Ten Top Tips for Small, Shady Urban Gardens

Do you live in a town or city centre? Is your garden small, overlooked or in shadow for part of the day? Is digging your soil like cutting bricks or carrying out an archaeological dig? If the answer to any of these questions is ‘yes’ and you’re attempting to make a successful urban garden, then you’ll already be familiar with some of the challenges. Fear not, help is at hand.

My uncle’s garden in Stoke Newington, London, is a masterclass in how to tackle a small, mostly shaded, urban garden on heavy clay soil. Although I have used it exclusively to illustrate this post, other styles are, of course, more than possible to achieve. His garden is brimming with colour, texture, interest and soothing sound, whilst providing a haven for wildlife. It’s a calm oasis, lovely to spend time in at any point in the day. All sense of being hemmed in by other buildings diffuses the moment one steps outside the back door. Over the years my uncle’s garden has been one of my greatest sources of inspiration, although I have never mastered his restraint when it comes to adding new (i.e. unnecessary) plants. He’s got the balance just right. That’s tip number one – keep it simple and don’t over-clutter. The garden suits his lifestyle and provides what he needs – a peaceful space for mediation, reading, enjoying a coffee or gently pottering. As such, it’s as close to perfection as a garden gets.

Tricky but far from impossible conditions are typical of so many city gardens, yet often owners abandon hope of creating a beautiful space to relax or entertain in. On my daily commute into London I gaze down from the train and survey the full spectrum of horticultural endeavour passing by, from total abandonment (in that I include concreting over the lot – this is not making a garden) to soulless, ‘money’s no object’ designer splendour. With a little knowledge and effort one can create a pleasing, low maintenance, useable space without going to these extremes.

Small urban plots offer many advantages over larger gardens, in particular a warmer microclimate than their out-of-town counterparts. This permits the cultivation of tender and exotic plants, many of which are tolerant of lower light levels and poor soils. Urban gardens can also be easier to maintain and less expensive to make due to their smaller proportions. However it’s far from plain sailing. Lack of light, heavy, dry, rubble-laden soil and awkward access, often through the heart of the home, can be major constraints; added to which the channelling of air between walls and fences can create harmful drafts and eddies that will topple and scorch all but the toughest plants.

The good news is that all of these obstacles can be overcome if you know how. I have gardened three very different urban plots over the last twenty years. The first was a tiny, north-east facing square backing on to a graveyard in Reading. Shaded for most of the day it became a haven for ferns, camellias, acers and hostas. My second attempt at city gardening was in London, this time on a larger plot. Formerly a school playground it was bestowed with a similarly challenging aspect and the densest, stickiest clay I’ve ever encountered. Again there were ferns and hostas, but this time a small pond too. The sunniest quartile was reserved for growing fruit and veg, and for sitting in. My third and current garden faces due east. There is nothing much between its boundary and the Belgian coastline, unless you count the chilly English Channel. The garden has vaulted undercrofts beneath it, hence no soil to speak of. It’s effectively a ground floor roof garden: unique, but not hopeless conditions. Finally, my uncle’s garden is west-facing, on London clay and occupies the smallest plot of the lot. Yet it is wonderful – as pleasing and immersive as a garden extending over many acres.

So, without further ado, here are my ten top tips for making the most of a small, shady urban plot. I present them in no particular order and some may not apply to your situation. If you have other tips to share with would-be urban gardeners, please do leave them in the comments section below.

1. Keep it simple

Gardens the size of Sissinghurst can afford to have different colour themes and spaces doing nothing of particular interest for large chunks of the year. In a small garden one needs to be focussed and decisive. Cramming too much in will make a garden feel cluttered and unsatisfactory. Accept your garden’s limitations and turn every disadvantage into a virtue. If your garden is dark and damp, grow only beautiful ferns and cascading ivies which will enjoy the conditions and create an other-worldly effect. If soil is non-existent, invest in the biggest containers you can and plant boldly and simply in those. But don’t attempt to recreate a country estate in a space the size of handkerchief – disappointment is guaranteed to ensue.

Bear in mind that quality of finish really matters in a small garden as it will be viewed from close quarters. Use the best quality materials you can and pay attention to how they are installed. The same goes for plants – buy once and buy the best.

(If you are unsure what style of garden suits you most, get out and visit other people’s before you embark on your own project. Several small urban gardens open as part of the National Garden Scheme, particularly in London. During the London Open Squares Weekend (9-10 June 2018) the gates of private gardens large and small are thrown open for the public to enjoy.)

2. Play with Scale

Small gardens are, by default, small. This does not mean they have to be filled with small plants, in fact quite the contrary. Tall boundaries and low light levels already make everything in a garden appear smaller and darker, so you need to think big. Create the illusion of generous space by using large-scale paving materials, and putting in place a framework of bold, architectural plants. Fatsia japonica, Aucuba japonica, Tetrapanax papyrifer, Pseudopanax laetus, Pittosporum tobira and Trachycarpus fortunei are all good choices, tolerant of some shade. Do not assume you can’t plant a tree* – there are many which grow sufficiently slowly (for example Phillyrea latifolia) or vertically (for example Liquidambar styraciflua ‘Slender Silhouette’) to make them suitable for all but the tiniest garden. Leading the eye upwards and outwards will make your garden appear larger. Use too many compact or dwarf plants and your garden may start to resemble a tray garden at village horticultural show.

