Occasionally, TV viewers have pointed out to me — not always kindly — that my own garden looks too large to have any relevance to an ‘ordinary’ garden.
In fact, the first thing visitors invariably say is that my plot is much smaller than they had imagined from seeing it on screen.
But I take the point that most people live in towns and suburbs where space is at a premium, so most gardens are small — and, with the population increasing, are likely to keep getting smaller.
However, the smallest garden can be as rewarding as the largest, and is doubly precious as everything in it is treasured and noticed daily. With careful planning and plant selection, it can be extraordinarily powerful and fulfilling, whatever expectations you have for it.
I know of large gardens that are rather empty and tiny ones that are fascinating and deeply satisfying to be in. And elements can be taken from any plot, of any shape or size, and applied to our own. It might be a plant combination, the way a set of steps are made or a climber trained.
Last summer, I visited a couple of neighbours who had decided to merge their front gardens into one. What was fascinating was not so much their planting scheme, but the way they were surrendering their own spaces.
A front garden is always semi-public, but also a statement about you and your household.
All too often they are dominated by a car, parked where plants used to be, with just room for a path to the front door.
Back gardens, though, are invariably different and much more private and personal.
One of the two houses with the shared plot in Oxford had a little back garden with a single seat at its centre, sitting on a patch of uncut lawn.
Shrubs sprawled around it and flowers bloomed freely in unruly, unweeded borders. The owner apologised for the lack of tidiness, but I thought it was lovely.
This was a truly private refuge that she did not have to share with anyone else. She had worked out exactly what she wanted from her tiny patch and had not been diverted by a conventional concept of a ‘good’ garden.
Though it might have looked untended, I realised it was very carefully maintained to look and be just as it was. So, to my mind, it was a successful small garden.
Of course, this would not suit everyone, but that doesn’t matter. The moral of the story is to make your back garden, however tiny, into your own delightful haven. I hope these pages will help you to achieve just that.
Have one big idea - and stick to it
The first and most important decision when making the small garden of your dreams is knowing what to leave out. Small spaces can do some things very well indeed, but they can never do everything.
The danger is that if you attempt to cram too many different ideas, plants, areas or functions into a small garden, none of them works in their own right and the whole thing becomes a mishmash.
Keep it simple. One clear idea done well works far better than a clutter. By far the most successful small gardens do one thing very well.
If sitting outside reading a book in the garden is your idea of heaven, then base the whole design around that dream.
If you wish to eat and entertain outside, then make the seating area big enough for a table and work around that.
If you collect plants of a certain type, then make the garden ideal for them.
If your children need somewhere to play, then you are going to have to compromise on precious plants. And so it goes.
Call it compromise or call it editing, as I do, it means being clear, making decisions and sticking to them.
This applies to borders as well. Work out the effect you are trying to achieve, be it a riot of herbaceous perennials, the cool sensuality of grasses or a working veg patch and focus on that.
It is also easier and less stressful to look after such a garden because everything can be geared in one direction.
This is not to say that you cannot have variety and surprise. In fact, not to do so would be boring. But they should work around this core theme or idea rather than compete with it.
I would also suggest that a small garden is best working towards a lot of seasonal changes that follow in sequence rather than changes occurring in parallel. Plant for all four dimensions: height, breadth, depth and time.
Use bulbs, annuals, climbers with good foliage as well as flowers — anything to extend the temporal range of display within the garden and thus maximise the potential of the limited space.
GO WITH THE FLOW
Certain rules apply to all gardens, however big or small they may be. The most important is not to fight nature.
Soil, climate and situation will dictate much of your planting for you. Grow what wants to grow. Choose the plants that will thrive in your immediate neighbourhood. If you are not sure what they might be then look around.
See what is growing well in your street. It will not be happening by chance. Remember, it is not what you do but how you do it that makes things look good.