Small garden ideas

What is the difference between gardening and garden maintenance? I was brought up to the question by Richard Unsworth’s new book The city gardener.

Inside a downtown Sydney’s Redfern garden.Credit:Nicholas Watt, of the city gardener.

Unsworth, founder of gardening store and design company 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 inspiring urban gardens drawn from recent projects by the Garden Life team. All were photographed by Nicholas Watt, with his usual attention to both the big picture and revealing detail.

The second section of the book covers aspects of planting design and choices. He writes that a key principle to designing satisfying small gardens is to go big. While the trend in small gardens is to choose small pots, small plants, and small pieces of furniture, bigger and fewer things create a bigger impact and give the illusion of more space.

It also challenges the first instinct of non-professionals to create privacy with hedges. While the major challenge in small urban gardens is often to generate a sense of isolation, Unsworth says that instead of ‘burying’ hedges on all sides, a more attractive approach is to balance a single, monotonous boundary with combinations of small trees for protection elsewhere, such as blueberry ash, coast banskia, lady palm or weeping lillypilly. The screen doesn’t have to be dense to distract from ugly views or to create privacy.

Bigger things, and fewer, create a bigger impact and give the illusion of more space.

A favorite of the featured gardens is at 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 interplay of plant textures with mostly green foliage and insignificant flowering, supported by a mirrored wall that reflects both light into the facing space. west and visually extends the meaning of the green enclosure. It’s not just the disco balls hanging from the branches of a mature tree that make it seem like a fun place to hang out.

Unsworth has included a fascinating box of details with each of the gardens featured in the book that reveals what percentage of the total cost went to plants, construction, furniture, and lighting, and also details the number of hours spent. “maintenance” that the garden requires. Maintenance figures range from six hours per quarter for a roof of sun-resistant succulents, with spa and dining area; 48 hours for a large Woollahra garden of lawns, hedges, flower beds and swimming pool.

The Redfern Garden is rated at 12 hours per quarter, which sheds light on the answer to the gardening vs maintenance question: desire. If maintenance is a job, gardening is fun. If it were my garden, I would be there more often than an hour a week! Whichever side of the garden / maintenance question you have, Unsworth’s book offers plenty of tips for designing a garden that’s right for you.


The city gardener (Thames and Hudson, $ 50) is now available.

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