*As an aside, I have found that large shrubs and trees absorb an extraordinary amount of noise in an urban setting. They perform the same role as carpets and curtains indoors, reducing echoes, reverberations and blotting out rowdy revellers. The noise levels in my house are a fraction of what they were before the garden was created and the plants had matured.

3. Understand how you will use your garden

We all value outdoor space for different reasons – it may be for practical purposes such as drying washing or growing vegetables; for recreational reasons such as entertaining or kicking a ball about; or simply for our own personal pleasure and satisfaction. Ensure you accommodate your key requirement first, otherwise you will be forever frustrated by your garden’s shortcomings. In planning a small space this is even more essential, as you are unlikely to have options. Where the sun falls for a few hours each day is where you’ll need to position that garden seat, or plant tomatoes, or grow sunflowers. Perhaps you can do all three. Some activities are not compatible, for example playing football and growing delicate plants, so tough choices may have to be made.

4. Borrow from your neighbours

I’m not talking about cups of sugar here, but if there’s a hint of green beyond the boundaries of your garden, borrow it. Even if your immediate neighbours are not great gardeners, a trellis or slatted fence will create the illusion that there is more to enjoy beyond. Partially open boundaries will also provide a means for insects and small birds to pass through uninhibited (unfortunately the same can be said of weed seeds, but they will travel whatever you do!) Should you have a park, landscape or appealing architecture beyond your garden boundary, think about how you can link your garden to it visually, perhaps by creating a ‘window’ in a hedge or wall, or by growing plants to disguise whatever creates the divide between your garden and the scene beyond.

5. Diffuse the wind

Do not be fooled into thinking buildings create shelter. Wind can be the silent assassin in an urban garden, causing leaves to fry and pots to topple on a breezy day. Solid barriers such as walls and fences tend to force air over and around them, creating wind tunnels and powerful eddies. The effect can be devastating. The best way to mitigate the wind’s destructive power is to diffuse, not block it. Foliage, slatted fencing and trellis will provide greater protection for your garden than anything impervious. If you are concerned about trees being blown down, it’s a good idea to have the crown thinned by a professional. Sensitive pruning can improve the shape and health of a tree, as well as reducing its mass.

6. Create focal points

You’ll experience vistas in most great gardens. You may not have Versailles’ magnificent acres, but the same rules apply to the smallest plot. Leading the eye to a point, and suggesting there is something beyond it, will trick the brain into imagining a space is larger than it is. A path which leads straight down a garden to a shed offers no such benefit. Curved or diagonal lines take the eye on a longer, slower, more intriguing journey. In my uncle’s garden a meandering brick pathway leads into the undergrowth, urging you to explore what lies beyond. It happens to be a gate onto another road, but you can’t tell.

If mystery and intrigue are not your thing, consider where your gaze might alight instead. A sculpture, water feature, planted container, seat or feature plant might all be good places. If your focal point must be a shed or studio, make sure it’s an attractive one.

Your ‘long’ vistas addressed, think about what’s going on immediately outside your windows. The kitchen is a classic, especially if you stand at the sink looking out. My uncle has a beautiful Rhododendron ‘Percy Wiseman’ planted immediately in front of his kitchen window. On a May evening it glows as if it has an inner light. The show may be fleeting, but what a vantage point from which to enjoy the flowers. If your house has a shaded side return, typical of a Victorian terrace, then a simple screen of bamboo, pruned to expose clear stems and underplanted with ferns, will provide privacy and an impression of zen-like calm.

7. Light up your space

Lack of light is usually considered a major disadvantage in a garden. I suspect this is because many of us yearn for a warm, sunlit space, brimming with bright flowers. Shade, on the whole, is not valued in the same way as sun which is a pity as it offers at least as many opportunities for good garden making.

If you feel your garden is too dark, begin by assessing whether anything can be done to remedy this. Neighbours may be willing to have trees and hedges thinned or trimmed to allow more light in. Approach the subject with sensitivity as we’ve all heard the horror stories: many people are, understandably, very protective of their privacy. Remember that you are allowed to prune any branches that overhang your property, although technically the clippings must be returned to the owner.

When you’ve done all you can with your boundaries, there are still lots of other tricks you can use to draw light into your space. Reflective materials such as glass, mirror, metal and polished stone will increase the brightness of your space, albeit subtly. Beware of using very smooth surfaces where you might slip on them when wet. Lighter coloured materials are an obvious choice but be mindful of discolouration caused by mosses and algae. The last thing you want is to devote all your spare time to is scrubbing green gunge off your expensive buff limestone. Decking is rarely a good idea in a shady garden, unless it’s specifically treated to prevent slipping.

