Job number one is to measure your garden and then draw yourself a plan. Hoping to design your garden ad-hoc is a risky proposition with the most standard of garden shapes. However, with a weird form, it could leave you with gaps and holes and bits that look out of place. Therefore, you need to make a drawing of your area and lay out what is required to fill it successfully. This will give you a chance to research the amount of space certain plants would need and provide you with an opportunity to throw up some inventive solutions.
While drawing out your plan, there are some steps you can take to make sure you take advantage of the space. Here are three essential steps.
Your job of the designer is to direct the eyes of the viewer in the way that you want. The best way to do this is with curves and circles. Our gaze naturally follows the edge of these shapes and therefore guides us away from any ugly little nooks and crannies we would rather were not there. Most garden experts suggest that an oval is much more pleasing to the eye and will give a softer look to your garden.
Another way to direct the gaze is with interlocking boxes – although this is a much more dramatic look than ovals, it does make use of the shape of your property. When choosing this option it is important to follow the lines of the house and the angle of the garden wall. If you use the garden wall, then you will accentuate the oddness of the shape of the landscape. By putting the interlocking boxes at 90-degree angles to the house, you make the space look connected to the property and therefore a little less awkward. You also look like you are celebrating the shape of the garden rather than camouflaging it.
If you use these interlocking boxes or the circles and curves, you will naturally end up with some odd areas left over. You need to treat these as an opportunity to do some inventive planting, looking for trees or shrubs that will love this nook and will, therefore, complement the shape you have created.
If it is about hiding bits like ugly building, or railway lines along the back, the odd lamppost or maybe the hideous plants in your neighbour’s garden – then you are going to have to be inventive with planting. If the place is mainly sunny, then you could plant some evergreens like Olea Europaea or Nandina Domestica. There are interest wallflowers like some of the clematis or honeysuckle plants, which can climb up the side of buildings.
Another way to distract from the odd shapes in the garden is to add height. Obviously, the point is to draw the sight of the observer upwards, rather than into the corners of your quirky space. For instance, you can add a tree, a pergola or an archway; all these will add a strong focal point to the garden that will seek to disguise areas which you find difficult. It is possible that an archway in a tapering angle could add a mysterious nook and hideaway that becomes a feature rather than a problem, especially if you encourage a climber such as a rose or a clematis to grow over and around the arch.
There is a beauty in little bits that tail off in odd directions. It is possible that you could shape your lawn into these spaces or take the visitor on a walk with a cobbled stone path that winds its way through the obscure places of your garden. This makes your awkward area a unique adventure for those enjoying the space.
Choosing to use a pathway to wind in and out of the spaces is also another way to draw the eye of the visitor, while potentially allowing for some stony areas with some alpines where the path becomes wider than elsewhere to deal with leftover bits. This would make the weird pieces of the garden an actual feature, as opposed to something to hide behind the recycling bins.
It is likely that this awkward part is also going to struggle to get light. This means when you do try to take advantage and make space a feature; you are going to have to use plants that love the shade. Epimediums are brilliant for these areas or Cotton Cool works well too. Some of the smaller hebe can add some texture, but make sure they get a little bit of light at least.
Remember to think about the different seasons too. It would be best if you considered adding some hellebores to add some winter colour, else you risk your little corner or nook becoming ugly between October and March each year.
Finally, if this little nook cannot be seen so well from the main part of the garden, you could use it for some highly scented herbs. This would give you something to use in the kitchen, but it would also add some sensual quality to garden too. Remember to think of the space three-dimensionally – it should not just be about shapes and colour, it should consider smells and textures, and maybe even tastes too.
Still need more help? Is the shape of your garden even more challenging than we have addressed so far? Well, let’s take you through some common gardening shapes and some suggestions for how to deal with these awkward conundrums.
You chose to live on a hill. This means you have a slope. You could decide to put everything on an angle and just tip your head to the side; there’s one suggestion. However, maybe there is more opportunity in this slope than you would imagine. There is the chance to have different levels in your garden, each with a different purpose. This means terracing, which takes some time and construction but is completely worth the effort. On one level you can have your seating area, with your terrace and your barbeque. Then, you could have some steps down to a lawn, then steps down to a water feature. In between each level you could organise a flowered border.
If the slope runs from front to back this is obviously easier to manage than one that runs left to right, or the other way around. However, if you work with triangles in your left to right slope, then you can still use the slope as a terrace and maybe place a shed or the garden gate in the diagonal away from your sitting area. This will give a natural journey through the garden that uses the slope.
