TV gardener Joe Swift knows more than most about designing small gardens, given that his own back yard in Hackney, north east London, is about 50ft x 22ft by his own reckoning.

The designer, author, broadcaster and RHS Chelsea Flower Show regular has included a lot of tips on how to make the most of a small urban space in Create Your Own Small Garden (Collins, £9.99), one of his new series of five expert gardening guides.



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“Elements like paving, boundaries, containers, furniture, water and sculpture help define its structure but the plants will always play the starring role,” he observes.

How to make a small garden look bigger

Many gardeners simply want to know how to make their small outdoor space feel bigger – so here are his tips.

1. Boost your boundary


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“Boundaries are very important in a small garden because as you walk out, you have to think what’s at eye level. If you see a brick wall or a fence in one go, you can see exactly where your garden finishes.

“Try to disguise some of it by growing climbers, tricking the eye into not quite knowing where the boundary starts and finishes. If you’ve got a nice boundary like a nice brick wall or fancy fence, leave some of it exposed, breaking it up with planting.

“But if you’ve a cheap fence or an unattractive boundary, then green it all up with climbers, which will create a lovely backdrop for everything in front of it.”

2. Go big with pots and plants


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“Most people who have small gardens think they have to put small things in them – small pots, small plants. That makes it fussy and you are much better off replacing them with one or two really big pots or a large exotic plant or small tree, depending on the size of the garden. Don’t miniaturise everything.”

3. Consider the size of your furniture

“I always go shopping with a tape measure. There are sometimes ways of combining places to sit in the garden itself. If you are building raised beds or retaining walls, try to build them around 45cm high, and generous so you can put a cushion on them.


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“Then, if you have friends round, that can double up as seating. Then you might only need to buy a table and a couple of chairs. Fold-up chairs and tables can be stacked away in winter, or stacked on a fence or wall. And don’t automatically assume your seating has to be right next to the house.

“But when you place your furniture – whether it’s on paving or gravel or decking – make the surface as generous as possible, so when you’re sitting there you don’t feel like you’re falling off it. Give yourself plenty of room around the seating area for planting, so you can envelope those seating areas.”

4. It’s OK to use large paving


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“Big slabs in small gardens work really well. I would also just stick to two surfaces. It might be stone and gravel or gravel and a deck. If you start to put too many surfaces in, it begins to look fussy and you’ll create patches which are fighting against each other.”

5. Contain your balcony

“On balconies, everything has to be grown in containers, so think about practicalities. Can you carry them up in a lift? What about compost? Are you going to sit out there? Where’s the best place to sit surrounded by your plants? Or are you just viewing it from the inside?


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“On a lot of balconies, you’ll need tough plants that can cope with wind, such as lavenders, olive trees and gleditsia or small pines, but not things like banana plants or bamboos which will dry out in pots. Ornamental grasses will grow upright, can cope with dry and will give you a bit of screening.”

6. Plant strategically

“Try to get some planting in the foreground of your garden, rather than having a hard surface that you go straight out onto, when the plants might feel like they are in the distance. I’ve got planting pockets coming right up to my window and a simple paved area, with lots of climbers and other plants, a pond and stepping stones which lead you to a secluded deck at the back of the garden. No-one would know you’re there.”

7. Add mirrors


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“Just be careful with birds, which may fly into them because they think they are a window through to next door’s garden. But I’ve put mirrors in gardens and put plants in front of them and they work really well.

“The only thing is, if you come out into your back garden and the first thing you see is a reflection of yourself, the illusion is broken! You need to angle them a little bit so that if you are looking at a mirror from the back door, you see greenery or a reflection of a pond or whatever.”

8. Use light tones

“If you use tonally light materials such as pale sandstones or light gravels rather than dark slate, and paint a fence or a wall a light colour such as off white or taupe, they can transform a shady space, making it feel less gloomy and dingy and more airy. If you allow the light to bounce around, plants really respond to it.”

9. Light up your plot

How to make a small garden look bigger
Subtle lighting can work wonders in city gardens (Alamy/PA)

“Silhouetting, where you put a light behind, say, a pot or an architectural plant to show off the shape of it, can be effective. The key in a small garden is not to overdo it. Have light grazing across the paving and hide the source of the light because you don’t want it shining in your face.

“Think about lighting a boundary, plant, surface or tree and balance it out when you are inside. In the winter, when it’s dark, you can flick a switch to subtly light different elements of the garden and suddenly you get that depth of field, which brings the garden back to life. Keep the lighting balanced in the space.”

Joe’s Expert Gardening Guides by Joe Swift are published by Collins. 

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