7 expert tips for making the most of small urban gardens

7 expert tips for making the most of small urban gardens

Do you have a small urban plot in need of some TLC? Perhaps you’ve moved into a city and are craving an outdoor haven of plants and perennials, but you’re short on space?

Top garden designer and TV presenter Adam Frost, who will be giving advice at the BBC Gardeners’ World Live show in June, offers the following tips to create an outdoor sanctuary in a city space…

1. Make a plan

However small, size it out on a piece of paper. Measure the plot up and start to organise it on a little scale plan, which with a small garden is really easy to do. It doesn’t have to be spot on but it’s a good way of understanding the space.

It’s the same principle as if you were laying out a kitchen or a bathroom. Make sure that whatever you are going to do fits into the space. If you want a table and chairs that sits four people, you’ll need a paved area that fits the bill.

2. Sun or shade?

Shaded areas require shade-loving plants (iStock/PA)
Shaded areas require shade-loving plants (iStock/PA)

Find plants which will grow comfortably in your conditions. How much sun does your garden get? Will you need to green up a shady area? Are your plants going to be sheltered or in a wind tunnel? All this will have a bearing on what you can grow in an urban space.

“A lot of urban spaces tend to be quite shady, so I tend to use quite a lot of woodland plants and hard-working plants such as hardy geraniums, euphorbias and ferns, which work well in shady conditions,” says Frost. “Climbers for shade also work well, such as Hydrangea petiolaris, while plants with smaller leaves such as trachelospermum, an evergreen climber, can work well in smaller spaces.”

3. Know your soil

Know your soil (iStock/PA)
Know your soil (iStock/PA)

“Whatever garden you have, whether it’s the size of a postage stamp or rolling acres, you need to understand your soil. As time goes on you need to care for it because while the size of your garden doesn’t matter, the condition of your soil does.”

Test it – understand if it’s acid or lime (you can buy a simple soil-testing pH kit from garden centres), get your hands in it to feel if it’s heavy (clay) or sandy, and enrich it with organic matter depending on the condition of the soil and what you want to grow. If you don’t have any soil for beds or borders, think about the soil you’re going to put into containers. Make sure you are providing the right mixes for the plants you want to grow.

Other ingredients may need to be added to multipurpose compost (Hannah Stephenson/PA)
Other ingredients may need to be added to multipurpose compost (Hannah Stephenson/PA)

“We think multipurpose compost will solve everything, but it won’t,” ads Frost. “I liken it to a bag of flour – if you’re making a cake, it’s your starting point. Long term, you may want to put gravel in it or mix it with soil, depending on what you are growing.”

4. Don’t think small in a small space

Bold canna lilies may brighten up small spaces (iStock/PA)
Bold canna lilies may brighten up small spaces (iStock/PA)

“With small spaces, we tend to think everything’s got to be small but that’s not necessarily true. Bigger, bolder leaves can work in smaller spaces. Just make sure that if you’re going to add a tree to a small space, it’s not going to overpower the space and cut all the light out,” says Frost. “When you buy plants, make sure there’s lots of contrast in leaf and shape, and in flowers.”

You can put smaller trees or larger shrubs in small spaces, but make sure they will fit the space and check their growth habit – whether they are slow-growing or vigorous – and their final size both in height and spread.

5. Fill your boundaries

Foliage can make your boundaries disappear (iStock/PA)
Foliage can make your boundaries disappear (iStock/PA)

“The most important thing is how you fill your boundaries. You either design the boundaries, for instance painting a panelled fence to bring it alive,” says Frost. “Alternatively, if you add plants which soften the boundaries, you can start to lose the boundaries of your garden. Then if there are plants around you, such as trees in other people’s gardens, you can start to borrow those and bring them into your space.

“The illusion is that you don’t quite know where your boundaries start or finish. The best small gardens I’ve been to have lost their boundaries.”

6. Mix pot sizes

Lavender and heather are both low-maintenance in pots (iStock/PA)
Lavender and heather are both low-maintenance in pots (iStock/PA)

Work on the basis that if you are putting a shrub in a container, always put it in the biggest pot, whereas summer bedding and softer tender plants will grow happily in smaller pots. Just remember the smaller the pot, the more you’ll have to water it in summer.

7. Create distractions from eyesores

Tall grass can hide a garden eyesore (iStock/PA)
Tall grass can hide a garden eyesore (iStock/PA)

“Sometimes you can’t hide eyesores in a small space, but you can change the perspective of where you look. You could put a large feathery shrub or some tall grasses in front of an eyesore but you might be better off with a strong focal point, such as a water feature or a pot or statue, that draws the eye away from an ugly sight,” suggests Frost. “Consider if you have space to turn your seating area away from the eyesore.”

Adam Frost will be sharing tips and advice in the BBC Gardeners’ World Live Theatre when the show takes place at the NEC Birmingham, June 13-16. For tickets and information, visit bbcgardenersworldlive.com.

- Press Association

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