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Small is beautiful with Outwood’s Nic Howard Garden Design

PUBLISHED: 16:18 13 February 2017 | UPDATED: 16:18 13 February 2017

Behind the wall Nic has created a tiny oasis for relaxing and entertaining in

Behind the wall Nic has created a tiny oasis for relaxing and entertaining in


If you have a courtyard or patio area you’d like to augment, here are some ideas to inspire from award-winning garden designer Nic Howard’s home garden

Nic's tiny courtyard makes the most of every spaceNic's tiny courtyard makes the most of every space

Originally published in Surrey Life magazine February 2017


Need To know

Nic Howard Garden Design

Little Orchards, Outwood, Surrey RH1 5QU

Telephone: 01883 744020


When you have a small space, every part is seen and therefore needs to have careful thought and planning for the best results. To get some expert tips I took a look at garden designer Nic Howard’s own garden in Outwood. I have photographed many of his stunning designs, which display a characteristic use of contemporary structure and effervescent infill, and was interested to see how he gardens at home. While Nic’s designs are mostly on a larger scale, I discovered that it has been somewhat of a challenge to design his own garden, as it is a small, irregularly shaped courtyard.

“I am passionate and excited by all things design, gardens and plants. For my clients I like to provide dynamic design solutions that are exciting and challenging to create both contemporary and traditional gardens. I place particular emphasis on combining contemporary design solutions with soft cottage-style plantings,” he explains. Certainly Nic’s characteristic design ethos as well as his relaxed, easy style is shown in his own courtyard, with seating placed throughout, billowing plants tumbling onto the paving and an atmosphere of embracing the outdoor space as an intimate living room.

In March 2011, when Nic moved to Little Orchard, which was built in 1907 and appropriately had once been a gardener’s cottage for the neighbouring Orchard estate, the scene was very different. “The house was in a fairly run-down state, hadn’t really been touched since the early 1980’s, the garden was gloomy with crazy paving and a narrow border of dying plants. We started the renovations the following January, then about four months into the build I began the garden as the plan was that, as the house was finished, I wanted a garden to come out into,” he recalls. The courtyard is an awkward angular wedge shape, of 12 metres by around seven to four metres, so Nic drew up a plan for the spacial layout. As the crazy paving was level and had an existing functioning drain he was able to lay new paving of Kota blue limestone from London Stone directly on top, leaving areas for planting beds on the perimeters. “We removed the crazy paving where we wanted the garden beds and discovered awful heavy clay which I then hand dug to create square-edged beds ready for planting,” he adds.

Determining the micro-climates was important for plant choices. The wind whistled around the space, by the perimeter wall it is very shady and only one area is sunny by the house. Nic took his time with planting the beds, focusing on key plants, including the lime green ornamental grass Hakonechloa macra ‘Albostriata’, architectural rodgersia and the elegant cream flowered Hydrangea arborescens ‘Annabelle’. “With a small space it is best to have a paired down palette of six or seven plants to give unity and then add additional seasonal colour,” he explains. In the sunny area permanent plantings of great value Penstemon ‘Garnet’ and Geranium ‘Rozanne’ nestle under a gorgeous Prunus x subhirtella ‘Autumnalis Rosea’, which has wonderful autumn colour and pink blooms from October to March. The palette through the space is then augmented with containers of choices such as hydrangeas for a sumptuous pop of colour, ferns, an acer and a range of hostas, some containers are even placed into beds as Nic doesn’t like to have any gaps, creating an abundant effect.

The transformation hasn’t been without it’s challenges, which included needing to remove buxus due to box blight and a battle with slugs and snails, which are kept under control by placing many of the hostas in containers and using liquid spray on the leaves of ones in the beds. Furniture and finishing touches as decorative detailing complete the space. “Be brave with colour. My furniture is quite a bright pink. That’s for the winter when I look out on gloomy days. I leave the furniture out uncovered all year, just need to wash and oil it. I’m out in the garden every day and it’s quite low maintenance, the major job is to cut back and mulch each spring. We entertain outside in summer and then have the summerhouse, which we converted from the garage as our winter room,” Nic explains.

Clients who visit Nic’s adjacent office enjoy the opportunity to look at his courtyard garden and once he completes his mother’s garden next door the plan is to open both through the National Gardens Scheme. You may like to also follow Nic’s progress with his display garden for David Harber sculptures at the RHS Chelsea Flower Show 2017, where he hopes to repeat his Best in Show Trade Stand award from last year.


Get the look

• A small space offers a lot of potential

• Treat it as an outdoor living room

• Complement your home by reflecting its architecture and style

• Compose a series of mini views – vignettes

• Decide how you’d like to use the space, separate zones – dining, entertaining, relaxing

• Proportion how much hardscape needed for dining, sitting, versus softscape planting

• Get to know the micro-climates in different sections – hot, dry, shady

• Stick with a colour palette – in furnishings and planting

• Repeated planting gives harmony and continuity

• If enclosed, use the fence or wall as a backdrop for decorative detailing and add vines to soften

• Make the space look larger with a mirror to double the perceived depth or length

• Group eye-catching containers

• Don’t be afraid to use large things – such as large shrubs or a medium-sized tree

• Include lighting to extend entertaining into the evening

• Complete your room with soft furnishings and fun accessories

• Upcycle and recycle bargain finds

• One note of caution – don’t let the space become overcrowded – if in doubt, leave it out

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