The Secret Gardens: Inspiring Ideas For Small Outside Spaces


If the past year has taught us anything, it’s the value of nature and being able to get outside. A short walk around the block, a 10-minute stint soaking up some vitamin D or a bit of quiet time spent tending to plants has made more difference to our moods than we would have thought it could. And with the promise of being able to host friends and family outdoors soon, it’s no wonder that so many people are turning their hands to landscaping petite urban terraces and patios. We caught up with two city-dwelling pros: founder of The Balcony Gardener Isabelle Palmer and fashion stylist and Little Spree founder Sarah Clark, who share creative small garden ideas.

“There’s been an uptick in gardening over the last year, especially with a younger audience; everyone just wants to make their outdoor space as comfortable as possible,” says gardening expert, Palmer. Easier said than done, perhaps… so for those who are only just flexing their green fingers, there are some initial elements to consider. “I always visualise gardens as if they were another room and think about a colour palette and the design elements that way,” she explains. “Do I want something calming or zingy? Country or contemporary?”

Clark, whose great eye extends to her tiny back courtyard and an equally bijou front courtyard, shares the sentiment of creating an extra ‘room’. “The most important thing to me is that the garden feels like a natural extension of my home; I want the furniture to echo what’s indoors and for it to feel just as welcoming and cosy,” she explains. An air of intimacy is one thing that petite patios have on their side, but there is also the fear of making them appear cluttered – which, according to Clark, is one of those classic “small-space myths”. “I don’t think it’s true that putting too many things in a small space makes it feel smaller, it just has to be well designed and planned,” she says.

When it comes to preparation, the direction your space is facing is important: it will impact its uses and the kinds of plants that can be happy there. “Normally if your plants aren’t doing well you haven’t watered them enough, but if you’re struggling, or have a really shady corner, go for some Ferns, Anemones, Heucheras or even faux plants, to fill the gap,” says Palmer. April is a great time to sow your seeds and plant vegetables if you want to grow your own. Aside from bringing that verdant feeling, careful arrangement of greenery can create a clever optical illusion. “Position the lighter coloured plants at the furthest point behind darker ones – your eye will be drawn to them, making the space seem bigger,” Palmer says.

If you’re going to use your garden for alfresco suppers, some flowers have the added benefit of being natural mood enhancers – another of Palmer’s tips is to choose varieties that release fragrance, like Jasmine, Choisya or Lavender. Then, when it comes to mood lighting, there’s no need for scented candles. “Lighting is a really key aspect in taking your garden from day to night,” says Palmer but her advice is to be realistic: “fire pits look amazing, but they won’t work on a balcony. Festoon lights, on the other hand, look great everywhere.”

For her part, Clark, who’s lucky enough to have the horticultural heaven that is Petersham Nurseries on her doorstep, has “crammed in as many candles and plants and lights” as possible, to enchanting effect. Playing with proportion, and including elements at varying heights, is key to the styling: it ensures that there is plenty of visual interest and that the space won’t look overwhelmed. Mirrors too, are a decorator’s secret weapon, reflecting the light and providing that “twinkly element” at night.

Like many of us, one of Clark’s favourite ways to while away summer evenings is alfresco with friends, when the garden becomes a magical hub for entertaining. For this, it’s the “little details, like lots of tea lights and bud vases on the table, and sheepskin rugs on chairs for extra comfort,” which are so important. But that doesn’t mean everything has to be picture-perfect, an excellent piece of advice is to: “invest as much time as you would inside but try not to be too precious about it – you’re outside, everything is more relaxed,” she says.

For even more styling ideas and ways to enjoy your outside space, follow Palmer and Clark on Instagram @thebalconygardener and @littlespree