Gardening in the city has its challenges. Not only do urban gardeners have to contend with noise, pollution and shade cast from nearby buildings and overgrown city trees, but available soil is typically too lean to cultivate, that is, if you happen to be lucky enough to have a yard. Add to that the feeling of constantly rubbing elbows with neighbours and one may be tempted to spend summers hiding indoors.

Fortunately, increasing demand for a piece of greenery has spawned a slew of creative solutions to the urban gardener’s unique challenges and plants now occupy roof-tops and community plots and just about any place that holds soil. Where there is a will there is a way, as the saying goes. Plant breeders too are responding to increased demand for compact plants and putting out interesting varieties every year.

Creating an urban garden requires more restraint than one of a generous size; mistakes are rarely lost on tiny cityscapes. Following are other tips for urban gardeners:

1. Plant small to mid-sized trees

Just because you live in the city doesn’t mean you can’t have a tree with all its advantages. But a postage stamp sized lot is not the place for a towering silver maple or tree of similar stature that will quickly outgrow its allotted space and shade everything in its vicinity. Instead, opt for tough, ornamental, and seasonally diverse small to mid-sized trees such as serviceberry, redbud, Japanese maples and dogwoods that grow to under 8 metres (25 feet). Columnar or pyramidal oaks and cedars and beeches are also useful in cramped quarters since most of their growth is vertical rather than outward.

2. Avoid a garden of miniatures

Although it may be tempting to use only dwarf or petite plants when garden space is limited, don’t — or you risk having a garden that makes you feel like Alice in Wonderland. To prevent the garden from looking out of scale with the surroundings, include a variety of plant sizes, using dwarf plants to fill restricted spaces only when necessary.

3. Plant densely

You may think the opposite to save space, but including a variety of annuals, perennials, vines, shrubs and groundcovers along with small conifers and trees will give urban yards the illusion of space while concealing eyesores like utility poles and visual boundaries like fences. Strategic planting in dense layers is the way to design success.

4. Grow up

Unlike plants that hog precious ground, vines ramble up trellises, fences and pergolas using more abundant vertical space and become the walls of your garden room, providing a cozy sense of enclosure. Creative containers featuring living walls in frames also make it possible to grow even non-vining plants on almost any vertical surface

5. Make everything count

Make the most of your space by using built-ins such as benches or low walls that double as seating. Espalier a fruit-tree horizontally along a fence to make best use of light in narrow yards while also providing food.

6. Keep it simple

Cluttering small spaces with clashing materials, or too many colours and garden ornaments is unsettling visually and creates chaos instead of calm. Simplifying the design and sticking to one focal point will give your space more impact.

Don’t be disillusioned by your small urban lot. Well-designed gardens in such spaces are charming, while being affordable and more manageable than those on sprawling suburban lots. A garden with less maintenance ultimately means urban gardeners will have more free time to relax and enjoy the fruits of their labour.

Elaine Sanders can be reached at

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