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Principles of urban gardening?

Posted by janetr Ottawa USDA 4a (My Page) on
Wed, Jul 5, 06 at 15:22

Seeing as we've got the forum, I started wondering: What really does distinguish small space gardening from everything else? If you had a friend who had just moved from a 3-acre country lot to a 30x50 lot in the city, what would you tell them they'd have to start thinking about?

Janet's Garden


Follow-Up Postings:

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RE: Principles of urban gardening?

Compact plants with large plants as accents. Always remember the mature size of the plant.

You may not have "vistas" anymore but small space gardening creates an opportunity for secret corners and "vignettes".

Less is more (overcrowding)

Less is more (you don't need 5 plants to create an impact as *usually* 3 of them will create the same impact in the smaller garden.

The lilac shrub that was barely noticed on the 3 acre lot will a main attraction on a small lot.


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RE: Principles of urban gardening?

  • Posted by janetr Ottawa USDA 4a (My Page) on
    Fri, Jul 7, 06 at 20:03

You buy one tool that can do as many things as possible because you just don't have room to store 50 specialized ones.

You can get a lot of plants that need to be seen close up to be appreciated.

Janet's Garden


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RE: Principles of urban gardening?

I'd say that at least some principles are similar to those utilized for small spaces in homes.

I would include:
- Introducing a sense of discovery by not having everything visible from every vantage point.

- Include different types of spaces. For instance, we were just at the Missouri Botanical Gardens last week and happened across a children's garden (not to be confused with the new playground area). It was a small garden but had a "house" within the branches of a weeping mulberry tree. Right behind that was a tiny maze made up of arborvitae and willows. Sweeping along another side of the garden was a series of benches underneath the shade of low river birch branches.

- Making garden rooms seem more spacious by compressing the entry to the space.

- Akin to interior design...limit the visual clutter by editing what's in the space. I have a hard time with this because there are so many plants I see that I want to have - I guess it's a collecting impulse. But having one of everything would make it look cluttered and disjointed.


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RE: Principles of urban gardening?

The biggest adjustment I have had to make in my tiny yard revolves around seasonal shade issues. Because everything is so close, shade from the house, neighbors houses, fences, trees etc. comes and goes rather quickly in different areas of my yard, depending on time of year.

It can be hard to guess if you will have sun in a given corner of the yard in July if you are looking at it in April, or vice versa. There are many factors, but the hardest to predict is the angle of the sun at a given time of year.

In my case, plans of growing peas on the deck grudgingly turned into growing beans there instead as the sun didn't make it over the house til late May. It's basically a full shade spot from October to May, full sun from June to September. The other side of the deck has the same issue, but then we have to throw in the effect of the ash trees come into full leaf later in spring.

It's actually fun to strategize on how to deal with it, but I would highly caution anyone with a small urban plot to tread carefully when a developing a comprehensive plan before fully understanding the changing shade patterns of the site.


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RE: Principles of urban gardening?

Lisa13 is right about sun and shade, but I would also throw in to your strategy three other items: plat maps, multi-use spaces and white elephants. Most urban gardeners need to do a lot more planning and thinking about their space.

First, you have to find creative ways to squeeze garden, patio, playscape, trashcans and often even parking into the same area. Its good idea to make a list of what you really want out of the space, then figure out how to pull it off.

Then there are the white elephants. I have my sreet's electric transformer sitting in my most sunny patch. Its huge, its ugly, it hums and I have to provide a 8 foot walkway to it. I scratched my head for about 8 months before I found a workable solution for this monstrosity.

Third, check your plat map and know what is your property. We were able to reclaim 4 feet by working with our next door neighbors. We also changed the layout of the privacy fence to work with the space we had. This allowed us to create some pocket gardens we could not have had otherwise.


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RE: Principles of urban gardening?

  • Posted by janetr Ottawa USDA 4a (My Page) on
    Mon, Jul 24, 06 at 16:47

Some great input in here!

Manzo, how did you resolve your "white elephant" problem? I would love to know. I have camouflaged the gas meter by putting a derelict chair full of potted plants in front of it, while still allowing access, which I am obliged to do.

Janet's Garden


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RE: Principles of urban gardening?

Great list already! Manzo, I would also like to know how you solved that "white elephant" problem.

I would also add that urban gardeners really need to think vertically. Adding vertical elements like vine poles and pillar roses is making the most of the space that I do have, and helps the whole garden "feel" bigger. Even adding strongly vertical plants (iris foliage, red hot pokers, "Skypencil" holly, etc.) has helped alleviate the feeling of being bound by a small garden.


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RE: Principles of urban gardening?

