How to plant a small urban garden

By Andy McIndoe

There is no doubt that gardens are getting smaller, particularly in urban areas. Small gardens in town can be challenging: surrounding buildings cast shadows meaning the garden can be in shade for much of the day or much of the year. Access can be limited; maybe only through the house. It may be difficult to dispose of garden waste, and to know where to store equipment such as garden tools and lawnmowers. It may also be very challenging to know what to grow; it is easy to make mistakes and plant shrubs, perennials and seasonal subjects that simply do not perform. However if you choose the right plants you can have colour and interest and a pleasing picture to look at throughout the year.

In a small urban garden I think it is always best to consider foliage first and flowers second. You should also opt for plants that grow up, rather than out and choose compact well-behaved shrubs. That’s probably why trimmed boxwood and sweet bay are so popular: they are controllable. You can however have a broader and more exciting planting palette than just plain green trimmed and trained evergreens. Bolder leaves instantly give more impact.

Take Fatsia japonica ‘Variegata’ for example. This cream and green variegated form of the false castor oil plant instantly adds tropical impact with its large shining architectural leaves. It is ideal in a pot and loves the shelter of a small urban garden.

Hedera algeriensis 'Gloire de Marengo'

It would look stunning against a wall or fence covered with a large-leaved variegated ivy. I would probably choose Hedera algeriensis ‘Gloire de Marengo’ with its sage, dark green and creamy white variegated leaves. Don’t be frightened of ivy; it is harmless on sound brickwork and it is easily cut back if it starts to get out of hand. These variegated large leaved ivies are nowhere near as invasive as the plain green-leaved English ivy.

You could grow it alongside a Japanese quince. The white flowered Chaenomeles speciosa ‘Nivalis’ has pure white flowers with golden stamens on the bare stems in early spring. It grows and blooms happily in shade and is quite magical grown against a brick or stone wall. Alternatively you could grow it as a rather sprawling free-standing shrub which can be kept in check by pruning straight after flowering.

Euonymus japonicus 'Kathy'

The evergreen euonymus are particularly useful in small urban gardens. They tolerate shade, poor soil and atmospheric pollution. The large leaved varieties of Euonymus japonicus can be very striking in a sheltered town garden, particularly the green and white variegated Euonymus japonicus ‘Kathy’. I have found this variety rather susceptible to damage in exposed cold situations, but it is ideal in a pot or in the open ground in a courtyard garden. It would be ideal against the chaenomeles and would maintain the colour combination when the quince has finished flowering.

Sarcococca hookeriana var. dignya

I often extol the virtues of sarcococca, the Christmas box as it is commonly known in the UK. Sarcococcas are wonderful small evergreen shrubs which produce wonderfully fragrant flowers in winter. They remain compact and well-behaved and love shade. Unfortunately they do not succeed in pots, but are ideal for narrow shady borders at the foot of climbing plants or under trees. Sarcococca hookeriana var. dignya has narrow leaves on reddish stems and pink tinged flowers with a wonderful perfume in late winter.

Helleborus x ericsmithii

The sarcococca will be blooming at the same time as many hellebores. Some of the latter have striking foliage as well as stunning flowers. There are a number of new varieties of the evergreen Helleborus x ericsmithii which are wonderfully floriferous and show off their blooms proudly rather than hanging their heads. Again they bloom well in semi-shade and would do well in an urban garden. They do seem to do well in pots if planted in loam-based compost.

Camellia 'Margaret Davis'

I love camellias but hate the vulnerability of their blooms. They are so easily ruined by frost and the subsequent warming rays of the morning sun. In the sheltered situation of an urban garden they are protected and bloom freely, even in shade. A flamboyant variety, such as Camellia japonica ‘Margaret Davis’ would be an ideal choice for a small urban garden. It is upright in habit with shining dark green leaves; a good foliage and structure plant throughout the year. In late winter and early spring the large double, waved blooms unfurl. The petals are white suffused and edged with pink; a true seasonal highlight in the garden picture. Camellias are ideal statement plants in pots filled with lime free, loam-based compost.

Coprosma 'Tequila Sunrise'

In recent years coprosmas have become increasingly popular. These small, compact shrubs have brilliantly shining small, thick leaves in a variety of colours. They are not the hardiest of subjects but are ideal in small sheltered gardens, particularly in containers close to the walls of the house. They tolerate shade but foliage colour is best if they get some sun. Try a bright, colourful variety like ‘Tequila Sunrise in an orange or red glazed pot for a real shot of colour.

Fern pot

If you prefer something quieter and cooler then don’t forget that ferns make wonderful subjects for pots in shade. The evergreen varieties look good for much of the year and you can achieve amazing planting effects by choosing a range of foliage forms. Try grouping them with Japanese maples and pots of spring flowering bulbs covered with cushions of moss.

At the end of the day the secret of success is always to plant for the situation. Forget what you like or don’t like; open your eyes to the possibilities and achieve gardening success in the smallest of urban gardens.

Andy McIndoe

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