A lot of garden owners tend to describe their gardens as modest in size.

This is because many of them compare their garden to the large, ornamental gardens that can be found in parks, public spaces, mansions and other places.

They do not realize that compared to some tiny, urban gardens, their gardens are in fact extensive.

In some crowded city spaces, one can only have a garden in a balcony, and the garden could be as small as 2 x 3 m.

These long, narrow garden projects are quite difficult to manage for landscape architects. Options are limited in a small garden design.

A journey into the basic concepts of garden design

Small gardens are inflexible and involve a lot of strategizing to maximize the limited space available.  

Usually, gardens are private spaces for relaxation and meditation. But in densely populated urban regions, gardens lack privacy as they are surrounded by other buildings.

Their surroundings also make them susceptible to air pollution. So, a landscape architect needs to be crafty to make the best of a small garden design.

It is possible to retain beauty and create a relaxing atmosphere in a small garden. There will need to be a lot of intense planning and modification.

As rural-urban migration increased and gardens became smaller, landscape architects had to come up with various creative garden designs to meet the need of clients that had small garden projects. They had to make a lot of redesigns and change a lot in gardening, different from the way things were previously done.

Thanks to their creative designs, modern landscape architects achieved a higher square meter rate than previously obtained for gardens.

They came up with intricate designs and introduced new elements that created more space in a confined garden and made the small gardens easy to navigate and tend.

These gardens might be small, but they can cost a lot more than you think.

Every small garden is limited in size. To make the small garden project a success, the most important skill a landscape architect can employ is space management.

All resources must be spent appropriately with space management the most important factor to be considered.

With proper planning and creative design, one can add design elements like little sculptures and others in a small garden.

The small garden design must also be flexible to accommodate as many elements as possible.

A landscape architect must be realistic and accept that some things found in a traditional garden can never fit in in a small garden no matter how well space is managed.

For example, a dining table to sit four people can’t work in a small garden. Some landscape architects try to make some garden elements smaller to fit them in a garden, but they end up creating a claustrophobic atmosphere. 

The best thing to do is to insert the unimportant elements after the major elements have been inserted.

A small garden design should not be planned to fit in a dining table or another large element. The large elements must be fitted in if possible after the design is complete.

Options must be limited, and chaos must be avoided as much as possible. Sculptures, materials used, furniture and other things must follow this principle.

Through this, some talented landscape architects have managed to insert some otherwise impossible elements into gardens.

To accommodate various elements, there must be a lot of flexibility as earlier explained. Also, a landscape architect must be as realistic as possible and do away with any element that won’t fit in.

Previously, the goal was to insert as many plants as possible in a garden. Then, landscape architects combined a few plants from almost all the species in a garden.

But now, a few species of plants are selected. The selected plants are then maximized as much as possible, creating a clear and well-defined structure.

This also creates a spacious feeling in the garden. By using as little plants as possible, the garden retains an elegant feel.

The landscape architect must take wise decisions and select the best plants for the garden. Consociation must be done wisely.

Consociation involves allowing various plants to grow together and efficiently in a garden in a way that they complement each other perfectly.

The right blend of plants must be selected and planted in a way that they don’t look suffocating.

A landscape architect can combine perennials like centaur, astronaut and sage together. Also, herbaceous plants can be combined with bulbous plants.

Homeowners want all-year gardens where plants are in bloom all through the year. This could be quite difficult to have in a small garden design.

To accomplish this, the limited number of species must be increased to accommodate plants that can grow in all four seasons. It could disrupt the simple, elegant plan originally in place before.

In a small garden, care must be taken to have at least one or two plants per species. The plants must all match each other visually.

One could make a compromise and plan for three seasons instead of four as the limited garden space may not be adequate for four seasons.

A landscape architect could plant perennials and then add flowerbeds and annual plants in containers.

The plants in these flowerpots could be changed seasonally making for a refreshing garden look every season.

The growth of the small gardens in urban areas has forced landscape architects to rethink their designs and come up with new innovative designs.

Climate change is now a factor that landscape architects have to reckon with.

They must be forced to innovate to accommodate the changing climate.

A journey into the basic concepts of garden design

Landscape or gardening innovation must be continuous, and all landscape architects must innovate and change their styles to match new weather conditions.  

New habitats emerge, and landscape architects must plan for these new habitats accordingly.

