Urban gardens can have both benefits and challenges. But with the right approach, the right strategies, and the right elements and plant choices, city gardens can be green havens in among the build-up environment.
As a garden designer, I work with urban gardeners to create urban gardens on a regular basis – helping them to turn their spaces into productive and beautiful spaces that work perfectly for them, and for local wildlife. Here are my top tips for urban gardens that are eco-friendly, sustainable and, above all, wonderful spaces to spend your time:
1. Know Your Space, Its Strengths and Limitations
City gardens come in a range of shapes and sizes, and have different features depending on the specific location, aspect, orientation etc… Getting to know your space properly should always be the first step in creating a great design.
This begins with a consideration of sunlight and shade, exposure, water availability and soil – key environmental characteristics that will shape the space and determine how best it should be used.
The Benefits of Urban Gardens
Urban gardens can often seem constricting. But there are often benefits when you are gardening in a city too.
City gardens are often warmer, and more sheltered. Surrounding buildings create a heat island effect, warming the space. This can make it easier to create a garden, and you may be able to grow a range of more tender plants that would not thrive in more rural, cooler and exposed locations.
Urban gardens are often currently laid mostly to lawn. And while this is not ideal at present, it does give you more of a blank canvas to work from. You will have a lot of options in a simple paved or grassy space to turn it into the garden of your dreams.
Urban gardens may be very small. But this too can be viewed as an advantage. With a small space, you have the opportunity to get creative when it comes to making the most of every inch. And you won’t be spread too thin as you might be when trying to manage and tend a larger space. So you can devote more time and attention to each area, and each plant that you grow.
A smaller garden will also cost less to create in the first place, and potentially, involve less expenditure over time. Small garden creation certainly does not have to cost the earth.
Not Much Space? – Try Container and Vertical Gardening
If your main challenge in your urban garden is limited space, there are plenty of ways to make the most of what space is available. Container gardens can be created in even the smallest of spaces – you don’t even need to have any outside space at all.
Another very useful strategy for small space gardening is vertical gardening. This is all about thinking vertically as well as horizontally, and using that vertical space when planning and planting your garden.
Vertical gardening strategies include:
- Layering plants to maximise photosynthesis (creating a fruit tree guild or small food forest, for example, or companion planting with higher and lower-tier planting in vegetable growing areas).
- Growing climbers and vines on trellises and other supports and training other plants (tomatoes for example) as cordon plants.
- Training trees to grow up walls or fences rather than as full standard trees.
- Creating vertical gardens of various types against walls and fences. (Using natural or reclaimed materials to make planting areas on vertical surfaces is a great idea.)
- Creating plant towers or stacking containers and planting into their sides.
- Using hanging baskets or other hanging containers.
Even in small spaces, you can grow much more than you might think.
All Paved Over? – Cover or Replace Paving Slabs With Raised Beds
Unfortunately, many urban gardens have been entirely (or largely) paved over. This, of course, can cause a range of problems and is terrible for the environment. If you own your home, and can do so, removing at least some paving can allow nature to thrive in your space once more.
Of course, it is not always possible to remove hard paving. But even if you are stuck with a paved yard, there is still a lot of gardening you can do.
You can use containers of all kinds to create a thriving container garden to grow edible and ornamental, wildlife-friendly plants. But for a lower maintenance and more abundant space, you can also consider creating raised beds on top of the paved areas.
The larger the raised beds are, the easier they will be to manage and maintain. And when you use the lasagna method, laying organic matter in a raised bed rather than filling it entirely with a compost you have bought, you can fill new raised beds relatively cheaply, or even potentially for free.
Boring Lawn Alone? – Replace the Lawn With More Useful and Interesting Planting
If your urban garden is mostly lawn at present, you have many options to create more interesting and eco-friendly planting schemes.
You can, for example:
- Create a small, relatively low-maintenance, forest garden with layered planting.
- Turn your lawn into an area of wildflower meadow, perfect for local wildlife.
- Create new raised beds over lawn in the same way as you can over paving.
- Add a rain garden, pond or other feature to manage water well on your property.
- Create a wood chipped area with seating and perhaps a fire pit where permitted, with varied native planting all around.