The biggest problem and expense with this solution to a slope is the shifting of the earth. You will need to shore up the terraces, to keep the soil in place, possibly with stone or brickwork. If your garden is only gently sloping, then it might be best to leave it and treat it as if flat, such is the construction project involved and potential cost. However, if the slope is significant, this terrace effect might make the garden accessible for your family who can use the steps to travel up and down the garden.
To make the garden more manageable, you could plant hardy perennials in the borders between the terraces, using plants such as host and astilbe. These plants won’t need much care and will add some splashes of colour that could make the terrace the feature you would hope for.
An L-shaped garden is not a problem if all parts of the L are substantial. The primary design consideration becomes how you could use the parts of the garden that can be seen from the house, and those parts that move around the corner. An obvious solution to the part you cannot see is to use this for an outbuilding, such as a greenhouse or shed. Yet, what if you use this little offshoot as an adventure. It could be an invitation to those curious to explore. You could place your beautiful wooden bench at the end of the L and create a quiet haven for yourself or your family. This could be somewhere private to sit and watch the flowers and the bees bumble around.
However, the real problems arise when you have a weird little slim bit where it is impossible to think how it can be used. These bits tend to be tucked away beside extensions or behind outbuildings and leave you with the potential for some wasted space. The most straightforward answer would be to use these bits for the bins or a composting area. However, maybe using it as a play area for children – with a sandpit – or continue the grass around the corner with a stone path that cuts into the narrow part and becomes a rock garden. If you have young children, this could become a magical place for fairies, if you would like to excite active imaginations.
If you are going to make it a bin area or a play area, then bark will work either way. This is a low-maintenance option and doesn’t lead to your garden having too much concrete or stone. Alternatively, you can fill it up with some long-flowering perennials that don’t take much care like yarrow or see the opportunity to plant some fruit bushes.
The best way to deal with tapering is to use angles to trick the eye into believing areas are wider than they are. The real difficulty comes at the pointy end, where you can’t think what to fit in there. The best answer would be a water feature that uses the interesting shape at the taper to keep the interest of the viewer. It is also possible that you could square off the bottom of your garden using your shed, but then you risk losing some valuable space in your yard that you could use more inventively and beautifully.
One idea that we liked the most is to fill the tapered area with potted plants that bubble out. Remember, sometimes the idea is to make the awkward bit into a feature, into a positive. By using the pot plants, filling them with beautiful flowering geraniums, you can make this angle an eye-catching display, where you want to look, and not somewhere from which to hide.
If this idea of pot plants feels like too much work or may cost too much, try planting some tall plants like bamboo, which is an evergreen, and will create a natural squaring off at the pointed end of a garden.
If all else fails, you could go to the garden centre and get yourself a piece of stone sculptured garden art that would fit neatly into this odd pointed part and create a talking point.
The thing that makes your garden awkward is less the shape and more the distinct lack of space altogether. The small garden is still an opportunity and not a chore. You don’t have to live with a few concrete slabs that are good enough for your wheelie bin. There are many ways that you can make your little bit of land your kingdom – and see it as a good thing (less weeding, no mowing) rather than a downside to your property!
The first piece of advice is to paint the walls white. This will give the impression that space is more significant than it is. Dark walls and fences provide an air of dark shadows and suck out the light. The white surfaces will invite light into space.
The second tip is to put up some shelves so that you can have different levels of interest in your garden. You can have pots on the floor and then a flower box halfway up a fence, double the garden in the same space. It would be best if you fitted planters under the window of the house too, using this space to create a foreground for your garden when you look out the window. This will add some much-needed depth and perspective.
When visiting the garden centre be sure to look carefully at the height and spread of the plants you choose. You do not want one plant dominating the others. Selecting a whole series of small alpines will give you a lot to look at.
If your garden is way too small for grass, then you should consider different coloured gravels to give interest shapes and borders to the areas. Have dark grey gravel forming the perimeter of an oval or curve, with lighter gravel in the centre, the garden can appear more prominent and beautifully draw the eye of the viewer around the space.
Alternatively, you can celebrate the smallness with unusual angles, triangles of flower patches and the odd ornate ball or garden ornament. Here you just treat your small landscape as a tiny canvas that can be used to pour out a small amount of beauty.
When you read enough about gardens and the work of gardening experts, you begin to realise that they crave the challenge of these spaces we call awkward. It is actually easy to argue that the most awkward area to make spectacular is the square or the rectangle. Chances are, with these conventional spaces, you risk having a garden that looks like just any old garden. If you have odd angles, or slopes, or bits sticking out, then you already have an opportunity to add something distinctive to your space.
The design of a quirky space does not have to be awkward. It can be a chance to be inspired and a labour of love, as you imprint your personality on your garden.
Anna is the marketing and office manager for Garden Benches – a premium supplier of high-quality wooden benches and other outdoor furniture.