I thought my place was small - we have total land area of 285 square metres - that includes our little 2 bed home - - here's a list of what I've got in that bit of dirt:

She Who Must Be Obeyed and I are happy to try and grow anything we can get our hands on, though she is starting to wane in her enthusiasm: silly girl thinks we have too much planted already...LOL

cyprus pines - x 2 - they provide privacy from two neighbours and have a love seat and fish pond underneath them. There's a black elephants ear in the fishpond along with some twisted bamboo and a couple of other plant gifts that I can't name.

The pines have two baby stag horns, mini split leaf philodendron, a lime leaf philodendron and some old mans whiskers growing on them

Boston ferns, king ferns, a couple of different coloured periwinkles, vietnamese mint, taro, cardamom, five spice plant, coleus, ivy, argaves, hoya, more black elephants ear, cycad and some mosquito breeders (bromeliads). There are a couple of "invaders" - again unknown - that provide some blue and purple flowers during the summer. They seem to like it there, so they stay. This is the boggiest part of the garden - we get a lot of run off from the neighbours and the upper part of the hill our street is on.

<>Next to the bog we have a gardenia, snow bush, lemon grass, yesterday today and tomorrow and a little buddha garden - - A ceramic smiling buddah, some gypsophila, pansies, petunias, gailardia, a camelia behind and some wormwood.

We have a little concrete patio with a pergola over the top - about 5mX2m - strawberries planted outside and nasturtiums, lemonbalm and apple mint growing where it can. There's a jasmine growing up some of the trellis.

<>Inside the pergola we have three bird cages - - a pair of green peach faces without the peach colour, their mum and a new chick (dad was escaped by a cat) and a pair of bengal finches. Half a dozen hanging baskets with a mixture of ferns, tahitian bridal veil, a New Guinea flat tassel fern, zygocactus and variegated philidendron/spear leaf thingy; pots and pots of lilipili, cane palms, scarlet croton, cardboard cycad, small tree ferns, pony tail palm, birdsnest fern, calla lillies, cordyline, diffenbachia, an orchid and half a dozen others that were given by friends - they look good but I don't know what they are. At one end of the pergola is an eight month old clumping palm and at the other a 4 metre tall tree fern - probably cunninghamii - it has three or four orchids growing on the trunk and day lillies, asiatic lillies and a pink and white leafed thingy that pops up every year.

The next structure is the grave - it was a large pile of compost that is now planted with rosemary, beans, silverbeet, soursop, gerberas, sweetsop, surinam cherry, petunias, african daisies, gotu kola and a beatiful little red climbing rose grows along the fence. Then comes the guinea pig hutch - it follows the side fence for about four metres and has beans growing along the outside - bit of tucker for the animals and strawberries surrounding the first of the lady finger bananas.

There's five bananas in total, four of them flowering/fruiting, the first hand is ripe now.

In and around the bananas are strawberries a small purpley/red coloured bush that was an indoor plant but which thrives since it was taken out of the pot and given the option to live or die. There's a couple of sorghum plants growing to give the birds a bit of variety.

Between the grave/bananas and pergola is a small bit of earth with these growing:

In pots - bok choi, choy sum, pak choy, silverbeet, english spinach and anenomes. and hollyhock seedlings.

In the ground - a mock orange, midyim berry, jabacotiba, silver beet, california asters, nicotinia, day lillies, chocolate pudding fruit, pansies, some flower seedlings that I forgot to learn the name of, horseradish and a calemondin (star fruit) .
Behind the calemondin are some more gerberas, licorice basil and oregano.

In behind the bananas - between them and the guineapig hutch is another bad piece of soil - sand on top of clay - that's where the cane toad trap is and where the cat trap will go. Theres also my experiment with theobroma cacao - the plant used to make chocolate. There's more silver beet, some sweet potato, some scotch bonnet chilli, a small native daisy - that has yellow or red or white flowers and is starting to sprad like a ground cover, a lychee, a dizzygothica that was also given the option of grow or die after surviving my pathetic attempts at keeping plants indoors, a candy striped hippeastrum, a custard apple (methinks) that grew from a seedling, another red climbing rose, a cutting of a plant that She Who Must Be Obeyed found on a walk and which is now growing quite well in the back corner, more sweet potato and pumpkin, the worm farm and the compost heap.

This brings us to the other plant that was there before we started planting - the 10 metre tall fish tail palm.
About half a dozen canes a foot across play host to a very large stag horn, a couple of philidendrons and a couple of monsterias, a dozen or so bromeliads, more old mas whiskers and something that SWMBO insists is a native orchid - about half a dozen different colours and they are thriving there - so who am I to argue. Another unnamed varigated little shrub with pretty white flowers and more strawberries.

