Q. How can I make the most of my small front garden?

Formal geometry can bring order to a front garden, says Louisa Gilhooly

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 BEFORE

BEFORE

SIMPLE AND classic, the formal garden never goes out of fashion. Its clean lines and smart geometry hark back to the 16th-century Italian Renaissance, and the grand parterres of famous French chateaux such as those at Villandry and Versailles. Yet despite these historic beginnings, the formal style is surprisingly well-suited to modern gardens, where the same basic principles of balance, symmetry, straight lines and geometric shapes tend to be more pared back. If you’re a fan of minimalism, this style is for you!

A dreary front garden is the perfect place to start. Touches of formality can be introduced on a very small scale – a simple pair of box spirals in ornate urns, either side of the front door, creates the formal look in an instant. What’s more, the orderly layout is easy to navigate, so visitors are directed straight to the front door.

Formal gardens often have an emphasis on imposing order over nature, using a combination of geometric shapes – rectangles, circles or squares – and straight lines. Beds, borders, layouts and views can be symmetrical or asymmetrical, but must always feel balanced. (Even awkward-shaped plots can have some formality applied, as shown here.)

The strength of this style lies in the underlying framework, usually in the form of hedging, walls and paths, softened by flowers and foliage. By using lines taken directly from the house (such as aligning a path with the front door) harmony is created between house and garden.

Elements such as sculpture, a small fountain, specimen plant or attractive pot are ideal as a focal point to draw the eye. Line the feature up with sight lines from the house, such as the view from the sitting room window. In a formal garden all the elements need to relate to each other, so your focal point can become the starting point of say, a small avenue or the centre of a circular planting scheme.

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How can I grow fruit in my small garden?

Create a more productive garden space with this fruit-filled design, says Louisa Gilhooly

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You don’t need acres of land to grow your own fruit. Many fruit trees can be trained up walls or grown as miniature forms, and soft fruit can be grown in pots on the patio. Even the smallest back garden can provide its owner with fruit all year round, space for relaxation and nectar-rich flowers for wildlife.

This design aims to create an attractive cottage-style garden using plants that are ornamental as well as edible. It centres on a working/sitting area, surrounded by fruiting and flowering plants that spill over onto the pathways. Functionality is key and here the different levels of the existing space offer the perfect opportunity for raised planters. The tiny lawn has been replaced with four small beds separated by brick paths and the shed moved to provide an extra vertical growing area in sun. Decorative obelisks will support climbing plants such as gourds or sweetpeas for cutting.

If allowed to grow naturally, most fruit trees will easily become too tall for most small gardens. To overcome the problem, choose trees grafted onto dwarfing rootstocks, which have a more compact habit. These generally grow to around 2m (6ft), or smaller if grown in a pot. You need M27 rootstock for a tiny apple tree, Quince C for pear, Gisela 5 for cherry and Pixy for plum.

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Small fruit trees and shrubs will happily grow in pots on a patio. Blueberries intensely dislike alkaline soil, but will grow happily in a tub of ericaceous compost; ‘Top Hat’ and ‘Nelson’ are both self-fertile. Tender plants such as small citrus trees can be taken inside in their pots to protect them from frosts. The lemon ‘Meyer’ is a compact, reliable form.

Growth is restricted by growing in pots, allowing you to grow monsters such as this ‘Brown Turkey’ fig. Underplant a standard potted fruit tree with low-growing herbs or annuals.

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Create a seating area A sheltered seating area with a rustic table and mis-matched chairs provides an area to enjoy homegrown meals as well as an outdoor potting table

Plant cordons on the slant These plum trees are trained into a single stem and lean at 30-45 degrees. Plant them in sequence, 75cm-1m apart (29-39in), so the repetition is visually appealing and helps to add a more ‘designed’ feel to the garden. Restricting their growth also results in more fruit. Here I’d use plums ‘Czar’ and ‘Blue Tit’ and the gage 'Denniston's Superb’ against the rear fence.

Train a fan or two Here the fences and the side of the shed have been clothed with fruit trees that have been coaxed into specific shapes to save space and encourage fruiting. A fan shape is best for peaches, apricots and cherries. Espaliers (an elegant structure of horizontal tiers) are best for apples, pears and figs.

