Creating a city garden that inspires

Mark Cullen’s guide to landscaping your own urban oasis

I LOVE CITY gardens for their intensity.

Come late spring, I always attend some of the marvellous public tours of private gardens that take place in the downtown area. These tours always include some of the best gardens in an urban neighbourhood. I am fascinated by the creativity that designers and homeowners display when it comes to gardening in small spaces. The challenges bring out the best of our resourcefulness and creativity.

City dwellers have the unique opportunity to create a very personal environment in their outdoor space. Though urban spaces are generally small, it is possible to transform them into beautiful and intimate gardens for relaxing, entertaining or enjoying family activities. But this cannot be achieved without careful planning and some special considerations. A skillful design that fits the space can make a small garden appear much larger.

Upside, downside

In a small landscape, everything is up close and personal, from flowers and foliage to hard furnishings and structures. The focus is on detail, so plant selection is of utmost importance. Any plant that doesn’t fit, in size or colour, will stand out.

Space is at a premium: every plant is equally noticeable — overgrown shrubs, leggy annuals, spent flowers and thriving weeds are sure to catch the eye.

While small gardens demand careful attention, they also are easier to maintain than their suburban and rural counterparts.

Go for foliage

To make your city garden really work for you, choose annuals and perennials that have unusual and interesting leaves as well as flowers.

While there are many excellent flowering plants to choose from, truth is that there is no such thing as a perennial that blooms non-stop all season long. Gorgeous foliage will provide a constant feast for the eyes, even from the vantage point of your favourite garden lounger.

In a small space, opt for subtle colours, as very bright hues can be overpowering.

Create levels & rooms

As many interior designers will tell you, sometimes by dividing a space you can actually make it seem bigger.

Don’t be afraid to create a few distinct areas or little “rooms” within your small garden. Low hedges of boxwood or dwarf spirea are terrific to make “walls” defining the rooms and adding structure to the space. A change ingrade—asteportwoontoa different level — is also an effective way of dividing space to make it seem larger.

Create privacy

A common goal in an urban environment is to create privacy, often through screens or fences.

When choosing these permanent structures, think carefully about what will be most attractive as well as practical, as they will likely be visible from every vantage point. It is worth stretching the budget to get the effect that you want.

Solid screens and fences may offer the most privacy, but it is important that they are open enough to allow sunlight and air to penetrate. A garden with good air circulation is less susceptible to disease and moss and cools down more effectively in the heat of summer.

Soften boundaries

Often city gardens are surrounded by tall walls or neighbouring buildings that loom over the space. Mitigate this by planting a specimen tree or tall shrub. The greenery will act as a soft backdrop to your garden and make the forbidding walls seem to recede.

Grow vertical

Vertical gardening adds another dimension to a small yard and creates the illusion of more space by adding height and drawing the eye upward.

Vines and climbing plants can be trained to grow up trellises and arbours, as well as sheds, garages, walls and fences. There are many plant possibilities: for sun or shade, featuring colour, texture and often fragrance to beat the band!

Use every bit of space

Be creative with your use of space. Are there any areas of hidden space on your site?

A small pocket of soil at the base of the garage wall might be the spot for a vine-covered trellis. That ribbon of turf alongside the driveway might become home to a narrow flower bed. Is there enough light and good soil in the space between your house and your neighbour’s to plant a luscious shade garden?

If you have lawn at the front of the house, why not transform it into a front yard garden? Not only will you create an attractive and inviting introduction to your property, but you’ll also have additional planting space!

You can fill it with flowers, but don’t be afraid to plant vegetables there, too. You’ll have a feast for the eyes, as well as the table.

Block out city noise

In many small garden designs, I recommend the addition of a water feature such as a fountain or water-circulating bird bath.

The sound of trickling water helps to muffle noise from the street and, even better, attracts birds to your garden while providing a relaxing aural backdrop.

To avoid worries of mosquitoes and West Nile virus, try installing a bubbler (a rock with a hole drilled through it). The water comes up from a hidden pump, trickles over the stone and into the pebble-covered reservoir so you get the sound but no open water.

Excerpted for Post City Magazines from Mark Cullen’s new book: Canadian Garden Primer: An Organic approach.

Article exclusive to TRNTO