Small spaces and their unlimited possibilities
Dutch designers have a creative approach to small urban gardens says Noel Kingsbury in his latest book
Most of the gardens featured in
by Noel Kingsbury (see offer below) are less than 100 sq m and many are in the Netherlands where the country’s high population density means outdoor space is limited. However, Dutch garden designers are adept at devising practical, imaginative solutions to transform unpromising town gardens into green oases. This excerpt looks at how to distract the eye from grey surroundings.
Large country gardens often “borrow” trees and other aspects of the landscape from their surroundings, but what if your plot is adjacent to buildings and structures that you do not want to see and would rather shut out? Screening is sometimes possible, but often not. In this situation, the best solution is to focus attention inwards. Conventional gardens have a tendency to do this, with planting around the edge of a lawn, but there are other, more interesting ways of directing the focus.
Encouraging the eye to stay within the bounds of the garden requires something to look at. There are two approaches here: one based on “space”, the other on its opposite, “mass”. The “space” solution is often seen in gardens where a sculpture or some other object of artistic interest is placed in the central area. Another, more subtle alternative, is to design a pattern of circular paving or other ground treatment that pulls the eye inwards. A pool or water feature is another option, and a very good one, since water has a powerful attraction. Garden makers are often too cautious and limit the size, but a large pool in a small garden can be a good way of making a dramatic and relatively low-maintenance focal point. Planting can also play a role in drawing attention inwards. Using contemporary, almost meadow-style planting, intermingled with lowerlevel grasses and perennials, provides a visual richness of colour and texture and offers a continual delight, not least because of the range of insects and birds that it attracts.
More radically, the centre of the garden can be filled with “mass” instead of “space”. Many gardeners want to fill their gardens with plants, which is a viable and often desirable solution. The question is, and it is a very personal one, how many plants should you include and how big should they be?
One idea is to fill the garden with perennials and shrubs and design a path between them – the experience will be one of penetrating a jungle where there is no distant or mediumrange view. This idea may go against the instincts of many designers. But for those who love plants, it is an exciting proposition and by packing as much as possible into a small space, it represents one of the most effective design tricks.
A similar but less overwhelming idea is to use planting that is under shoulder height, which provides plenty for visitors to see but reduces the feeling of claustrophobia.
A great advantage of planting a small garden so fully is that it makes the experience truly immersive.
Interest the feet
Just as the eyes should be kept busy, entertained, and stimulated, so should the feet. Designers of traditional Japanese gardens deliberately changed path surfaces every now and again in order to alter the walking experience. Doing this too often militates against the “less is more” philosophy, but it is worth bearing in mind as a technique.
Other techniques that slow the pace and make us pay attention include breaking up paths and routes. The perpendicular perspective of Western classical design is unhelpful – straight paths show us exactly where we are going, and take us directly there – boring! Breaking a path so it suddenly changes direction delays the journey, making us look in a different direction and, in doing so, see and experience different things. A straight path can be broken in two and given a kink part of the way. Even more effective is the Chinese idea of the staggered path that reaches its destination by forcing the walker to change direction often.
Many designers include different levels to heighten the drama in small spaces. Steep, narrow steps convey a sense of speed, while wide, low steps slow the pace. Even if a change in level is not strictly necessary, a step has the same effect as a change in direction – it slows us and enriches our experience. Just a 4in drop from one area of the garden to the next will produce a