Plant stepovers A stepover is a tiny hedge (technically a single-tiered espalier trained into horizontal stems 30cm/12in high) grown along the border edge. They’re usually an apple or pear tree on dwarfing rootsock; buy one ready-trained or prune it into shape. Here I’ve used apples ‘Egremont Russet’, ‘Greensleeves’, Scrumptious’ and ‘Katy’, and pears ‘Concorde’, ‘Beth’, ‘Doyenne du Comice’ and ‘Invincible’ as low 'stepovers’ – a selection that ensures pollination.

Bring in pollinators Annual flower mixes allow you to change the look of your garden each year and will help encourage bees, butterflies and other beneficial insects into the garden. For a cottage garden feel, try cosmos, zinnias, foxgloves, poppies and borage.

Edge borders with strawberries Alpine strawberries are tolerant of partial shade, the fruits are not as large or sweet as the cultivated fruits, but they are very pretty. Use them at the front of the border, lining the edge of a path, or spilling over the edges of a large container.

Grow your own Pimms! This bed in full sun is lined with strawberries ‘Cambridge Favourite’ and ‘Honeoye’. Cucumber ‘Tokyo Slicer’ and apple mint (Mentha suaveolens) grown nearby provide all you need for a classic summer drink

Add a sun-loving grape Grape vines need a warm, sunny, sheltered site such as this south facing fence. The strawberry grapevine ‘Fragola’ has attractive foliage as well as delicious fruits.

Find space for a small crab apple Most crab apples are perfect for small gardens. In late spring malus ‘Red Sentinel’ has pretty, scented, single white flowers, followed in autumn by clusters of cherry-like, glossy, deep red fruits that persist well into winter… or if you prefer, made into jelly.

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Q. How can I welcome more butterflies into my garden?

Do your bit to help our most colourful pollinators by planting their favourite flowers and foodplants, says Dawn Isaac

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BUTTERFLIES are the fabulous divas of the insect world, but like all divas they’re fussy about their needs. They can only fly when the weather’s warm enough, so you need to provide them with a sunny spot. Their wings can also be damaged in strong winds, so it needs to be sheltered too.If this only applies to a section of your garden, you can always develop a small butterfly border within the larger space, using dark-coloured ‘sunbathing’ rocks and manmade butterfly puddles as well as the most important element: plants.
Don’t forget that butterflies are only the final stage in a lifecycle that begins with eggs and caterpillars. This means that a complete butterfly garden needs to include not only nectar plants for the adults but also plant species that feed the early caterpillar stages too.
But don’t worry: although many of these plants are considered weeds (such as nettles and thistles) there are plenty of alternative, better-behaved sources of food that you can grow instead (see below).

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Q. How can I create privacy in my small suburban garden?

Trees can create a leafy look that’s perfect if you’re overlooked, says Dawn Isaac 

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Trees are the answer to hiding your garden from interested neighbours; you can plant a few smaller, multi-stem specimens in all but the tiniest garden, creating a mini woodland effect. The key ingredient is patience. As the Chinese proverb says: ‘The best time to plant a tree is 20 years ago. The second best time is now.’ But don't be downhearted. You may already have some established trees that you can add to and plant around. And even if you have an empty plot like this one here, it's encouraging to remember that the younger trees are planted, the better they establish and the faster they’ll grow.
There’s more good news too: woodland gardens tend to be light on the hard landscaping, which means you can avoid the most expensive part of any garden build. Once established, they’re also relatively easy to maintain, provided you mulch well to retain moisture and keep the soil well fed.
Of course the trick is to get the planting right. Start by building up layers, with the top tree canopy underplanted with smaller trees and shrubs, and a low woodland floor layer growing beneath everything else. To break up a green fog of leaves, scatter in some changes of texture and inject some colour. This is relatively easy in late winter and spring as there are legions of bulbs pre-programmed to do their thing before the tree canopy steals the light. For summer and autumn, use the shade-loving perennials listed overleaf. 

