Statement plants: big drama for small gardens

by Rhiannon James


If you’ve got a small garden, there’s no need for its size to cramp your style. Big, bold and dramatic plants work well in compact urban plots, and, like statement pieces of furniture or fashion, will deliver the wow factor and help to define the overall look and tone. Seek out strong sculptural shapes, oversized leaves, striking stems or even show-stopping flowers to get the effect. The nominations from our experts for best performance for drama are:

Tetrapanax papyrifer ‘Rex’

Tetrapanx papyrifus ‘Rex’, credit:

“To create a bit of drama in a small space, one of my favourite plants is Tetrapanax papyrifer ‘Rex’ or the rice paper plant. It’s a shrub with huge, deeply-lobed, mid-green leaves that really do make you think of the jungle

We have three in a long border at The Roof Gardens and they always attract attention. As the plants get taller we will remove their lower branches so they don’t take up too much space. Although in warmer, more tropical environments these plants are evergreen, in London they are deciduous. This gives us masses of green matter for the compost heap. The shrub grows well in sun or shade and in any fertile soil. To complete the tropical look, why not plant with larger phormiums or fatsias?”

David Lewis, Head Gardener at Kensington Roof Gardens (


Echium pininana

Echium pininana, credit: Derek Harper

“Echium pininana is undoubtedly king of the tropical plants when it comes to theatrical effect and is perfect for mild seaside gardens or sheltered urban plots in the south. The first year will result in great piles of long hairy leaves. Next comes the tricky bit – getting the plants through the winter. This can be a challenge, especially if the weather is harsh, and plenty of fleece and bracken is required. The effort will pay off in the spring when huge flower spikes, up to 3.5 metres high, will erupt to the envy of your neighbours. Make sure you use at least five of these plants in a group to create the desired impact and grow them with an underplanting of Geranium maderense for a truly spectacular effect. This echium dies after flowering but will have produced copious amounts of seed which will pop up all over the garden. Sow seeds each spring to get flowers every year.”

James Aldridge, garden designer (




Dicksonia antarctica

Dicksonia antarctica, credit: Eric Hunt

“Some of the best plants for small urban courtyards are big and bold. Many city gardens are shaded by neighbouring properties and so Dicksonia antarctica, more commonly known as a tree fern, is an ideal contender for these spaces. Dicksonia are generally bought by length of trunk and look wonderful when grouped together in odd numbers. A grouping of plants that are six feet, four feet and two feet high works well and will look good with other leafy forms such as Hosta sieboldiana var. elegans, Heuchera ‘Midnight Rose’, Ligularia dentata ‘Desdemona’ and smaller herbaceous ferns such as Thelypteris decursive-pinnata, Dryopteris wallichiana, Dryopteris erythrosora and Asplenium scolopendrium to name but a few. Although it’s not a colourful scheme in the conventional sense, it offers many different shades of green and the plants will also look wonderfully sculptural when lit at night.

Tree ferns are slow growing so they require very little attention to keep them in shape. In cold gardens they will need protection over the winter to ensure that the crown of the plant is kept frost-free. This can be done quite simply by gently pushing straw into the top of the trunk where the fronds emerge and securing it in place with horticultural fleece. Like many ferns, Dicksonia do like water and they should be watered from above into the tops of their trunks. This can be done manually with a watering can or if possible with an irrigation system. Given a sheltered site and ample water Dicksonia really are pretty trouble-free and can create a really magical atmosphere in a small space.”

Kate Gould, garden designer (


Eriobotrya japonica, Phyllostachys aureosulcata f. aureocaulis and Astelia nervosa


“Huge, deeply-veined and textured leaves; fragrant white flowers in late summer and apricot-like fruits make the loquat (Eriobotrya japonica) a wonderful tree for an urban garden. If it gets too big it can easily be pruned back to a more manageable size. The more shade the tree gets, the bigger the leaves grow.

Fine green leaves and lemony young canes that mature to burnt orange and are sometimes striped at the base make up for Phyllostachys aureosulcata f. aureocaulis’ long-winded name. It will grow to about 13 feet and is great for blocking out unsightly views. To control the spread of bamboos use a root barrier from the Big Plant Nursery.

Bush flax (Astelia nervosa) has long arching foliage that forms a perfect fountain of sub-tropical greenery. This plant is a native of New Zealand and likes to grow in a cool, shady spot where the soil doesn’t completely dry out. The flowers are insignificant so grow it solely for its structure.”

Declan Buckley, garden designer (


Catalpa, Fatsia japonica and Macleaya

Catalpa, credits: H.C. Williams & Romana Klee

“I’m always in favour of bold gestures and although it seems contradictory, large-scale thinking works well in small spaces. Planting is no exception to this rule. Catalpa is one of my favourite trees and carries large enough leaves when it’s allowed to grow to its full size. In smaller gardens though, you can coppice the trees, cutting them down to ground level every one or two years. You’ll be rewarded with more stems and the individual leaves will be twice the size.

Fatsia japonica delivers a touch of the exotic with glorious glossy dark green leaves. Its globular flowers are pale and interesting in the autumn and winter and are very attractive to insects. For perennial interest try macleaya. This can achieve a height of three metres; mixing grey-green foliage (with white felted undersides) with transparent coral or orange-red plumes that tower overhead. Try Macleaya microcarpa ‘Kelway’s Coral Plume’ for good colour. The plants can be cut down to ground level in February and then their growth cycle will start again. You will need to divide the plant from time to time if space is tight.”

Andrew Wilson, garden designer, author and chief assessor for the Royal Horticultural Society (


Euphorbia mellifera

Euphorbia mellifera, credit: Tony Rodd

“Euphorbia mellifera, also known as honey spurge, is a spectacular and very architectural plant. Originally from Madeira and the Canary Islands, it has lovely apple-green foliage, an attractive shape and the most amazing honey-scented flowers that are a deep rusty colour. The scent the flowers produce in late spring is very sweet and stops you in your tracks. In late summer the dried seedpods create what I can only describe as fireworks: on a hot August day you will hear little crackling noises or mini explosions, as the seedpods burst, sending seeds out in all directions. These will germinate quite easily, enabling you to collect the seedlings to expand your collection or to give out to friends.

Euphorbia mellifera grows into quite a large plant – up to 2.5 metres high and over a metre wide. It works well on its own as a focal point or surrounded by grasses and perennials.

Although the plants are semi-hardy, they have come through the recent harsh winters in the south. They sulk a bit when the temperature drops but quickly recover afterwards. They prefer a sunny aspect and to be planted into the soil rather than into pots. As with all euphorbias, this plant has a milky sap that can be an irritant, so it’s better to prune it with gloves.

This plant has it all in my book: beauty, scent and entertainment value.”

Ana Sanchez-Martin, garden designer, (




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