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3 inspiring ideas for small urban gardens

These highlights from garden designer Ula Maria’s new book prove small can be mighty

Small urban garden idea in East London
Jason Ingram

In her new book Green: Simple Ideas for Small Outdoor Spaces, garden designer Ula Maria takes us on a safari through small but perfectly formed oases. We’ve selected three case studies from the title to inspire your very own eden...


Green atrium in urban home
Jason Ingram

Some of the most successful urban gardens are those where it’s hard to define at which point the house ends and the garden begins. This spectacular city courtyard by designer Adolfo Harrison isa prime example, sensitively softening the border between indoors and out. The transition starts well before the garden, with a dramatic living wall planted with creeping fig (Ficus pumila), devil’s ivy (Epipremnum Aureum) and Philodendron xanadu. A patio and path made from the same material as the floor inside seamlessly draws the eye outdoors, and walkways floating above slightly sunken beds encourage movement deeper into the space.

Dining area with sliding door to garden
Jason Ingram

‘In order to make the garden feel larger and more dynamic, we created a circular flow through the three seating areas, three trees and three corten-steel elements, providing multiple focal points that continuously lead the eye around,’ says Harrison. Naturalistic planting throughout fosters an effortless look, as if some plants have self-seeded and become interplanted with other striking specimens over time.

Arbor in small urban garden
Jason Ingram
Dining area in urban garden
Jason Ingram

As entertaining is an integral part of the owner’s lifestyle, a generous section of the garden has been dedicated to socialising with a dining area linked by a timber trail. Here, the indoors is echoed with comfortable built-in seating, outdoor lighting and shade provided by a lush, foliage-covered pergola.


Front garden seating idea
Jason Ingram

Walking along the streets of a city, it becomes evident just how many front gardens are underused, being either overgrown or covered in gravel. This 42-square-metre front garden, conceived by Georgia Lindsay, proves that with clever design, they can be transformed. Running the width of the property, the joyful, multifunctional area doubles as a parking space when required.

Textured wall garden idea
Jason Ingram

Custom-made, corten-steel panels decorated with an abstract leaf design enclose the garden, providing a unique textural backdrop.This ensures the space is welcoming and exciting all year round, without having to rely solely on plants. ‘The panels form the main focal point – even at night, they transform the space magically with dappled shadows and pools of light cast from the rear. The laser-cut shapes were inspired by the large rounded leaves of the evergreen Magnolia grandiflora ‘Kay Parris’ that emerges from the built-in L-shaped bench,’ explains Lindsay.

Camelia flower
Jason Ingram
Foliage in small urban garden
Jason Ingram

The contrasting colours of orange and blue dominate, not only throughout the hardscape (walls and benches, etc) and furniture but in the planting, too. Rust-accented greenery includes Coprosma repens ‘Pacific Night’, Euphorbia griffithii ‘Fireglow’, Euphorbia amygdaloides ‘Purpurea’ and Anemanthele lessoniana. Porcelain paving in grey tones, meanwhile, has been laid in stripes perpendicular to the house in varying widths, to help make the space appear bigger.


Small urban garden with terracotta tiles
Jason Ingram

Landscape designer Miria Harris has craftily turned an empty patch of ground in central London into a Mediterranean-style dream. ‘It’s always tough when the brief from the client is a Mediterranean garden and its location is a north-facing urban space in the UK,’ says Harris. ‘Emphasising the contrast between light and shadow in the back yard, whether from the foliage of plants or the gaps in the fence, was designed as a playful trick to maximise the feeling of being in a sun-drenched garden, even if the sun is only there for a short time.’

Bench in small urban garden
Jason Ingram
Graphic monochrome tiles in garden
Jason Ingram

Aside from the planting, dusky pink rendered walls, deep terracotta tones and vibrant furniture help to evoke a warm climate. The varying patina and imperfections of the clay give the impression of a floor that has been there longer than the rest of the space, fostering a welcoming time-worn feel. Iconic vintage planters by Swiss designer Willy Guhl inject charm and personality, while charismatic black and white tiles by Bert & May forma feature wall reminiscent of a giant abstract painting.

Sculptural white garden chair
Jason Ingram
Terracotta and wood outdoor kitchen
Jason Ingram

To temper these striking materials, greenery and birch trees soften the look, providing dappled shade, movement and lightness. Finally, a built-in open-air kitchen area embraces the culture of outdoor living found in balmier climes – the perfect excuse for hosting garden parties with family and friends.

This article appeared in the May 2020 issue of ELLE Decoration.

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