City Gardens and Small Spaces

Often the most tricky to design, small spaces present a challenge that is crucial to overcome – making the most of every inch. SLOAN! Magazine asked award winning garden designer Matthew Keightley of Rosebank Landscaping for some expert advice.

Matt RosebankHaving started my career in South West London and continuing to work in this area, I thoroughly enjoy the challenge that if dealt with in a creative manner can lead to a space that not only looks fantastic but suits your lifestyle.

Your starting point for design, regardless of the scale should be to determine the function. Are you a keen gardener? If so then allocate a decent proportion of space for borders or lawn. Will the space be predominantly used for entertaining? If so, then consider the garden like you would your house, and create areas for different purposes, a space for dining, a space for relaxing or lounging.

Here are some ideas that I have utilised over the years to make the most of my client’s outdoor spaces.

Container gardening

Using containers is a great way to add interest in the smallest of spaces. There are infinite styles available, so almost certainly something to suit every garden whether it’s a slick contemporary minimalist space or a more classic, traditional feeling garden.  A few things that are worth considering – ensure your plants get plenty of water in the hotter months as they tend to dry out at a much faster rate when in containers, especially on balconies or rooftops. Use a mulch to help with water retention.


If you have room for a shed, try to position it in the most discreet location possible. Although practical and often a necessity, they are not that attractive to look at. I typically try to screen sheds with tactfully placed hedging or choose an appropriate climbing plant that will envelop the structure without causing damage and help seamlessly blend it into the surroundings.


I find bespoke furniture is the best way to make the most of a small space. It can be specifically designed to fit into both odd shaped and tight spaces. A technique I like to adopt is ‘floating benches’ with a suitable frame work the bench will appear to float above the space below. It also gives you the chance to under plant or simply leave giving the feeling of more space.

Planting schemes

Even when tight on space, complex planting schemes can be created, by carefully considering your plant choices and by which I mean eventual height and spread. If a narrow border is all you can fit in, think about dramatic change in levels from front to back. This will draw the eye around the bed creating the illusion of more space than you have. I recently designed a shady border for example that was only 1m wide but went from ground level up to 2.5m in height within the space. I achieved this using the following plants (from front – back of border) – Asplenium scolopendrium, Brunnera macrophylla Jack Frost, Aquilegia vulgaris var. stellata ‘Ruby Port’, Acanthus mollis, buxus cones in pots, Digitalis purpurea, Rosa ‘Climbing Iceberg’, pleached Carpinus.

Dividing space

Dividing your garden into separate areas, gives users a sense of journey as they meander through. By deliberately obstructing clear views through the entire space will create intrigue around each corner and separate into designated living / entertaining areas.

The illusion of space

Use the wider landscape to your advantage. If you begin covering the fence line, you will find your neighbours trees for example will feel like they are in the back of your beds. Reduce the height of overgrown shrubs and you may open up views to the garden beyond, giving your garden a greater sense of space. Probably check with your neighbour before you do anything drastic!

Matthew Keightley is an award winning Chelsea Flower Show garden designer, and winner of the People’s choice award for both 2014 and 2015. To find out more about Matt please visit

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