Culture & Lifestyle

The secret to designing a satisfying small garden? Go big

What is the difference between gardening and garden maintenance? I was led to the question by Richard Unsworth’s new book The City Gardener.

Inside an inner-city garden in Sydney’s Redfern.Credit:Nicholas Watt, from The City Gardener.

Unsworth, founder of garden shop and design business Garden Life, has been designing gardens in Sydney for two decades and has distilled the lessons of that experience into the book. The first section covers 20 inspirational city gardens drawn from recent projects by the Garden Life team. All have been photographed by Nicholas Watt, with his usual attention to both the big picture and the telling details.

The second section of the book covers aspects of design and planting choices. He writes that a key principle for designing satisfying small gardens is to go big. While the tendency in small gardens is to choose small pots, small plants and small furniture, bigger things, and less of them, creates greater impact and gives the illusion of more space.

He also challenges the first instinct of non-professionals to create privacy with hedges. While the overriding challenge in small city gardens is often to generate a feeling of seclusion, Unsworth says that instead of “entombing” hedges on all sides, a more appealing approach is to balance a single monotone boundary with combinations of small screening trees elsewhere, such as blueberry ash, coast banskia, lady palm or weeping lillypilly. The screen does not need to be hedge-dense to distract from ugly views, or to create intimacy.

Bigger things, and less of them, creates greater impact and gives the illusion of more space.

A favourite of the gardens presented is in Redfern. When designing a garden in a small space the design mantra is usually about restraint. But here the client demanded abundance and so there is a fabulous textural interplay of mostly green-foliaged, insignificantly-flowering plants, backed by a wall of mirror that both reflects light back into the west-facing space and visually extends the sense of green enclosure. It’s not just the disco balls hanging from the branches of a mature tree that make this feel like a fun place to hang out.

Unsworth has included a fascinating box of details with each of the gardens presented in the book that reveals what percentage of the total cost went to plants, construction, furniture and lighting, and also details how many hours of “maintenance” the garden demands. The maintenance figures range from six hours per quarter for a rooftop of sun-hardy succulents, with spa and dining area; to 48 hours for an extensive Woollahra garden of lawns, hedges, flower borders and pool.

The Redfern garden is rated at 12 hours per quarter, which illuminates the answer to the gardening vs maintenance question: desire. While maintenance is a job, gardening is fun. If that was my garden I’d be pottering about in it a lot more often than an hour a week! Regardless of which side of the garden/maintenance question you sit, Unsworth’s book offers plenty of advice for designing a garden that works for you.

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The City Gardener (Thames and Hudson, $50) is out now.

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