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How to deal with a sloping garden or a difficult site

What can I do with my difficult garden? Steps to success...

A garden doesn’t need to be spacious or flat in order to be beautiful and rewarding. In fact, some of the most interesting and difficult gardens are those that represent a challenge in one form or another. Dealing with a steep slope, for example, brings a set of problems that might need imaginative thinking. Terracing is the obvious answer, but rows of steep steps leading to narrow, flat areas can look cramped, uninviting and daunting.

garden steps, wide steps, sloping garden, attractive steps in a small garden, dealing with a sloping garden, Got a small, sloping garden? Include wide, generous steps rather than cramped, narrow ones. They give a feeling of space.

Stepping out

Steps are a key to success. Never opt for narrow ones just because you feel you have a difficult garden! Wide, generous steps give the illusion of space. What’s more, they provide a multi-functional service. Steps can act as temporary seating, they provide a perfect setting for pots filled with flowers or structural plants and they also offer an invitation to explore. A difficult garden suddenly becomes a blessing!

Red geraniums positioned on steps. Brick steps lined with colourful flowers in pots Make your steps wide enough to be able to include some pots, if you want to. This would be a dull set of steps without the geraniums.

Attractive steps tend to draw the eye’s attention and they open out the area around them. Steps can be your biggest asset and if you have any sort of budget for improving your garden, it’s definitely worth directing it into the upwardly (or downwardly) mobile type of hard landscaping!

welcome sign to invite people into a garden An attractive set of steps is a welcoming sight for visitors to a garden.

Circulation route

If you have a tiny, sloping back space that you might consider to represent a difficult garden, it could be a great place. The slope gives an opportunity to create a circulation route around the area, however small. Steps, paths and planting are the key to success. Vertical planting is essential. In fact, considering that just one standard-size fence panel provides around 3 square metres of plant coverage opportunity, it stands to reason that upwards is the way to go, if you want a garden.

Clematis climbing over a pergola to use the vertical garden spce Got a small garden? Go upwards with your plants, the fences and vertical opportunities are your largest planting potential.

What plants can I put in my small garden or courtyard?

Size matters, as we all know. It’s the ultimate height and spread of a plant that is the vital statistic. Whilst a certain amount of plant height and structure is important, you really don’t want to be forever taming a rampant shrub that wants to grow into its natural, spreading form, when the space available is tiny. There is an exception, however. Topiary is a great way to shape and form small, evergreen shrubs. You can create miniature ‘tree-shapes’ by pruning many different conifer species in addition to Buxus (box), yew, holly, privet, Pittosporum, holm oak, Osmanthus, the green olive, Philyrea latifolia, and even Camellia.

cloud pruned tree in a Japanese style Cloud pruning is way to shape your evergreen plants to form architecturally pleasing shapes that can be maintained to a size that you choose.

Cloud pruning is now becoming popular here in the UK, It originates from Japan, where shrubs are clipped and trained so that their foliage resembles clouds. It is often called Niwaki, a Japanese word meaning ‘garden tree’. In a small space you would probably only want a small number, or even just one such specimen, but what a feature it would be! Topiary balls, pyramids, spirals and animal shapes are entirely different, however. The more the merrier! A collection of clipped spheres in different sizes can look stunning. The space between them can be planted with bulbs in order to bring a little colour into the display at certain times of the year.

topiary form of a swam clipped from a box shrub There's a huge range of opportunity to shape certain types of evergreens into unusual forms

Using pots and containers

A word of caution: if you are going to plant into pots, buy the largest container you can afford. Big pots, statues or features in small spaces actually make the plot look larger. Too many fiddly small things just appear cluttered and make a courtyard look like a storage room. Be bold if you have a difficult garden, it can be overcome!

A French courtyard with a Fiat car, surrounded by huge pots filled with evergreen plants. The scale of this French courtyard would look completely different if the large pots were exchanged for small.

The plants you put into pots need to be chosen carefully because they will be restricted to a confined space on a long-term basis. Olive trees are a good example of suitable candidates. They do need sunshine and a certain amount of shelter from winds, but they are slow-growing and well suited to container growing. Give them a liquid feed every month from early spring to mid-August to encourage healthy growth and they might even produce some fruit.

Olive tree with fruit If your olive tree is well fed and watered, it can bear fruit

Many Japanese Acers are also suitable for diminutive spaces, but make sure they are kept moist and away from the brightest sunshine. Their spreading shape and rather beautiful colour compliment evergreens and they blend very well with topiary. Just check before you buy: some Acers grow into large trees, whilst others such as Acer palmatum are generally slow-growing and compact.

Japanese Acer small tree with attractive foliage and good autumn colour Choose the right type of Acer if you want it to be compact.

Have yourself some herbs

There are plenty of herbs such as rosemary, oregano, thyme, mint and lavender which will love a sunny courtyard setting. Small shrubs such as hebe, hydrangea, some of the smaller Phormium and even Cordyline will look perfectly at home there. Then there is a host of climbing plants for fences and walls which will love the sheltered setting. Consider the star jasmine, Trachelospermum jasminoides, clematis, passion flower and honeysuckle, to name just a few.

Clematis climbing plant with magenta flowers Beautiful Clematis have brilliant colours and you can find a variety to flower every month of the year.

There’s a lot of fun to be had in a small garden. Get out there as soon as the weather allows and enjoy!