Landscape architects must continually study climate change and how it applies to various habitats. New combinations must be formulated, and flexibility in garden designs must increase. There is no better period for innovation as a landscape architect than now.


For many owners of small gardens, even the most insignificant corner is an opportunity to gather, cultivate and observe as many plants as possible. In fact, for the garden-dependent, the golden rule is “a specimen of everything”.

We can understand this: the discovery of unusual or unknown treasures always has a remarkable charm.

The variety of plants that can be crammed even in the most cramped spaces is amazing, and can be a real challenge.

However, design is also a question of consistency, structure, organization and visual readability.

In this type of garden, therefore, the materials, the furnishings and the ornaments will respect this rule, so as to show off the vegetable cornucopia in the best possible way.

Using a single material for pots and containers can be a good start.

Even the use of a simple flooring, which uses no more than two materials, will create an excellent background to highlight the chromatic or morphological variety of flowers and leaves.

By choosing dark stones like slate, you will gain greater visibility to the green of the foliage.

Besides creating a much more evocative and interesting atmosphere, it will also be possible to create the illusion of a larger garden.

Walls or partition fences covered with vines will further contribute to the purpose. Without a clear perception of borders, in fact, it will be more difficult to understand where exactly the garden ends.

Moreover, dark materials introduce deeper and more interesting shadows, and the use of trellises, fences or panels in these shades will visually enhance the space. By placing the larger and more scenic foliage plants in the foreground and the smaller ones near the perimeter, you will achieve a greater depth effect, making the garden much more intriguing.

The space for relaxation and sociability, probably, will be a secondary requirement, subordinated to the “cult” of the plants, even if the introduction of seats or benches will allow the garden-employee to feel one with its environment, plunging in nature that loves so much.


For some garden owners, the plants are a necessary burden, which forces them to laborious maintenance work; what matters most to them is the pleasure of sharing life outdoors with friends and family.

The small garden then represents a social opportunity: a place to eat and drink, to watch the sunset and the lights of the city with a drink or a beer in hand.

While the garden-employee will work in its own green space, this second type will do it elsewhere: more than the realm of plants, the garden is a background for its recreational activities.

In this case, therefore, the focus will be on the floors, designed to accommodate tables and chairs, a barbecue and maybe a tent or a pergola for shade and privacy.

The water will be included to create sound and movement, balancing the noise of the city if necessary.

And while lighting will be essential to use the garden even after sunset, the plant will be simple and easy to maintain.

Some may even consider spaces totally devoid of vegetation, treating the garden as a sort of outdoor room and optimizing the use of space.


While the garden-employee masks the boundaries to create visual depth, the social gardener adores the architecture of space.

We will therefore need more attention to the materials used, the quality and finish of the floors and other structures. In a small space, all connections, joints and surfaces will be more visible, and the possibility of containing expenses or masking some particular inconvenience will be less.

Compared to the previous one, this type of garden is more expensive.

Plants are cheaper than floors and structures, and easier to manage even by amateurs; here, however, a skilled labor force will probably be needed.

Light surfaces such as limestone will be favored, creating a sense of space by simplifying and expanding paved areas, and wooden platforms, which take advantage of the long horizontal lines of the slats to enhance the depth.

As for the plant, clear and defined blocks of vegetation, such as herbaceous plants or bamboo, will be used to reflect or filter the light, while the creepers will be used to create green walls without occupying too much surface on the ground.


The designer must know how to capture these different traits in his clients, but must also understand the functional needs of the garden, be it gardening, leisure, children’s play or sun worship. If you are not a professional and want to take care of yourself, take the time to evaluate your needs and your lifestyle.

Be objective and meticulous, because the character and quality of the garden will depend on these first decisions.

Although each garden is a separate case, there are common problems and concerns that can be solved with ease.

Unless a minimal space is desired, the green areas should be as large as possible, to create a good sense of depth, allow a good distribution of the plants and allow light to penetrate between the various forms.

If you choose large flower beds, with compact masses of vegetation, the plants will behave as one in the wind and in the light, creating a very different effect compared to mixed and variegated flower beds.

This approach, however, requires a good amount of space to be effective. A generous vegetation will also allow to mask the most unpleasant corners or borders.

A typical problem of small urban spaces is that often only one or two sides of the perimeter belong to a single owner.