Awkwardly Shaped Space? – Style It Out With Good Garden Design
Some urban gardens can be very oddly shaped, with awkward L-shapes or funny angles. Good garden design in terms of layout and planting can help you to style out any awkwardness and create a space where it is a pleasure to spend some time.
Think, for example, about borrowed landscape to link your garden with spaces beyond. Disguise awkward views with clever plant screening. Partition the space into garden rooms, thinking carefully about how each part of the space can best be used. Use symmetry, colour, reflective surfaces etc. to create pleasing views and trick the eye into perceiving the space differently and in a more positive light.
Challenging Growing Conditions? – Find Solutions to Common Problems
Many urban gardens can have other factors that make growing conditions more challenging. But none of these challenges are unsurmountable.
A very shaded space, for example, gives you the opportunity to explore shade-tolerant plants.
If the soil is poor and compacted, a no dig approach can allow to to repair and improve the soil over time.
If the garden gets very cold in winter, or is more exposed, adding protected areas like a small domestic polytunnel or using cloches can potentially allow you to still grow your own food year-round.
2. Extend Your Living Space – Make Your Garden Part of Your Home
Urban gardens should always be an extension to your home. Here are some tips to help you turn your outside space into additional living space successfully:
Create Bridging Areas Between Home and Garden
A pergola, porch or other structure on the back of your home can help you to blend inside and out. While continuing materials from indoors to outdoors areas (such as wood floors to wood decking, for example) can help blend the spaces together.
Give Yourself Some Privacy in Your Urban Garden
Privacy can be a problem in overlooked city gardens. So think carefully about sight lines and choose plants to provide privacy and a sense of seclusion for the space.
Surround Outdoor Areas With Appropriate Planting
Remember, outdoors areas for seating, cooking, dining etc. in urban gardens will be defined by the planting that surrounds them. Make sure that you choose plants carefully to provide for your needs, and to create the right atmosphere for outdoors spaces.
Consider All the Senses To Create Great Outside Spaces
Planting and the other elements that you choose to include should not only look good – they should provide delights for all the senses. So when planning your urban garden, be sure to think about what it sounds, smells and feels like, as well as how it looks – and try to grow at least some edible plants so your garden tastes great too.
Choose the Right Furniture and Other Additions
Planting is the most important think in any urban garden. But you should also carefully think about how any other elements you add blend with the planting and contribute to the effect of the whole. Choose garden furniture and other features that meld with your personal aesthetic and style.
3. Integrate Planting and Other Features in Your Urban Garden Design
Bringing everything together is the part of the design process. And for the perfect urban garden, you need to think holistically. Here are some more tips to help you do so:
Make Sure Spaces and Elements are Multi-Functional
Diversity is key in any garden, so we don’t put all our eggs in one basket. But its not just about how many plants and elements you have. In a small garden, it is especially important to think about how things combine. You should try to increase the beneficial interactions between each thing in the space. And each space and each element should be as multi-functional as possible.
Remember that You Don’t Need to Separate Ornamental and Edible Planting
In an urban garden in particular, you should remember that you don’t need separate growing areas for vegetables, flowers, herbs etc… you can combine them in wonderful ways – bringing fabulous flowers into a vegetable garden as companion plants, for example, and hiding edibles in ornamental borders.
Plant For Your Community, Not Just Your Own Household
When we say integrate don’t segregate, that goes for people as well as plants. A good design in an urban garden can bring people together. Planting wisely and the right design for a city garden can enhance not only your own life, but the life of your neighbours (human and non-human) and the wider community. In urban areas, it is especially important to think about how, in your garden, you can co-operate and share, with people in your area, and with local wildlife.
Make Your Urban Garden Fun for the Whole Family
No matter the ages of household inhabitants, a well designed urban garden can meet everyone’s needs. Consider incorporating quiet and restful spaces for older members of the family, and fun features like dens, play zones, outdoors play kitchens, mini nature trails and more for kids. Even the smallest city garden can provide fun for the whole family.
Elizabeth Waddington is a writer and green living consultant living in Scotland. Permaculture and sustainability are at the heart of everything she does, from designing gardens and farms around the world, to inspiring and facilitating positive change for small companies and individuals.
She also works on her own property, where she grows fruit and vegetables, keeps chickens and is working on the eco-renovation of an old stone barn.
To get in touch, visit https://ewspconsultancy.com.