In front of the palm is a mulberry seedling - it was sprouted in March or April 2004 and is now 5-6 metres tall. Then come two roses - Angel Face (named after She Who Must Be Obeyed) and our prized Blue Moon.
Some more california asters, strawberries, day lillies, crinum, hippeastrum, tansy, blue boy, a wisteria which I have the job of trying to make into a standard, goji berry, a rather permanent capsicum - it fruits so it stays, a camelai - again no name, some gerberas in pots, a cumquat seedling, a mangosteen seedling,beans, jap pumpkin, a potted philidendron - large palmate leaves, nother gift - blue and white flowers with a miniature orange fruit, more hippies a naked lady, mondo grass, as a bit of a border, some basil, marguerite daisies, some green and white thingies that I forgot to keep the name tag from, a little purple puffball of a flower - again the name escapes me, a sub-tropical nectarine and some snowdrops coming up - they've apparently naturalised to this sub-tropical environment.
In amongst all of that are strawberries (did I mention them before??), some more periwikles - escaped seeds - dozens of orange and yellow cosmos (whichthe pale faced rosellas love) an orange -washington navel I think, a seedling each of sweet and soursop, moon flowers where-ever they can find something to grow up, more agaves, strawberries, lemon eureka??, another type of custard apple seedling or a longan - I must remember to use and keep name tags. A globe grape seedling growing up one of the stumps from some more cyprus pines that we got rid of.

A red grapefruit - again a seedling, an ice cream bean tree, some walking lillies, surinam cherries, mango- another seedling, and in the far back corner - a Norfolk Pine - we got a pot with three of them in it a couple of years back, two were given away and SWMBO couldn't bear jsut dumping number three - so she was planted in the back corner and given the opportunity to live or die - it was nearly two metres tall and had less than two litres of root ball when the other two were cut out of the pot.

There.s a lot of baby red egg plant, chives, parsley, another crinum, a kaffir lime, a cassabanana, a pineaple - which the guineapigs discovered when they escaped and is now struggling to get any growth on it at all, some yarrow, tansy and wormwood, mint - half a dozen varieties surviving, a feijoa, tomatoes,ceylon spinach, paw paw,fennel, basil, kangaroo paw,pansies, dill, curry plant, frangipani, lemon myrtle,day lillies, more chillis, more strawberries, more mondo grass, nasturtiums, coriline australia, basil, another grape - pinot moir, naturalised fressias, 2 X prince of orange,passionfruit,.

Along the southside of the house - with no sun - grows a camelia, gardenia, coleus, croton, golden cane palm, ponytail palm, blueboy, nodding violets, jade plant.

Out the front is an olive, more ceylon spinach, nasturtiums, hippie seedlings, loquat. longan, frangipani, bush lemon, passionfruit, cosmos, a couple of types of self seeded marigolds, spinach and I think that's about it.

Frightening isn't it. The whole block - including our little home is about 285 square metres. Maybe I should go and see a doctor?? <>


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RE: Principles of urban gardening?

Sorry to take so long to reply to y'all-I have way too many plates in the air right now.

So you have a sunny patch, but you have a 5x5 transformer box for your neighborhood in one corner. And you are broke cuz all the money is going into the "fixer upper".

This is long, so I apologize.

I scoured the neighborhood for a year and drug home every 6 foot tall fencing option I could find (metal decorative security door, two security window covers, a metal porch post, and some really long metal grill looking shelves.) Then I built a "fence" in front of the box and the access space it needs using green t-posts and wiring my finds to them. I placed a really skinny security panel at the end, leaving a tiny 2 foot entrance.

Behind the fence, in what we now call the alley, I laid down some old metal roofing (scrounged), dumped gravel over it so I had a walkway without weeds. An apartment tore down a brick wall they had, so I picked the best chunks out and laid them down as stepping stones.

I scored a plastic tennis net, so I ran it down the top to create shade. I used u-bolts to attach a discarded metal pipe to my privacy fence, and then wired the net to the fence and to the pipe, so I can take it down for cleaning. A local church was tossing file cabinets, so I took the drawers home, placed them in rows down either side of the alley, filled them with dirt and planted strawberries. Someone threw out a nice plastic bucket (huge-think it was for an oak, maybe?) and I planted a blueberry in front of the transformer.

I am waiting until fall and then I will train some inexpensive vines up the "fence". In the meantime I have a cool shady place that is too enclosed for birds to feel comfortable diving in to pick the strawberries. I figure by the time the birds figure it out, I can find some kind of screen to drop over the "door".

Of course, at some time the City is going to come by for maintenance and we will see if they approve of my solution or not!!


