News & Politics

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

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

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

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

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,

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

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

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.”