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THE PROBLEMS
1 Bare walls make the garden seem boxy and hemmed in
2 Lack of planting means there’s no seasonal interest or colour
3 Absence of trees and tall plants means the garden is overlooked
4 Without plants the entire garden can be seen all at once
5 Large neighbouring house wall is a bit of an eyesore

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THE SOLUTION
By introducing trees and shrubs the garden immediately enjoys more privacy, shade and shelter. These leafy plants create habitats for wildlife and can bring seasonal flowers and berries for colour and fragrance. By planting in layers there’s interest at different levels with plenty to look at and explore.

Frame the entrance Made from peeled oak sections, this rustic arch marks the entrance to the woodland path 

Exploit reflected light The pale colour of this gravel reflects light and makes the path easier to see and navigate. It’s also easier to walk on than bark chippings

Mulch beds Tree roots are greedy for food and water, so mulching beds with organic matter in spring or autumn helps all plants to thrive

Add multi-stemmed trees When a tree produces multiple trunks its energies are diverted, leading to a smaller tree. This makes them ideal for a small garden

Create layers of planting Smaller trees and woodland shrubs create a lower layer beneath the upper canopy, and shade-tolerant species will cover the woodland floor below

Choose a wooden seat A simple seat made from logs and wooden planks fits with the theme perfectly, offering a vantage point to sit and enjoy the garden

Stack up some stumps A pile of cut tree trunks creates both an attractive garden feature and a perfect wildlife habitat in the form of a simple stumpery

Soften the hard edges The hardness of the brick wall has been visually softened by growing an ivy to cover it. This can also be used to clothe the fencing, making the boundaires disappear

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Q. How can I enjoy Japanese tranquility in my garden?

Dawn Isaac brings Oriental flavour to a new suburban plot.

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Traditional Japanese gardens are one of the hardest to create. Every part of them is carefully thought out and planned to reflect a philosophical or aesthetic quality. Of course you could study the art of Japanese garden design and try doggedly to learn all the rules and nuances of the various styles, but this might take years. Instead, throw your hands up and declare you are simply looking for some Japanese inspiration! This way you can take elements that work for you and adapt others to suit your own taste.
For most of us it’s about creating a garden that’s serene and soothing; a space that encourages you to sit and contemplate. A Japanese garden is restrained in its colour palette, and mostly populated with evergreens such as conifers, as well as flowering shrubs, forest perennials, sedges and mosses. If you carefully place these alongside rocks and water, you can create the mini landscapes and picturesque tableaus so reminiscent of Japan. Add to this a teahouse-style garden building, Japanese bridge and lanterns, and the result can look very authentic.

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THE PROBLEM
1. Bare fences and house walls create a hemmed-in feel
2. Lack of planting means there's no interest
3. You can see the garden all at once so there are no surprises


THE SOLUTION

Cloud Pruning
Train trees and shrubs to create clouds of soft foliage floating in the garden with this ancient Japanese technique.

Micro Landscapes
Large, well-worn rocks, mosses and sedges create the micro landscapes and picturesque tableaus reminiscent of Japan.

Teahouse
A garden building which takes its inspiration from the traditional Japanese teahouse adds an authentic feel and forms a focal point for the garden.

Dry Lake
This feature, complete with small islands, is created from gravel that is raked to imitate the flowing movement of water.

Single-rail Bridge
The narrowest point of the dry lake is crossed by a Japanese single-rail bridge, traditionally painted red, but just as commonly left a natural wood colour.

Bamboo Screening
Bamboo or reed screening help mask modern fences and adds an 'instant' Japanese flavour to the boundaries.

Water Feature
A bamboo deer scarer gives a regular hollow knocking sound that complements the serenity of the garden.

Cherry Trees
Flowering cherry trees create a stunning cherry blossom display in springtime, whilst adding a serene and soothing feel to the space.

Stone Lanterns
There are many styles of Japanese lantern, each designed for a different purpose and effect in the garden.
 

