.

Photo credit: Nicholas Watt

It’s time to:

Order asparagus crowns
‘Fat Bastard’ is an irresistibly named F1 hybrid with thick juicy tasty stems. Choose a sunny position you don’t need to disturb, as an asparagus patch lasts forever. Let the crowns develop for a few seasons before starting the harvest.

Thin frangipani
Before the weather gets too cold, trim or thin the frangipani if necessary. If reducing overall size, use a sharp pruning saw to remove entire branches rather than simply lopping the ends.

Clean up cannas
Cut rusty cannas down to ground level and bin them as well as the mulch around them, which will be full of fungal spores.

Gardens light up
Vivid Sydney comes to the Royal Botanic Gardens for the first time this year, celebrating the Garden’s 200th anniversary. May 27 – June 18, 6pm-11pm, free entry.


One thought on “5 tips for designing small gardens

  1. Beautiful photos, I wish my balcony was a big as yours with an amazing view. We’ve just built a vertical herb garden on our balcony, a great way to grow herbs without sacrificing balcony space!

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