Long, narrow gardens may be the norm in London, but that doesn’t stop them from being a bit of a design headache. If you don’t treat them properly, they can feel more like a corridor than a garden. Luckily, there are some simple design tricks anyone can try to make a thin space feel right.
This narrow back garden in Barnsbury, north London, is an uplifting example. Confined on one side by a major bike shop, it had the potential to feel cramped and flimsy.
But London garden designer Stuart Craine let it breathe with a meandering path and staggered planting of plants with soft textures in white, pink and chartreuse green. It feels wide and spacious, a romantic retreat to relax in. How did he cast this optical illusion?
One mistake people with thin gardens make is to have all their plants on the edges, a straight path that catapults you to the end, and a lawn in the middle hoping that makes it feel spacious. But that emphasizes the narrow shape.
Instead, break up a long garden into “rooms.” In larger gardens this is often done with hedges, but this would make a small urban garden cluttered. Instead, split it up into different zones.
Here, Craine has created an airy close-to-the-house dining area with potted lavender, a meandering path in the middle, and a separate relaxation area at the back. The bicycle cellar with its sedum roof and a step halfway up the garden also break up the space.
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If there is a strong line, your eye will travel along it. Avoid using fences with horizontal slats unless you can dress them up with plants — otherwise your eye will zoom along those strong lines to the end of the garden in a nanosecond, emphasizing the narrowness of the space.
Obfuscate your boundaries
Looking at your borders will make your yard feel smaller. Here Craine has broken up the beautiful old brick wall with blocks of plants and covered all other sides with evergreen star jasmine, ivy and other vines so you can’t see them.
This makes the room seem mysterious and bigger. At the end of the garden he planted laurel bushes and deliberately left them in their natural form. A neatly trimmed top would have screamed “boundary,” but leaving it shaggy blends into the landscape beyond.
From the house you see a dark green area, nothing more, which means you are not sure where the garden ends.
A winding path
Craine has created a winding path through deep borders that makes the garden look grand. The path appears to curve, but is actually made up of concrete sleepers of varying lengths, cast on site and filled with Scottish beach pebbles.
It’s the best of both worlds as the strong lines the sleepers draw across the garden accentuate its breadth and the curve slows down your journey.
“A meandering path allows you to deepen the borders in certain areas,” Craine says, allowing you to plant generously and create a sense of softness. Beautiful evergreens creep over the edges of the sleepers.
In the shadier part of the garden, the Ivy Hedera Hibernica, minding its own business, does the work, while Craine uses Mexican Fleabane (Erigeron karviskianus) in the sunnier part closest to the house.
Another easy way to make a garden appear bigger is to repeat really eye-catching plants in a staggered pattern so that your gaze is drawn from side to side, even if you’re looking at the garden from the house.
Three bold clumps of oversized boxworms – or use Ilex crenata Dark Green if you’re concerned about the boxworm – zigzag through this garden.
Her effect is complemented by the lush white flower heads of Hydrangea arborescens Annabelle, underplanted with generous clumps of Astrantia Buckland.
“The idea was to create a very soft feel,” says Craine. The showy shaggy shield fern (Dryopteris atrata) is another strong year-round presence.
Glossy camellias, liriope muscari and Japanese anemones Honorine Jobert fill this beautiful tapestry. Halfway up to one side, a tall cherry tree, Prunus Accolade, provides a cloud of soft pink flowers and useful height.