Q. How can I give my garden a tropical feel?

Bold planting can transport your plot to the tropics, says Dawn Isaac

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We might not have the hot and humid climate of a tropical rainforest, but it is still possible to conjure up a jungle-inspired design in a British back garden. Set the tone with bamboo or rattan furniture as well as log paths: the materials to hand in a tropical landscape. However if you want longer lasting features you can go for imitation or synthetic versions which are better able to survive our cold and wet weather.
But the most vital element by far is the planting. A lush tropical feel demands large leaves and lots of them. Thankfully many exotic looking plants are hardy enough to withstand our climate.  In filling your borders it is also worth making sure you have evergreens aplenty so your carefully layered beds not denuded in winter.
Colour is less important to the overall look, but you can inject some with shade tolerant species, or by adding splashes of flowering plants in more open areas. If these are grown in pots, you can even introduce some truly exotic species that can then be overwintered in a conservatory or greenhouse.

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THE PROBLEM
1. Bare walls and fences give a hemmed in look
2. Lack of plants means there are no seasonal surprises
3. There's nothing to hide the neighbouring houses
4. Although the garden seems spacious, you can see it all at once

 

THE SOLUTION


Upper canopy
Birch trees help mask neighbouring properties whilst also providing a light shade upper canopy to create a forest feel to the garden

Tropical hideaway
A thatched roof hut creates a jungle themed dining area and a focal point in the forest 'clearing'

Foliage rich planting
Large leaved foliage plants creates a lush tropical feel, with deciduous, tender plants balanced with hardier evergreens

Log sections
Reconstituted stone stepping stones replicating cut logs creates a hardwearing path feature set amongst gravel

Meandering paths
Curving paths create a sense of discovery as new views open up around each corner

Bamboo bridge
Large leaved water lilies cover a circular pond which is crossed by a wooden bridge with bamboo balustrades.

Suspended seat
Rattan effect furniture creates a tropical feel whilst being hard wearing and a hanging chairscreates an additional relaxed holiday feel to the space.  

Water feature
A water shoot delivered via a large bamboo stem brings jungle-inspired sights and sounds into the garden


Top 10 Plants for a Tropical Look

Acanthus mollis - Bear's breeches forms an enormous architectural plant with large glossy leaves up to a metre in length and tall summer flower spikes of white blossoms hooded by purple bracts. Height 1.5m, spread 90cm.

Hedychium gardnerianum - one of the hardiest ginger lilies, this has dramatic foliage reminiscent of banana plants and then a giant spike of sweetly scented flower in late summer and early autumn. Needs winter protection. Height 1.5m, spread 1m.

Musa basjoo - the hardiest of banana plants with dramatic paddle-shaped leaves up to 3m in length. Requires winter protection for its foliage and crown. Height 5m, spread 4m.

Fatsia japonica - a useful evergreen shrub with glossy dark green palmate leaves and unusual rounded flower spikes in autumn. Needs some protection in cold areas. Height and spread 4m.

Trachycarpus fortunei - The Chusan Palm has large and distinctive fan-shaped leaves and a dark brown fibrous trunk. Will take full sun or part shade but needs winter protection from hard frosts. Height 20m, spread 2.5m.

Crocosmia 'Lucifer' - Sword shaped leaves give rise to arching red flowers in August and September that add a dash of hot colour. Can take partial shade. Height 1m, spread 80cm.

Asplenium scolopendrium - This hardy evergreen fern with its wavy edged frond is useful to grow in shady and even dry spots (when established). Height and spread 60cm.

Polypodium vulgare - an evergreen fern native to Britain which will happily colonise areas under trees where other plants may struggle. Height 30cm, spread 1m.

Hosta 'Sum & Substance' - a yellow-green hosta with enormous corrugated leaves and pale lilac flower spikes in summer. Height 75cm, spread 1.2m.

Dicksonia antarctica - a tree-like fern with roots forming a trunk and tough, long fronds. Trunk and crown needs to be well watered in growing season and the crown protected in winter. Height 6m, spread 4m.

 

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Q. How can I give my new garden some seaside character?