A uniform choice for materials and finishes is therefore very difficult, unless the neighbors are not willing to agree.

Plants, especially creepers and wall shrubs, can serve to harmonize space or create a more coherent approach.

In this way, a square or rectangular lot can become a very different spatial experience. The taller plants and hedges will bring vertical emphasis to the garden, but could give rise to controversy with neighbors.

Ask about the laws in force. Level changes in the form of steps always create greater visual interest, but in tight spaces they can be difficult to incorporate and potentially dangerous.

As a rule, it is always better to foresee more than one, since only one step can easily go unnoticed, especially in summer, when the shadows are shorter.

Two or three steps will make the unevenness of the pavement more evident.

When space is limited, however, a similar drop (minimum 30 cm) may not be obtainable. It is therefore important to draw attention to the presence of steps in another way, for example by changing material for the entire ramp or for one of the levels.

Lighting is also useful for this purpose: lights embedded in the steps illuminate the pitch and solve the problem of safety, creating a pleasant scenographic effect.

Flowerbeds and raised containers are often associated with small gardens.

They confer architectural quality to the space and help keep the plants tidy, keeping the walkable surfaces clean.

Furthermore, if the container wall reaches 45 cm in height, it can also act as a seat. However, raised beds can create aridity problems because they dry out quickly due to wind and evaporation.

Even the materials used in the construction can absorb moisture from the ground, and the plants will suffer, never reaching the desired height or luxuriance.

Again, the solution lies in its dimensions. Increasing the surface of the containers as much as possible will allow a greater absorption of rainwater.

Irrigation is also useful, but we must remember to consider it among the extra costs in the design and construction phase.

It is always better to predict it in the original project than to add it later.

Some systems are based on rechargeable tanks embedded in the container, a preferable solution to the pipes, which require connections between one and the other bed.

Raised containers are particularly suitable for urban gardens, but it is important to pay attention to the walls against which they rest, because they risk creating infiltrations.

If the boundary wall is autonomous, usually the problem does not exist, but when it is part of a building, water can penetrate the waterproof protection and reach the structure.

It is important to remember that gardens are not islands, but are connected to everything around them.

The actions that take place in one’s own space can have consequences on that of others.

It is always good to remember that plants can also be chosen according to the height and shape they will reach; this means that sometimes you can give up the additional height given by the containers, thus also containing the expenses.

The cost per square meter of small urban gardens, in fact, will always be greater than similar spaces in the suburbs or in the countryside.

For the company you are addressing, ease of access and storage of materials and equipment are essential, because many urban gardens are far away and isolated from the road, and parking is non-existent.

In addition, many people deal with the needs of the house first and only later in the garden, which means that the transport of land and waste materials, as well as new ones, must take place through immaculate interiors. There are few landlords who start work from the garden.


What has just been said is more evident than ever in the creation of hanging gardens.

In these cases, in fact, access is generally via an elevator or a flight of stairs, and the materials are transported by hand from the ground floor.

The rent of a crane is possible, of course, but the costs will rise considerably. The roofs also have specific problems and needs, and safety is of paramount importance.

The opportunity to enjoy panoramic views should be balanced with the need for balustrades of the right height and adequate protection of plants from exposure to the wind, which can dry out the foliage and determine the death of most species, except for the most robust ones.

Often the best thing is to choose plants that thrive in maritime climates, precisely because they tolerate currents, aridity and temperature changes better.

Wind protection is also an important factor in the use of space: in some cases, in fact, it is better to sacrifice a good view in exchange for an adequate shelter.

As for the materials, glass is a popular choice, even if it requires regular cleaning, unless the self-cleaning type (more expensive) is used.

Load limits are another fundamental aspect in the design of a roof garden. In new buildings, the project usually indicates the weight that the roof can support.

In older properties, however, it is possible that the data should be updated or calculated, and before starting work or introducing any heavy plant or article, it is essential to contact a civil engineer.

In condominiums, moreover, it is probable that the roof or what is below you are not your property; careful therefore to avoid any kind of damage to third parties.
Even the hanging gardens provided since the design of the house may have considerable load limits, and you may have to settle for a turf or shrubs and rather low perennial plants.

The smaller plants in fact require less deep soil, and the meadows can thrive even at a depth of only 15 cm.

