Small spa­ces and their un­lim­ited pos­si­bil­i­ties

The Daily Telegraph - Gardening - - Garden Design -

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.

Mass ap­peal

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.

Step up

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

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