Garden Inspiration

Small Garden Style

Native Plant Project takes a wander with designers, native plant lovers and landscapers in small gardens, courtyards and front yards to discover their tips for creating big impact in small outdoor spaces…

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Photo credit: Left: Eckersley Garden Architecture; Top: Phillip Withers; Bottom right: Kate Seddon Landscape Design

Dream big, think small…

Take show-garden-style cues to inspire something fabulous in your own small space, they are filled with ideas you can borrow, downsize and rescale to suit your courtyard, balcony, deck and inner city garden.

Paul Thompson, award-winning landscape architect, author and arguably this country’s foremost native garden designer believes you can bring the same approach from planning large gardens to the smallest of spaces.

“Research as much as possible by looking at plants growing in situ, find out about the ones you respond to most, then determine what suits your space,” he suggests.

The principles of unity in garden design works particularly well in smaller gardens – achieved a by repeating the same plant form, the same foliage size and texture, the same colour foliage, or the same flower colour (even from entirely different plants) at a particular time of year.

Create a connection to your place…

While most of us live in a primarily European garden environment in urban situations, the opportunity to take advantage of a borrowed Australian plant landscape can feel hard to achieve.

“Many people think you need a big amount of land in the country to create a sense of connection to the landscape or can’t try for an Australian garden if you’re living in a small inner city space,” says Phillip Withers.

“You can still look around to see if there are trees and shrubs growing in neighbouring properties, what’s in the view from your balcony or on the nature strip, that you could make use of rather than block from view. Try to use local plants in your own garden, even include a small eucalypt or banksia if possible, to create a “sense of place” and connection to the Australian landscape and to entice native birds and other fauna into your garden no matter what the size,” adds Phillip who runs his landscape design practice in Melbourne.

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Photography: Bondi ‘courtyard’ Garden of Hugh Main, Spirit Level

Landscape designer, Hugh Main who spends his time designing sprawling gardens and vast outdoor spaces has applied his design sensibility to his very own compact garden in Bondi. To transform a small courtyard at his ground floor apartment into a calming oasis, Hugh was inspired by its location in a gully and drew on an evergreen selection of endemic species and his favourite native varieties – banksia integrifolia, tree ferns, birds nest ferns, native violet and pig face – to create a sense of belonging. This simple planting palette and creating a fire pit using reclaimed local stone and recycled timber brings another dimension to the tiny inner city space and provides a place to gather for a cooling drink in summer or warm conversation in the winter.

“An all green, native colour palette also ensures a garden is restful and receeding, even more important in smaller spaces,” adds Hugh of Spirit Level.  

Top tips to keep in mind…

Grant Boyle, founder of Fig Landscapes happily shares his top small garden tips from his years of design and landscape practice in Sydney and Byron Bay:

Maximise green space by utilising vertical surfaces or hanging gardens.

Mix different foliage textures and colours to create interest: try combining fine-leafed species with glossy plants, or succulents with grasses.

One large potted plant will have more impact than lots of small ones.

Built-in seating will maximise ground space.

A strategically placed mirror will amplify greenery and give the illusion of more space.

Think about how big the plants will be when fully grown: you don’t want to overwhelm the area.

Try to provide a habitat for local wildlife – hardy natives such as Banksia ‘Birthday Candles’, grevillea and Callistemon (bottle brush) are ideal.

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Photography: Woolooware Garden by Fig Landscapes


When space is tight, look to surfaces beyond the ground to build your garden and also disguise common walls, unsightly corners and create depth and interest.

Think of shed walls as a feature surface for pots, screening plants or trelise, common walls as spaces for vertical gardens and even rooftops for living spaces that also act as additional insulation. Consider underplanting to add multiple layers from the ground to the trunk and branches with hanging baskets to add dimension to your small space.

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A rooftop ‘billabong’ maximises space and provides insulation.

Multilevel decking, recessed bench seating and customising planter boxes also add structure to a space as well as house your favourite plants. While those living in more temporary accommodation, the use of benches and tables to use for arrangements and collections of pots brings height to your small space and visual interest.

A single theme…

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Owners of ‘The Composed Garden’ drew on their love of the landscape aesthetics of Japan and Denmark to inspire their recent small garden transformation.

The principles of simplicity, a natural material palette, asymmetry and celebration of seasonality – all were drawn on by landscape designer Kate Seddon to soften and link existing spaces within and outside the house. The exotic plant selection brings the Japanese aesthetic to life, while a surprising collection of Australian natives has been used to add the final flourishes.

Mounds of ground covers and grasses soften feature trees, add textural interest to paving and blur the boundaries between the surrounding house and outdoor spaces. Dichondra repens, Myoporum Parvifolium ‘Yareena’, Lomandra ‘Frosty Top’ and ‘Lime Turf’ are amongst the native plantings that help make ‘The Composed Garden’ vision a living reality.

Go Native…

Brett Robinson of ACRE loves to draw on eye catching native plants for his garden designs, even in small spaces.

“You can soften hard lines of courtyards, retaining walls and decks, the palette is naturally softer and calmer which is great for smaller gardens, there are loads of varieties that work well in pots and containers, plus natives are so much easier to care for than exotics – what’s not to love?”

“There are so many natives that will work in every garden so you just need to give some that suit the feel of your own space a go.”

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Photography: Derek Swalwell for ACRE.

“Look to native varieties to soften hard lines of courtyard pavers, decks and boundary walls and use in pots and containers… “

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