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City Garden: Small Wonders

A townhouse with a tiny yard? A condo with none? No matter how little outdoor space you have, here’s how to create a garden.

Ways to garden in small spaces: The base of the tree at right is planted with hosta, liriope, and more. Photograph courtesy of Tom Hammond/Ginkgo Gardens

City living isn’t always conducive to sprawling gardens. Especially not in that 600-square-foot condo with the Juliet balcony.

But you don’t need a lot of land for a garden. Take it from Thomas Kapfer, a landscape designer at Ginkgo Gardens, a Capitol Hill nursery oriented to the urban gardener. “There’s a plant for nearly every environment on earth,” says Kapfer. “It’s a matter of finding the right plants for the care you can provide.”

Click to view at full size. Many tiny Georgetown gardens are best for viewing, not sitting, says designer Barbara Balman. This garden can be seen from the living room and bedrooms. Photograph by Barbara Balman/Barbara Balman Landscape Design

More good news, he says: “One of the wonderful things about gardening here is that we’re in a climate zone which is just warm enough and just cool enough and gets just enough rainfall that we can easily grow an enormous variety of plants, from cold-loving alpine plants to heat- and humidity-loving tropical plants.”

So if you’re space-challenged—with just a small balcony, a rooftop terrace, or a compact yard—there are good options for creating a garden to call your own.

First things first: Decide how you want to use the space. Are you looking to grow vegetables and herbs? Do you want to hide unsightly scenery? “Once you have the goal of the garden in mind, you can pick out which plants will work best in your growing conditions—available light being a primary consideration,” says Kapfer. Other conditions to consider include wind direction and speed, water supply, and maintenance.

If You Have a Balcony

Stuck with a view of a parking lot? A balcony garden can be a good way to screen out anything unattractive, according to Kathy Jentz, editor and publisher of Washington Gardener Magazine.

If your building allows it, Jentz recommends putting a trellis in a pot and weaving a vine around that. Even if you have space for only one pot, a single vine plant can grow higher than ten feet, giving you beautiful flowers.

Click to view at full size. You can hide an ugly view with planters hung along a fence. Window Box by Kathy Jentz/Washington Gardener

Hanging planters is another way to block out undesirable views. It also has, Jentz says, “the bonus effect of creating a cozy haven for you to feel enclosed in your own little green world.”

For those who want something more elaborate than a trellis, some firms can install custom-made planting structures on the walls of a balcony, in effect creating living walls.

“I have trained plants to grow on wires attached to the walls in a specific pattern,” says David Jochnowitz, founder of Barnes Park Landscape Development in West River, Maryland. “One of the coolest, simplest examples was when we took an old shutter with large slats and placed a board on the backside to close off the slats. With the slats facing up, we planted over it with annuals, and then we attached it to a wall.”

Be sure to secure anything top-heavy to a railing or wall, Jentz warns, as the wind could topple your greenery.

With tighter areas, there’s no space to waste, so Kapfer says you may want to choose plants that perform double duty: “If you want an evergreen shrub for a backdrop but like a garden with a lot of flowers, plant a shrub that gives you both, like a camellia.” Or you can plant something with both form and function, such as fruit trees—apples, pears, and peaches are best—which are available in dwarf forms and can be grown on walls, showing off a colorful flower display in spring before bearing fruit later in the season.

If You Have a Roof

For those who live in a townhouse or a building that allows residents to garden on a roof terrace, there are a few things to keep in mind, including the weight the roof can support and water availability. The good news is that there likely will be more space than on a balcony, and a rooftop garden might have environmental benefits.

Vegetable gardens are good options for rooftop terraces, as they will get full sunlight and don’t have to take up a lot of space. Herbs and vegetables grow well in pots.

Says Jentz: “Classic edible containers include the ‘pizza garden,’ which includes tomatoes, peppers, onions, and herbs such as oregano and basil, or the ‘griller’s herb box,’ which can have lemon verbena and dill for fish, tarragon or sage for chicken, rosemary for pork, and thyme for beef.”

As with a balcony, dwarf fruit trees are good options that provide both edibles and ornaments. Don’t forget about vegetables with decorative value, Kapfer says, such as rainbow Swiss chard, red and purple lettuces, and even okra, which offers big, pretty, tropical flowers.

If you have the option, consider installing a green roof, says Barbara Balman of Barbara Balman Landscape Design. A green roof is partially or completely covered with vegetation as well as a growing medium, and it serves many purposes, including absorbing rainwater; providing insulation; creating a habitat for wildlife such as birds, butterflies, and insects; and helping to lower urban air temperatures. For an example, you can check out a green roof at George Washington University by visiting For more information and advice, see

The most important thing is to create a space you can enjoy, especially if you have a great view. Even a garden consisting of a few pots and some chairs can be an outdoor oasis. For something more extensive, consider investing in raised planting beds, overhead structures such as pergolas for shade, and even fountains and pools.

If You Have a Small Yard

While all of the options for balconies and rooftop gardens work for small yards, you’ll likely have more space to play with on the ground.

For a calming environment, you might opt for one or two varieties of a plant in a single type of pot. Prefer something more dramatic? Combine plants in pots with this gardening formula: thriller, filler, spiller.

A “thriller” plant, says Kapfer, has height, architectural structure, and visual impact—think cannas, yuccas, and purple fountain grass. Pillowy, mounding “filler” plants, such as the brightly colored foliage of coleus and Persian shield, create atmosphere and substance. “Spiller” plants, such as sweet-potato vine or trailing nasturtium, cascade over the edge and soften the container.

If you want a lush oasis, Kapfer suggests layering small trees such as crape myrtles with midlevel shrubs—for example, dwarf oak-leaf hydrangeas or evergreen hollies. Then tuck in perennials and annuals to fill out the planting.

If you have an outdoor space but no yard to plant, there are still options. Kapfer says rock and gravel gardens can support succulents such as sedums and cacti as well as alpine plants and cool-climate bulbs that grow with little soil, including crocuses, grape hyacinths, scilla, species tulips, and Iris reticulata.

Jentz agrees: “Picking drought-tolerant plants accustomed to wind and sun exposure can be attractive and low-maintenance.”

Another good option is ornamental grasses, which come in many varieties and are some of the lowest-maintenance plants you can grow. You can use them as focal points or to add texture and atmosphere to your garden.

Ornamental grasses have the advantage of staying visually interesting all winter. “They break up the concrete feeling of being in a building,” says Balman. “Even if there’s snow on the ground, you have interesting lines in the landscape.”

  • Beatrize Stiles

    This article will surely help those who want to do their landscape. This will help them get ideas on what to do and might help them do some change of plans.

    landscaping pittsburgh

  • I totally agree with the use of a trellis to block any unwanted scenery. I once helped a friend build a trellis to screen out the busy street closest to their house. Instead of cars and pedestrians, the first thing that you see when looking out the window is a wall of beautiful bougainvillea. :)

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