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RE: Principles of urban gardening?

I agree totally with the issues of verticality, shadows in different seasons, and using the sense of discovery rather than vistas.

The white-elephant issue I call the need to continually problem-solve with landscaping, although I like white elephant better, to hide mechanicals and other utilities.

Knowing how large mature plants will be also means understanding how sun/shade patterns will change as they mature. This makes a knowledge of pruning essential, even if you like a more informal look.

Having enough structure in a small garden is also an issue, or conversely, finding space for structural elements.

And, finally, the issue of scale. For example, I scrounged a round white column that was being replaced on a home down the block, thinking that anything vertical was worth taking. I put it behind my shed while I kept thinking about where to put it (about 6+ feet high). Took me a year to realize that, as is, it was too big for my garden. Rather than get rid of it, I had my husband cut it into two pieces--1/3 and 2/3 of its original height. Now it's great for plant stands (or at Halloween for jack o lantern stands) and the benefit of a small garden, is that I have 2 instead of just one.


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RE: Principles of urban gardening?

I can relate to many of the things discussed here. Shade is the biggest issue for me with most of my west-facing back garden edged with mostly 6ft walls and fences (likewise for my front garden, but that is really tiny and the main issue there is keeping things neat in an area where pedestrians constantly pass and drop litter). I didn't know much about gardening when I moved in, but ended up creating more shade initially by planting a vigorous honeysuckle and a fatsia japonica along my east-facing fence. However I don't really regret, it as the plants look good in that spot and the honeysuckle in particular attracts bees, moths and hoverflies in the summer. My west-facing house wall is clothed in mature shrubs such as myrtle/camellia which I haven't had the heart to remove, one of the longest borders in the garden is north-facing, and the south-facing wall gets partly overshadowed by other features like an Acer palmatum in the middle of the lawn, and a greenhouse, both put there by the previous owner.

Initially I resented the greenhouse for occupying a sunny spot and taking up too much space, seeing that as a white elephant, but now I like to grow tomatoes and chillies in there, and even go and sit out there with my seedlings on a sunny winter day, enjoying the extra warmth. I've dug an extra border on one side of it, in order to cram in some more flowers and partially mask all the unsightly garden tools and pots I'm storing in there.

I've learned to love some plants which can cope with dry shade such as Iris foetidissima and Bergenia as well as getting some showier ones in the sunnier spots, and I've dug up more of my lawn to make extra borders in the sunniest place. But I do need a small spot to sit out in the summer so there is always going to be some space I don't cram with plants.

Soil can also get bone-dry in summer but then the general climate-change trend in southeastern Britain seems to be for hotter drier summers and wetter milder winters, so this is by no means unique to any garden in this region. Also, perhaps because my house was built around 25 years ago on top of an industrial site, the clay soil is not deep and I still discover rubble in there. I guess improving poor, compacted soil may be an issue for other urban gardeners wherever they are. I make compost in a plastic bin, even though it's unsightly and takes up yet more space - my soil really needs it!

I've also had to consider security since there have been a number of break-ins in my area. After catching a burglar in my garden one night, only 2 weeks after my neighbour had seen someone else out there, I decided to plant pyracantha along part of my south-facing well even though I had recently dug out a rather boring viburnum and had my my heart set on something more exotic there. So I think keeping intruders out of your garden can be a consideration for an urban gardener, though I know this can happen in the country too.


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RE: Principles of urban gardening?

I worry (a little) about security too. I've lined the front porch with climbing roses, leaving just the main entrance un-encumbered. They do take work, though, and I'm having trouble keeping them within bounds. Too much pruning and they don't bloom. Too little and they flop on everyone and everything and threaten the neighbors.


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RE: Principles of urban gardening?

I would add that most plants need to do "double duty." A flowering plant that blooms for 2 weeks in June can't just fade into the background (what background?) when it's done--it also has to have great summer foliage, say, and interesting seed pods. A tree can't "just" be a (little tiny) shade tree but should also have gorgeous fall color and a great winter shape.

I'm getting excited about currant bushes--they're drought tolerant, do well in sun or shade, have fragrant blossoms in spring, nifty-looking leaves all summer, good fall color, and fruit that looks good on the bush, tastes good, & preserves easily. What a multitasker!


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RE: Principles of urban gardening?

Buy inexpensive, lightweight plastic containers if you plan to have plants hiding them completely. But buy high-end fiberglass, stone or metal pots if you want the pots to be seen and contribute to the overall look of the garden. I also have a web site, about smaller gardens for urban spaces with links and resources in the left nav bar, which are great free resources I've found from all over the Web. Enjoy.

Here is a link that might be useful: Compact Garden


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