Garden makeover: small urban plot transformed with a clever mix of foliage plants

Garden designer Jilayne Rickards turned her shady plot into a planting paradise full of seasonal color

small urban garden in autumn with steps leading up to a lawn
(Image credit: Marianne Majerus)

Jilyane Rickards lives with her partner and their three children in a Victorian mid terrace house in north London. As only the third occupants of the property in its history, the garden was largely untouched with a patch of concrete by the house, central lawn with stepping stones and a large grapevine down the right side.  

The challenge was to create a beautiful and hardworking family-friendly garden, that also provided peace, privacy and a beautiful outlook. The family wanted a practical space that everyone could enjoy with space to kick a ball, eat outside with friends and seek a quiet to relax and read. Storage was also an issue that required a creative approach to their garden design ideas.

The original garden and how it looked before

Before shot of Jilayne Rickards garden

(Image credit: Jilayne Rickards)

‘Neglected, small and shady were the first impressions of our garden,’ says garden designer Jilayne Rickards. ‘And I knew some clever thinking and careful planning was needed if it was going to work for us. 

'With a patch of paving just outside the house, a small, central sunny patch of lawn and a shady top area, overshadowed by a mature Horse Chestnut tree, the layout was hardly inspiring. Measuring just 20ft (6m) wide by 55ft (17m) long it was going to be a challenge to include everything we needed, plus there was also a mature grapevine stretching down the right boundary along with collapsed fences that had to go.'

The plan for the redesign

wooden dining table and chairs on a patio in an urban garden in autumn

(Image credit: Marianne Majerus)

Drawing up a wishlist is always a good starting point when thinking about how to plan your garden design. High on Jilayne’s family's list was a place to eat outside, a lawn and wall to kick balls against, and a quiet, secluded spot for reading. 

Necessities such as storage, ample seating and garden privacy were also on there, along with creating a beautiful space that looked good year-round. Not an easy task, but by drawing it out and being inventive with multi-tasking features they soon had a plan of action.

Introducing hard landscaping elements

urban garden in autumn with stone steps leading up to a small lawn

(Image credit: Marianne Majerus)

It took six weeks for the hard landscaping ideas to be completed and everything had to come through the house. Mud, brick and paving was all brought through by the contractors, and the floors had to be continually cleaned before the children returned from school. 

A low retaining wall and flight of four steps were built, just beyond the paved area, to make sense of the plot’s 120cm change in level. This then leads on to a small section of lawn – occupying the only sunny spot – before opening out into a paved seating area at the top of the garden.

'We tucked a shed into the top left-hand corner of the garden and disguised it with trellis and climbers,' says Jilyane. 'Next to the house, wooden seats were built with lift up lids for extra storage, while the stone capped retaining wall also provides a useful perching spot if there are lots of guests.'

Choosing plants for shade

acer with red leaves in a pot on a patio

(Image credit: Marianne Majerus)

Choosing shade loving plants that provide year-round interest was a must. ‘It’s so important in a small space to choose plants that offer more than one season of interest and selecting these is often the trickiest part of the process,’ says Jilayne. ‘As there’s little flower power with shade lovers, we were left with mainly foliage plants to play with. I experimented with some dramatic combinations, concentrating on contrasting shapes, form and texture. Autumn foliage offers some show stealing colors, so exploring and using these in both garden borders and pots was a must.’

Acers always thrive in urban gardens, as they are pretty sheltered spaces and work well with surrounding buildings. They also add elegant winter structure, have stunning shoots in spring before their leaves turn to vivid autumn shades. For this reason, Jilayne included quite a few in the garden and teamed them with sculptural Buxus spheres, airy, evergreen grasses and vivid ferns. Other star performers include black stemmed bamboo, Pittosporum and the deep purple Cotinus, with its beautifully rounded leaves.

Improving the soil quality

small urban garden with lawn, path and ornamental grasses in the border

(Image credit: Marianne Majerus)

Besides the plot’s shady aspect, the soil – good old London clay – needed lots of attention before being fit for planting. Across the site, Jilayne dug down a spades depth and added tonnes of horse manure to break up and improve the soil. She then implemented her planting plan, adding in structural, evergreen planting in November before following on with herbaceous plants the following spring. 

Adding a thick layer of compost, once or twice a year and following the no dig gardening method has really helped to keep the soil workable and healthy.

Adding privacy and seclusion

metal garden arch with chocolate vine growing over the top of it

(Image credit: Marianne Majerus)

As an urban garden, surrounded by houses, creating a sense of seclusion was always going to be a priority for Jilayne. ‘I really wanted the top section of the garden to be a leafy retreat that I could go to for a quiet read and sense of peace.’ A large Horse Chestnut tree, just beyond the fence already provided some garden screening and shade, but there was still more to do. 

Adding tall trellis panels to the garden fences and planting up with climbers such as Virginia creeper and clematis helped to soften the boundaries, while adding a metal arch at the entrance to this seating area created a more enclosed feel as well as providing extra privacy from the house. This was planted with fast growing but stunning Akebia Quinata – the Chocolate Vine. ‘I love its unusual plum-coloured blooms in spring and the fact that the bright green leaves are semi-evergreen,' says Jilayne. 

When it came to creating privacy nearer the house – and the eating area – Jilayne chose a row of black stemmed bamboo - Phyllostachys Nigra. ‘Although known for its creeping habit, I knew it would work here as the bed was fully contained and would safely limit the roots,' she says. 'Tall, elegant and arching, it provides a gently rustling, living screen and I decided to remove the lower branches and expose the black stems for added drama and interest.’

Finishing touches

an acer, also known as a japanese maple, growing in a pot on a patio

(Image credit: Marianne Majerus)

Clever layering and creating planting opportunities are an important element of any small garden ideas. Jilayne likes to remove the lower branches of shrubs, to lift the crown and underplant with ground cover plants such as heucheras and hardy geraniums, to add extra texture and interest. Planting spring and summer flowering bulbs – such as narcissus, alliums and camassia is another great way to make the most of the space. 

Containers planted with ferns and acers and topped with pebbles are ideal for adding shape and form to paved areas, helping to soften hard lines and add in color and interest.

The range of plants has turned this uninspiring plot into a space which changes with each season, with enough interest to look good all year. The finished project is a secluded space in the heart of the city which the whole family love.

Jill Morgan
Freelance writer

Jill puts her love of plants and all things garden related down to the hours spent pottering around with her Nan and Grandad when she was little. Today she is lucky enough to have a garden of her own in Surrey, England, and spends much of her time writing about them too.