Many plants tolerant of low light levels have darker green leaves as they’ve adapted to contain more chlorophyll for photosynthesis. To avoid your garden looking gloomy and Victorian, seek out variegated forms that will jazz up dark corners – Fatsia japonica ‘Spider’s Web’ and Aucuba japonica ‘Golden King’ are great examples. Pale-coloured flowers, especially white ones, are noted for their luminous quality in shady spots. White begonias and busy lizzies have helped me out in many a gloomy situation! Happily white flowers work especially well with dark greens, lending an air of sophistication to a formal courtyard or balcony. In light shade, you may even get away with scented flowers such as jasmine and transcendent Lilium regale. As a rule you should avoid being tempted by any plant with silver or grey felted leaves as this is a sure sign that the plant has adapted to conditions which are warm and bright. This, I’m sorry to say, completely rules out lavender, but I am sure your local garden centre will not thank me for telling you so!

Mains powered lighting will of course extend the usability of your garden. Deployed skilfully it can transform a space after dark. If you happen to be starting from scratch it’s a good idea to incorporate cabling from the off. Uplighters are especially effective if positioned beneath trees or shrubs with clear trunks. Fairly lights add twinkle and are now acceptable at any time of year, not just at Christmas. Solar powered lighting is now ubiquitous in supermarkets, DIY stores and discounters but does not produce a great deal of useful light in my experience.

8. Plant Wisely

In a small space you must think very carefully about everything you plant: this, Dear Reader, is a case of do as I say, not as I do! Every plant must earn its place. Evergreens are invaluable but don’t restrict yourself solely to them. I have done this and the effect was too static and boring. Use evergreens as a framework and be aware that they shed just as many leaves as deciduous plants, only not in the autumn. My vast hedge of Trachelospermum jasminoides is a joy, but drops leaves constantly from May until July.

Think vertical as well as horizontal, using your boundaries to host climbers. Many climbing roses and clematis are suited to north facing walls, so your garden need not be starved of colour. The climbing hydrangea, Hydrangea anomala subsp. petiolaris, is a classic for a cool, shady spot, producing lashings of frothy, white, lace-cap flowers.

Trees, as I’ve mentioned, should not be ruled out. Look out for compact or columnar hybrids, and those grafted onto dwarfing rootstocks. Several selections of malus, sorbus and acer are suitable for small gardens, providing interest from early spring until late autumn. If you are looking for something more exotic, the loquat, Eriobotrya japonica, is a popular choice, but a gloomy one in my option. I am experimenting with Eriobotrya deflexa, the bronze loquat, which is an entirely different kettle of fish. It produces glossy, copper-coloured new growth maturing to mid green. It comes from China and its hardiness is unproven. Avoid any tree that is going to grow quickly, those with brittle or spreading branches and any that are notorious for being thirsty. They will turn your soil to dust before seeking out your drains. Conifers tend to be dense, oppressive and nutrient sapping, but can be beautiful when cloud-pruned or sculpted.

I’ve already noted a selection of shrubs that will tolerate less than sunny conditions. To list all the herbaceous plants would prosper in the same situation would take an age. Ferns are an obvious choice; elegant, varied and tough to boot. Few plants surpass them in terms of beauty and longevity. Fortunately ferns are becoming popular once again, with even mediocre garden centres stocking a decent variety. There are ferns suited to both dry and damp shaded conditions. All appreciate watering until they become established, and then they will thrive on neglect. Hardy geraniums, astrantias, hostas, heucheras, tiarellas, aquilegias, brunneras, pulmonarias and primulas are on the roster of plants that will tolerate shade and less than ‘perfect’ soil conditions.

9. Improve your soil

I avoided soil science like the plague at university, but I learned enough to appreciate that no amount of gardening skill above ground level will compensate for not paying attention to what’s happening below. If your soil is full of rubble, or worse still rubbish, get it out over a period of time. Heavy clay can be countered by adding grit and copious organic matter. And you’ll need worms to work their magic. Together you won’t resolve the situation overnight, indeed it may take many years, but it’s worth the effort. I dug a palette-load of bracken compost into my London garden each year and slowly it started to improve the texture. The plants didn’t seem to mind about it half as much as I did!

If you can’t face the task of sorting your soil, then build raised beds or plant in containers, ensuring each has adequate drainage. My own situation is unusual in that I have cellars beneath my garden. In a similar situation make sure the supporting structure can take the weight of anything you decide to build on top.

10. Give it Personality

I am a firm believer that private gardens should suit their owners and no-one else. Others may judge, but in the end it’s you that has to spend time in it. If you fancy a gnome, hanker after a fuchsia-pink wall, or crave a statue of a Roman centurion, go for it. Just, please, do it with conviction. A garden can, and ultimately will reflect your personality, so whether your organised, controlling, sophisticated, playful, pensive, mindful, artistic, eccentric, stylish, kitsch or classic, bring a little of that personality into your bijou space and it will all the better for it. TFG.