Grand Designs for a Small and builder-ravaged Garden

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When it comes to small spaces, you have to think big, says Vandra Costello.

I love gardens, I love plants, garden design and garden history. In moments of reverie, when my self-aggrandisement knows no limits, I imagine myself in my ideal garden – a sort of Gravetye Manor crossed with Munstead Wood, homes to William Robinson and Gertrude Jekyll respectively. Outside a house designed by Edwin Lutyens, or perhaps Frank Lloyd Wright, acres of magnificently planted borders are bursting with blowsy herbaceous perennials, old English roses and choice flowering shrubs, yew hedges and clipped hornbeam allées, which break this Eden into compartments. I wander round, surveying all, dispensing instructions to my trusty old gardener, wearing a vast straw hat, carrying an old-fashioned trug and waving a secateurs.

More often than not, I am generally abruptly woken from this pleasantry by the sound of a sliothar hitting the roof of the kitchen, having been lobbed over the wall by some wannabe all-Ireland hurler practising on the GAA pitch behind my actual house. What I have, in fact, is a very modest, small garden attached to a 1930s ex-corporation house, which in my more fanciful moments I think of as a late Arts & Crafts artisan dwelling.

Perhaps as some kind of divine punishment for my hubris, my existing tiny garden has been comprehensively destroyed – and I mean genuinely eviscerated, by building works. I am now faced with the exhausting prospect of starting again from scratch. It will be a task made even more monumental by compaction of the soil by heavy duty equipment and the amount of rubbish the builders have left behind. There are lumps of concrete, bits of shattered glass and general rubble. Added to this, I expect I shall be excavating fossilised custard creams, Red Bull cans and empty milk cartons for many years to come.

Once I have finally got the soil situation sorted (I shall add tonnes of well-rotted manure), I plan to have the biggest borders I possibly can. One common mistake made in small gardens is making mean little borders and filling them with dwarf plants – this looks dreadful, like one of those awful miniature villages popular at resorts in the 1970s. Another tip is to keep the beds rectangular, as straight lines work far better in a small space. I will then view as many open gardens as I can. June Blake’s is first on my list, to steal ideas – sorry, I mean take inspiration from. 

It is always a good idea to keep a pen and notebook in your bag, and a secateurs and possibly a trowel, so when people idly promise to give you a cutting, you can whip your tools out and take them there and then. I plan to prune all my small trees into standards so I can fit loads of plants underneath, while spending every last cent I have in Mount Venus and Kilmurry nurseries. Next summer, I look forward to dressing up in my best Margot Leadbetter-style kaftan with a large glass of gin in hand to survey my newly reborn demesne like Lady Bountiful. But for now, I simply turn soil and daydream.


Lauren Heskin