It’s not particularly difficult to turn a small garden or even a balcony into a relaxing retreat using just a few well-chosen plants.

The secret, says Kate Gould, award-winning RHS Chelsea garden designer and author of book Urban Garden Design, is to pick plants with “oomph”.

Dramatic, architectural plants are the way to go, she says.

“A stunning single plant in a planter can do so much more for a small space than a group of less-impressive specimens. If you are time-poor you get more impact without hours of maintenance.”

There’s another bonus, too. A few large pots are easier to clean behind than lots of little ones and you won’t have slugs and snails hiding between them. Try a few of these “oomph” plants for an instant leafy retreat

Fatsia japonica

King of the evergreens, these large, glossy shrubs are great for new gardeners because they’re really easy to care for.

They take hard pruning well so thrive in pots and their glossy leaves bounce light around shady areas. Bobbly white flowers turn into jet-black berries in the winter.

Big ferns

With their huge fronds elevated on a hairy trunk, tree ferns bring pure drama to shade. Planted at jaunty angles in the ground or in pots they are eye-catching from all directions and in London are likely to hold on to their leaves all year.

Remember to water from the top. And don’t forget other large herbaceous ferns. They need little care save for removal of dead fronds in spring and an assurance of regular water.

Choisya or Japanese pittosporum

These indispensable evergreens provide the leafiness you need to turn a bare space into an instant garden.

Choisya Aztec Pearl or Greenfingers thrive in pots. Pittosporum tobira loves the sun and has the added bonus of wonderful sweet-scented flowers that top out the light green foliage in the summer. They can also take being clipped into shape if topiary is your thing.

Multi-stem trees

You might think a silver birch wouldn’t be happy in a pot, but containers naturally bonsai them. A couple of multi-stem silver birch trees in large pots bring a woodland glade feel especially if you underplant them with ferns, hostas or hellebores, and the bark looks amazing in winter, too.

For sunnier spots amelanchiers, flowering cherries and cornus kousa trees have incredible blossom, and don’t forget the classic olive.

Hardy palm trees

Many “oomph” plants that thrive in full sun — such as yucca and agaves — will also give you a nasty injury, says Gould, but the bold and architectural chusan palm or dwarf fan palm are a safer bet.

Best in full sun but sheltered so that wind cannot shred the leaves, these statuesque evergreens are a great backbone for dramatic gardens.


Japanese maples are beautifully clothed in delicate red or green leaves in summer which turn fiery in autumn. Plant in semi shade away from winds, either on their own or with a carpet of hostas and ferns. Don’t forget to water pots over summer.


There are many forms of bamboo, but phyllostachys are the most available.

Although generally easy to grow, their arch nemesis is lack of water, upon which the leaves will brown, crisp and drop from the plant quickly. But if well-watered and fed the reward is a wonderful year-round display that adds impact.

Honey spurge

A plant with presence and a fast grower to boot, euphorbia mellifera is covered in whorled, shiny, semi-evergreen leaves. You will probably only need one. When stems are cut the sap can burn skin, so wear gloves when pruning.

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