Choosing plants for small gardens – Andy’s top tips

By Andy McIndoe

Shrubs in pots

Most of us have a small garden to plan, plant or maintain at some time in our gardening lives. This might be your first garden, or it might be one you’ve downsized to. It might be the garden of a new property; most are small and can be challenging in terms of soil, shade and surroundings. These are the answers to a few frequently asked questions about planting small gardens.

Which tree would you choose for a small garden?

Acer palmatum 'Bloodgood'

I would recommend a Japanese maple, whether your garden is in full sun or partial shade. Acer palmatum grows well on most fertile soils, or you can grow it in a pot of loam-based compost. The purple-leaved varieties are at their best with at least four hours of direct sun a day. A Japanese maple will give you an attractive form and branch structure in winter, wonderful foliage through spring and autumn and rich autumn leaf colour. Acer palmatum ‘Bloodgood’ is a reliable favourite and will get to about 3m (10ft) in five years in ideal conditions.

What would you choose for a sunny spot on poor soil that will grow and give me some colour?

Erysimum 'Bowles Mauve'

The perennial wallflower, Erysimum ‘Bowles Mauve’ is ideal. It grows quickly to form a rounded shrublet 60cm(2ft) high with a similar spread. The spikes of purple-mauve flowers are produced from spring until late autumn. It is not a long-lived shrub but it will give great results and value for money. I would team it up with the purple sage, Salvia officinalis ‘Purpurascens’ which likes similar conditions and has lovely purple-green foliage throughout the year. Lavenders will also do well here as will the rock-roses. Helianthemum ‘Rhodanthe Carneum’ is a reliable favourite with single pink flowers with golden stamens.

Can you recommend an interesting evergreen shrub for my small courtyard garden?

If the position is reasonably sunny I would probably choose Pittosporum tenuifolium ‘Tom Thumb’. This is compact and bushy with small, shining, waved leaves that are purple-black in colour becoming more intense in winter. It makes the perfect background for a group or pot of purple tulips and in spring the shrub is covered with bright green new shoots.

Skimmia x confusa 'Kew Green'

In a shadier situation I would recommend Skimmia x confusa ‘Kew Green’. This is a male form which does not produce berries. It has bright green leaves arranged in whorls. In winter the clusters of pale green buds are highly attractive and these open to sweetly scented cream flowers with dark stamens in spring. The perfume is delicious and reminiscent of lily-of-the-valley.

Can you recommend an evergreen climber for a fence in a small garden; it gets some sun in the afternoon and evening, but not all day?

Hedera colchica 'Dentata Variegata'

The obvious choice if you are looking for an evergreen climber is an ivy; Ideally one of the large leaved varieties. However I know many gardeners are reluctant to plant them fearing potential damage to walls and fences and their invasive nature. If ivy is acceptable I recommend the cream and green variegated Hedera colchica ‘Dentata Variegata’. This is a well-behaved climber with stunning foliage that will provide all year round interest. If you are not looking for the climber to reach a great height quickly then varieties of Euonymus fortunei, such as ‘Emerald Gaiety’ and ‘Silver Queen’ are always a good choice. Usually thought of as small, spreading shrubs they do make wonderful short climbers and are particularly good in shade.

Clematis armandii 'Little White Charm'

Alternatively the evergreen clematis, Clematis armandii is a good choice, even though it grows quite vigorously. The large leaflets hang down and give good cover. I particularly like the variety ‘Little White Charm’ with its starry white sweetly scented flowers. It’s a delight in mid spring.

I have a small shady garden surrounded by other houses. What can I grow that will look good throughout the year?

The important thing to remember is to choose plants which suit the garden and the growing conditions. Remember that shade is not a disadvantage ,unless you try to grow those things that need sun. Foliage plants with a long season of interest will be the mainstays of your planting. Choose a range of plants with varied leaf shapes that will provide plenty of texture in the planting. The shining dark green leaves of sarcococca contrast with the finely cut fronds of ferns. The deep, dark foliage of Aucuba japonica ‘Rozannie’ looks almost tropical underplanted with variegated Vinca minor. In a small shady place like this you can also make the most of some real gems like epimediums with their exquisite, delicate flowers and elegantly poised foliage. These also make excellent ground cover after a while.

I have a small lawn which, despite my efforts is poor and riddled with moss and weeds. Should I start again and have it re-turfed?

Thymus serphyllum and erigeron in gravel

Lawns in small gardens are often a problem. You still need a mower and all the associated equipment and they tend to get a lot of wear and tear; even if it is only from you tending to the surrounding planting. Personally I would consider getting rid of the grass and putting down gravel or stone chippings, perhaps with some random paving stones. This can be softened by including thymes, sedums, dianthus and other mat forming plants which will give you a far more interesting area.

How do I keep my pots looking good for longer?

Group of pots in shade

Firstly choose large pots, use loam based growing media and group them together for impact. Plant most with permanent subjects: perennials and shrubs. Add a few with seasonal plants such as bulbs and summer bedding to ring the changes and add colour. Epimediums, ferns and grasses in pots grouped together can paint a wonderful picture in shade.

Andy McIndoe

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