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Small garden design secrets from Joe Swift

by Rhiannon James

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Images courtesy Jason Ingram

While Carol has her cottage garden and Monty has his manor grounds, Joe Swift is a city gardener through and through. His own garden in the east of the capital is a classic London plot with all the essentials: raised beds, built-in seating, and timber deck. His design company specialises in city spaces and given the chance to create a garden at Chelsea in 2012, he went for an “urban oasis feel”. He has written three books on urban gardening and to celebrate the reissue of the second, now called Joe’s Small Garden Handbook, he has shared his top tips on creating a stunning green sanctuary in the city.

What do great small gardens have in common?

Height is very important; I think a lot of small gardens lack interest at eye level. It’s very easy to get stuff going on below that, knee-level I call it, but you need plants that are going to give you height and potentially features or structures that are going to break things up at eye level and create interest.

Practicality is also key – a lot of people struggle because they create small spaces that are hard to maintain. Things like lawns are completely impractical. Think carefully about materials and plants and of course putting the right plant in the right place. It helps to be confident and bold in your design so if you’ve only got room for one or two separate areas then just stick with it and don’t try to cram in three or four because it all becomes a little bit fussy.

I think the other factor is privacy. In a city or suburban space you’ve often got people overlooking you. It’s very important to be able to relax in a small garden so you don’t want to feel like you’re being spied upon. This can be quite easily dealt with once you know where you want to sit and how big the seating area is, it’s quite simple to create privacy in that space.

If you had to write a simple formula for transforming a slightly neglected garden into an exciting outdoor space, what would it be?

Use one or two simple interlocking geometric shapes in the layout, looking for hard surfaces or gravels that are going to link and combine simply together. Breaking up the middle of the space with plants or structure so you don’t have all the planting around the outside of the garden is very important. Look for good choices of all-year-round planting, then plant fewer varieties but in larger quantities and try to go for a more graphic approach, just making sure everything’s really simple and confident. You can always add and supplement later – you can put more plants in, you can put pots in, you can add decoration, you can add all those things later.

If you’re only going to get one thing right in a small garden what should you choose?

The seating area: the size of the seating area, the placement of the seating area, the furniture you choose or build in. I think in a small garden, it almost becomes a fulcrum for the rest of the design.

In the book, you talk about working with tone rather than colour – can you explain?

Small gardens tend to be darker, more shaded spaces because they’ve got high boundaries, less space to play with and buildings and trees casting shade. A lot of plants and hard landscape materials can be tonally quite dark so more recently, we’ve used lighter paving materials such as sandstones and limestones and we’ve looked at painting walls and boundaries just to lighten them up. This bounces any available light around, sets the plants off and makes the garden feel like a more inviting space. This is especially important in the winter – even if you’re not going to use the garden, looking out on to something that’s full of light is just a little bit more uplifting.

If you could pass a law that would apply to all small gardens, what would it be?

Incorporate at least one very large plant. A lot of people think small garden, small plants but it’s completely the opposite. The smaller the garden, the larger the plants should be to create drama and interest.

How do you think small gardens and small garden design have changed since the book first appeared in 2008?

A criticism of the book is that there are lots of hard surfaces in the gardens and it’s all quite minimalist whereas now people are looking to combine clean, crisp design with looser, more wildlife-friendly planting. This style of planting can work in a city garden, it just depends on your personality and whether you like that relaxed look. The thing about wilder planting is that it looks great when it looks great but it can look a little bit messy at certain times of the year. I don’t mind that personally but some people might.

And looking forward, what do you think are the big changes on the horizon for urban gardening?

I think we value urban gardens more and there are more products available now to get a really good look. There are some nice large containers available, some really good furniture and generally there’s a much wider range of off-the-peg products that have a designer look but are also practical. Sustainability is also key. People are looking for plants that can cope by themselves and cope with extreme conditions as well – with the weather we’ve been having recently, who knows what’s coming round the corner? Also, there’s not the money around these days and people are looking for good economic solutions. So instead of having large areas of paving you might cleverly use mulches and chippings, plant over areas or create some stepping stones through planting.

Designers often talk about relating a country garden to its extended landscape but in the city, the setting can often be breeze blocks and bricks so what then?

It gives you an opportunity to celebrate some of these materials and relate the garden to the surrounding architecture. So you can include steel, concrete, glass and other slightly harder materials in an urban garden and it’ll feel perfectly comfortable whereas in a rural setting, it’s going to feel quite alien. I don’t think it’s worth pretending you’ve got this rural idyll in the middle of suburbia or the city. And actually, if you’re going to create a small garden with a higher proportion of hard landscaping than you’d have in a rural garden, I think that’s absolutely fine – just don’t forget the plants.

At the same time, very, very soft gardens in cities can look fantastic as well. They can be higher maintenance unless you’re really clever and block plant groundcovers under some well-chosen trees and shrubs. It will look really green and lush without the need for a lawn but also quite cool and graphic – it’s a minimalistic approach but still using plants.

You said in an interview that the idea of having a private garden is fading as properties become smaller and smaller, do you think community gardening will eventually take over and will this be a good thing?

I think being British, we all love our own private bit of land if we can get our hands on it. The problem is there are fewer and fewer people who have that privilege. I think we just have to accept that we need to build a lot more houses in this country so communal and community gardens are going to take over, which is fine. Needs must really. But good design will still be important. Some house builders are absolutely rubbish at it, they think of outdoor green space as the last thing they’re going to spend any money on and they often squeeze it out because it’s not as valuable as the property. But really clever design and clever architecture can always incorporate quality green space somewhere.

Joe’s Small Garden Handbook by Joe Swift is out now (Quadrille, £9.99)

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