Drainage layers are also required to prevent the flower beds from getting too wet, and to make sure that excesses are stored and eliminated effectively.

Over the last few years, following the search for more sustainable urban systems, the use of pre-activated absorbent surfaces has spread.

Sedum mats come in the category and are now easy to find. Larger plants, important for their structure and size, need 60 cm to 1.2 m depth, subjecting the roof structure to a much greater load. The trees should generally be placed in specific positions, calculated on the basis of the load-bearing structure, and light materials such as polystyrene can be used to reduce the load.

Even the flooring must be light, or rest on the perimeter walls rather than on the roof. Precisely for these reasons, wood is a very popular choice, with platforms supported by joints similar to those of the floors.

In this case, drainage and waterproofing also remain fundamental: the platforms are excellent for masking the systems and the other structural elements, but it is essential to ensure that no accumulation of water is created in the underlying surface.

The frost could in fact cause invisible damage and allow moisture to penetrate the fabric of the building.



Some gardens are classified as small because, although they are long, they have a limited area. There are two fundamental approaches to this type of problem: dividing the garden into a series of smaller sectors or visually widening the width.

The first is based on the element of surprise: thanks to the succession of small and diversified spaces, the feeling is lost that the garden is cramped.

Even the link with the home is less moving from one space to another, to the benefit of privacy. The different “rooms” can be defined by walls or fences, which will occupy the smallest possible space.

The hedges will provide structural solidity and architectural quality, while preserving the softness of the vegetation, while less rigid yet structured plants, such as bamboo and shrubs, will create a more relaxed, jungle-like atmosphere.


It is also possible to use each type of subdivision in the same garden, perhaps increasing the level of informality as you move away from the house.

Widening the width means accenting it to the maximum with visual tricks, for example through horizontal paving lines or through steps that extend throughout the space. Small streams or canals, provided with the need for walkways, can be used in the same way.

Walls, hedges or other types of barrier are however possible, for example to mask the length, but the emphasis will always be placed on the horizontal width of the lot.

A third option is to clear the entire area of ​​the garden to use it as a single space, perhaps with a particular sculpture or plant to act as a focal point on the bottom.

With this scenario, the boundary of the boundaries, whether artificial or vegetal, must be very regular and designed for privacy and containment, so as to go almost unnoticed.

Many small gardens fall into the category of “difficult” spaces in almost every sense, configuring themselves as discontinuous and irregular lots, completely devoid of order and structure.

In these situations, many make the mistake of following the boundaries and reclaiming the form in the general scheme of the garden.

In reality, the most effective solution moves in the opposite direction, and consists in forgetting the perimeter of the lot by creating a totally new project within the available area.

Do not worry about wasting precious space: identifying the really usable and functional one and using the vegetation to fill the irregularities, the impact of the borders will decrease drastically, softening the garden.

Finally it should be remembered that it is much cheaper and more efficient to use plants for this purpose than to cut and insert expensive building materials into complex corners and shapes.

All the solutions described above are embodied in the projects presented in this book.

The designers have tried to clarify as much as possible the choices made in the introduction that accompanies the different plans.

Even if you do not find the mirror image of your garden, you can still get inspiration from reading the solutions they have devised.

So you can put your ideas into practice, or contact an expert designer to help you solve any specific problems.


Each project is accompanied by a plan that shows the scheme of the garden, faithfully reduced to scale.

Designers use different colors or sections of varying thickness to give them depth and atmosphere and make them more accessible to the lay reader.

Sometimes other visual supports, such as the elevations, are used to indicate heights; the axonometries, to have a three-dimensional vision; or the perspectives, to show the effect that one tries to find inside the garden.

The elevations or axonometries respect an accurate scale, but the perspectives, however measurable in relative terms, often appear in the form of freehand sketches, precisely because they want to convey a feeling rather than an accurate reproduction.

The common goal is to show the shape that the garden will take at the end.

The computer is increasingly gaining ground in this field, and although in some cases the images created in this way may be somewhat mechanical, there are many techniques, such as photomontage and photo-realistic collage, which produce convincing and dynamic perspectives.

There is a wide range of design approaches, and the graphic techniques, often selected in harmony with the project, vary accordingly, going from the most elaborate style to the simple sketch, from the care for every detail to the minimal taste.

Also read: Playground areas and risk.