This month we are looking at another aspect of gardening – how to create a garden in a small space.

When we think of gardens we think of large trees, herbaceous borders, and rolling lawns. Unfortunately, the reality of life today is that urban densification has vastly reduced the space available for traditional gardening. Money is also tight, so many are down-sizing in terms of property – and with a smaller property, you get a smaller garden. In the city, most have only a balcony or courtyard. Fortunately, in the city environment, urban planning has made space available for parks, sports fields, green belts, and green linkage points.

What to do if you have limited space available yet wish to have a garden?

With a little bit of ingenuity, a lot of imagination, and not too much hard work, you can create a beautiful outdoor living space or urban garden. This month, I would like to give you an overview of the various options and possibilities, and hopefully get your creative gardening juices flowing.

As our emphasis is on small space gardening, there are fundamentals that need to be assessed when considering the design and utilisation of the space.

What have I got?

The current reality refers to elements that you already have in your space. You will now have to decide what you want to keep, and what you want to remove. You will also need to consider the views – whether good or bad – those that look inward, as well as those looking outward. Other factors you need to assess are: available sunlight, drainage, wind direction, and water availability.

What do I like? What do I need?

Likes and needs are two very different things, and both have to be balanced with practicality. It is advisable to make a list of your likes and needs, and then figure out which are practically possible taking your current reality into account.

Once you have done this, you will easily be able to see what ideas will fit into your space, and what won’t.

Before you start – a few questions to ask

Here are a few questions to ask in order to guide your garden design:

•  Is there adequate drainage?
•  Do you want privacy – do you want to screen out your neighbours?
•  Do you have soil to plant into, or do you have to create growing spaces?
•  Are you an active gardener?
•  How accessible is the space?
•  How will you deal with the garden waste?
•  What functionality do you want to derive from the space?

I think the last question about functionality is possibly the most important as this will give you the best idea as to the best lay-out of your small space garden. It will let you know whether you’re looking to create an outside leisure area or room, or whether you just want an attractive green garden.

The other important question is  what you have available to grow your plants in – do you have soil to plant into or do you have to create growing spaces? Most small gardens have limited ground space, so it will be necessary to make use of pots and planters.You are now in a position to start developing your space.

As the most obvious small-space-high-density urban garden is the courtyard garden let’s look at this in greater depth. A courtyard garden can be a small pool and patio, a relaxing outdoor room and braai, or just a beautiful green space.

Once we’ve answered the questions, we are in a position to identify the best elements, views, wind and sun. We now have to consider plants.

As plants have varying growth habits and special requirements, it is important to have good knowledge (or a reference book) of this when considering plants for small spaces. Planting the incorrect plant could have disastrous repercussions – plant or tree roots could damage structures like retaining walls, pools, and sewers. Planting a large tree in a small space could lead to impeded root development, leaving them vulnerable to wind and thus dangerously unstable.


If you do have the space to plant a tree (whether in the ground or pot), you need to decide if you want a deciduous or evergreen tree. A deciduous tree will allow you the warmth of the sun in winter, and cooling shade in the heat of summer.  But please do bear in mind that there will be a lot of leaf litter in autumn when they lose their leaves.

As a tree is the biggest element in the space, do make sure that it is the right one, and the best possible tree. If you’re not sure, rather get professional advice from your local nursery or from a landscaper.


Shrubs are substantially smaller and will give you the base structure of your landscape. They are also instrumental in setting your theme – whether tropical, sub-tropical, formal, or informal. But even though they are a lot smaller than trees, they still do take up a lot of space. In a small courtyard, less is definitely more.

Perennials and Annuals

Perennials and annuals are the plants that make up your flowerbeds. As space is limited, consider the use of pots and planters to create small colourful accents. Using pots or containers also gives you the flexibility to move them around, giving you the option to rearrange your garden every now and then.

Another variety of plants ideally suited to small space gardening are climbers and vines as they utilise the available vertical space. These can be grown either in pots or in the ground, close to walls and other structures. Using two or three different varieties or colours along a wall will give the same feel as a well-planted herbaceous border. By making use of colour and texture you can easily create depth in a very small space.

Ground Covers

In a small space it is often far easier to use hard landscaping features for ground covering. It is advisable to rather consider paving or decking as opposed to grass. Lawn is high in maintenance and highly impractical in a small space. However, if your heart is set on the look and feel of grass, consider synthetic options.

Limited space should be seen as an exciting challenge, rather than an obstacle. There are so many options available to create a beautiful space that will suit your needs. Remember the fundamentals, and then let your imagination run wild.

Happy gardening!

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