Newbuild gardens present a wonderful blank canvas... but sometimes it helps to introduce a theme to help you get started, says Dawn Isaac

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Fans of the great British coastline will find it relatively easy to recreate this look in their own back garden. A sunny spot will always work best as this will suit most coastal-style plants but as long as your space is relatively light and bright it's really about choosing the right materials.
Stone, shingle and even sand can be teamed with decking, sleepers and rope to immediately set the right tone. Sheds can become beach huts with a little effort and firepits and hammocks will automatically take on a seaside feel when set against this backdrop. Add in some ornamental grasses, glaucous evergreens and colourful Mediterranean or coastal plants to finish the look.

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THE PROBLEMS
1 This typical newbuild garden is just laid to lawn
2 Nothing invites you into the garden
3 Lack of stimulating space for relaxation or play
4 Bare walls and fences create a boxed-in feel

 

THE SOLUTION
Splitting the garden into distinct areas for relaxing and entertaining makes the space immediately more interesting and useful. A large pond in the centre gives a waterside feel, offering reflections of plants and sky. Decking creates a jetty-type feel beside the water, offering spaces to pond dip and relax by the beach hut in the far corner.

Add sculptural sleepers - Railway sleepers used as upright sculptures or windbreaks offer an accessible alternative to driftwood

Paint the shed to make a seaside hut - An off the shelf shed can soon be turned into a beach hut with clever use of woodstains, well placed shutters and a length of two of bunting

Add grasses - Recreate the grass-peppered look of sand dunes by introducing plenty of ornamental species around the garden

Create a waterside deck - If you have oodles of space and plenty of budget you could consider adding a swimming pond, but even an ordinary pond can get a beach-side feel when teamed with a projecting decked area

Make an urban beach - Import plenty of fine play sand to a geotextile-lined area to create an urban beach. If visiting cats are a worry, you can cover the area in sections of artificial turf when not in use

Entertain around a firepit - No beach party is complete with a sing-along around a fire so add a firepit and rope ottomans to set the mood

Add posts and rope - Edging the decked area in posts with rope swags evokes waterside

Laze in a hammock - Enjoy lazy summer days on a hammock set amongst the planting

Lay stones and gravel - Plant coastal style species through a geotextile membrane and add shingle and stones on top to give a beach feel to the garden

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Q. How can I create more privacy in the garden?

Slatted screens, hedges and transparent grasses will avert the gaze of neighbours and passersby, without spoiling your view, says Dawn Isaac

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We might love our neighbours, be naturally gregarious and like nothing more than a chat, but none of us wants to feel we’re on show the moment we set foot in our garden. At the same time, if you have a lovely view, or much needed light, then erecting six foot high walls is going to rob you of these delights. 

There is of course a compromise. You can use plenty of designer tricks to create a sense of privacy without feeling like you're trapped in Colditz. Planting can create enclosures and screening at the same time as adding colour and form, and even filtering out some wind. Structures and clipped forms can direct and distract prying eyes while well-placed boundary structures can add to a sense of security and privacy.

Problems

1. Featureless concrete paving bank

2. No gate at front

3. Garden wide open to footpath users

4. Bins and washing on view

 The solution

Train pleached trees - It takes time and skill but pleaching fruit trees can create a high screen between neighbours that is also a productive one

Use distraction planting - Swapping paving for planting on the slope will attract the eye of passers by and keep them on the bank rather than the garden or house

Plant a screen of grasses - Tall grasses such as miscanthus, Stipa gigantea or Calamagrostis creates a fluid and semi transparent screen for most of the year

Grow multi-height hedges - A low hedge at the centre ensures the view can still be enjoyed from the house but by increasing height at the side a private seating area is created behind

Add a pergola with side slats - As well as providing screening from above, pergolas can also provide screening at the side either with outdoor curtains or trellis panels as used here

Gate the entrance A delicate iron work gate marks the entrance and gives an added sense of privacy and security without feeling heavy and obstructive

Hide the bins - No one needs to see you popping out the rubbish so delicate overhead beams and a trellis screen mask this area from view

Add gentle noise - A water feature and wind chimes add sounds to the garden which help camouflage conversations and make people feel less audibly on show

Plant a small tree - It takes time to have an impact but planting a spreading tree will eventually screen off whole areas from outside view as well as creating private spaces beneath the boughs

Window plants - Planting around the house windows makes them less visually obvious and so reduces the temptation for passers by to peer inside

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