Starting a small garden from scratch: first tackle the soil

A town garden can be a place of peace and contemplation, to grow food and watch nature

My first garden was very small but it was in this tiny, dry but sheltered Dublin garden that I learned a host of valuable, if painful, lessons about how to make the smallest of outdoor spaces your own.

At first I struggled to believe that a tiny town garden could be a challenge. What’s hard, I wondered, about filling a small, sunny site with lots of lovely plants? I had yet to discover the battles to be fought with dry shade, exhausted compacted soil, ugly views, lack of privacy, giant snails that lurked in old walls, and territorial tom-cats. Which is to say nothing of the constant effort of keeping another neighbour’s mile-a-minute vine from throttling my tree fern.

That said, I still stand by most of my younger self’s views on small gardens. I firmly believe that almost every one has the potential to be a place of peace and contemplation, somewhere to eat meals al fresco, sip summer cocktails, smell the roses, grow food and watch nature – in other words, a place to be apart from the world and yet part of it. You just need to box clever when it comes to the business of designing and planting such a space. Countless books, many of them excellent, have been written on this subject, but here are my own small words of wisdom.

Firstly, think space, as in how much – both vertical and horizontal – do you have. If you can, make a basic scaled drawing of the site. This will be invaluable when it comes to assessing any problem spots and working out what should go where. Next, think light, as in where are the sunniest and the shadiest spots? In a perfect world, the former would be south- or west-facing (best for sun-loving, tender plants and seating areas) and the shadiest north and east (best for sheds/storage and shade-tolerant plants). In a small town garden, though, deep shade can often be cast by overlooking buildings or neighbouring trees.


If this is the case, then embrace it. Shady gardens can be magnificent, leafy places with a special charm all their own. You just need to choose some of the many plants that enjoy these growing conditions.

Now think soil. Improving poor soil is always a slow, laborious business but it can be done with the addition of lots of organic matter. Indeed, healthy soil is the heart and soul of any great garden, so take the time to get this right. Even then, there are a host of different soil types; each brings its own challenges and is suited to a certain group of plants. So choose accordingly (neighbouring gardens always provide useful clues as to what will flourish), but always prize foliage over flowers; you’re looking for plants that will provide months (not weeks) of interest.

Along with shrubs, grasses and perennials, try to find room for at least one wildlife friendly tree as well as climbers (excellent for making use of vertical space). Don’t be scared of tall plants (used well, these can give a small garden the illusion of size) but do try to balance the need for privacy with the desire for light (not just yours but that of your neighbours). Remember that even the tiniest space appears larger when its boundaries are hidden from view.

Next, let’s talk about hard landscaping (the garden’s paving, paths, walls, fences, steps). In a small garden, less is always more. Keeping the variety of building materials to a minimum creates a sense of unity as well as serenity. Use the best quality that you can afford and add interest with gentle changes of level. For environmental reasons, keep hard, impermeable surfaces to a minimum. When it comes to containers, play with scale and remember that one large, handsome, well-designed garden pot is worth a dozen small, cheap, plastic ones in terms of what it contributes to the charm of a small outdoor space. The same goes for garden furniture.

For all these reasons, then I recommend employing the services of an experienced garden designer or landscaper if you can afford it (see and A professional will carefully consider how you and others will use the garden - for example, storage, compost heaps, outdoor taps, clothes lines, bike racks, seating areas, children’s play areas, water features, garden lighting - and design it in a way that makes the cleverest use of space.

If you want to go it alone, then find yourself a copy of both John Brooke's classic Small Garden (Dorling Kindersley) and the freshly published New Small Garden by Noel Kingsbury (Frances Lincoln), which between them provide a treasure trove of valuable advice and information on how to design the tiniest of outdoor spaces.

Starting a Small Garden from Scratch: a talk by Irish Times columnist Fionnuala Fallon at the Home&Design Theatre at the Permanent tsb Ideal Home Show at RDS Simmonscourt on Sunday, October 30th, at 11.15am. All welcome.

This week in the garden Collect the fallen leaves of deciduous trees. You can either add these to the compost heap where they'll provide a welcome addition of carbon-rich material to help balance out nitrogen-rich grass clippings and garden waste, or place them in a black bin bag and put somewhere in a cool, out-of-the-way corner of the garden to slowly rot down into leaf mould. This can be used as a brilliant soil-conditioner or added to potting composts.

If your garden is cold and autumn frosts have already blackened the foliage of your dahlia plants, then it’s time to cut back the stems to just above ground level and gently lift the fleshy tubers with a garden fork before putting them upside-down in boxes and placing them somewhere cool, dark, dry and frost free. Do your best to label the different varieties before lifting to avoid mixing them up. For further winter protection, cover the lifted tubers with some old, dry compost or layers of fleece. In mild areas, some gardeners are happy to risk leaving the tuber in the ground as long as the soil is free draining, but it’s still best to protect them with a generous mulch of fallen leaves/straw/seaweed/garden compost.