Ten Top Tips for Small, Shady Urban Gardens

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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.

Categories: Container gardening, Flowers, Foliage, Garden Design, Landscape Design, Perennials, Photography, Planting Design, Small Gardens

Posted by The Frustrated Gardener

Greetings Garden Lover! Welcome to my blog. Plants are my passion and this is my way of sharing that joyful emotion with the world. You'll find over 1000 posts here featuring everything from abutilons to zinnias. If you've enjoyed what you've read, please leave a comment and consider subscribing using the yellow 'Follow' button in the bottom, right-hand corner of your screen. You will receive an email every time I post something new.

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42 comments On "Ten Top Tips for Small, Shady Urban Gardens"

  1. 11. Purchase the multi-million dollar monster homes that have infested and grown up in the adjacent parcels, demolish them and their high fences to get more sunlight, and replant the orchards that used to be there.

    1. 😂 Love it! We have similar issues here in ‘quaint’ England. Every inch of available land is being built on. I was commended by a dog walker at the weekend for not developing my garage as they had expected a three storey house to be built there. I could, but my garden would be darker than hell!

      1. I get used to get complaints from my mother’s neighbors who thought that her home should be replaced with something more modern. I think that they should go back to where they came from. It so annoys me that they ruined the neighborhood with their huge homes inhabited by only two people and surrounded by those weirdly high fences. What are they doing in there that is so secret? They all hate trees. They all hate classic architecture. They all hate American cars. They all seem to hate everything about what was once an idyllic lifestyle, but the keep coming and complaining about being there. Wow, sorry about the rant.

      2. You go rant! We have a few roads here in Broadstairs where all that happens is that people buy a house, pull it down or remodel it to look as blank and soulless as possible and then park half a dozen German cars on the acre of paving in front. I don’t know where they are from, but they have very flaky taste!

      3. Okay, no ranting, but where do you think they are coming from? Everyone all over the world is wondering. Doesn’t it seem strange that no one has an answer? If they are coming here, and they are coming there, and they are coming everywhere else, then . . . where are they leaving? Is some other part of the world being vacated. Are we not hearing about it because there is no one there to tell us about it?

      4. The answer here is ‘London’. More often than not. Property is cheap, the commute is acceptable, the seaside is very appealing. I can’t complain too much as I also came via London, but my strategy is very much to fit in, not stick out!

      5. . . . but that is probably not the culture of London either, and the people of London probably ask where those people come from too. It is a mystery.

  2. I just loved this post, and the generous, down-to-earth advice! I am inspired by the words, the pictures, the honesty, and the details. I devour the details! The soil types, the aspects, which plants where, the locales, the weather. I live about 800 feet above sea level in the Pacific Northwest surrounded by towering firs and cedars….a mostly temperate Vancouver climate but the elevation means ‘alpine’ conditions may prevail in some years. My soil is mostly rocky clay and so acidic. I can regularly dig giant boulders out of the ground, too heavy for me to move around alone. I’m learning to love ferns too 🙂 Like you have described, different uses dictate design. I have a sunny backyard, mostly west facing, but it’s where the kids play and creating a beautiful garden here just has to wait. It’s not fair to put beautiful plants in the landing zone of the soccer balls and hockey pucks. Here, cedars big and small, maples, yews, laurels all look green and healthy and can withstand all the children play. The sunny south facing side yard is my pretty oasis, in which the sumptuous peony takes center stage. In my imagination, this is where I am creating a beautiful mixed border ala Christopher Lloyd, or Penelope Hobhouse! It wraps around to the east facing front yard that is a west coast forest scene with a small grove of 200 ft firs under-planted with enormous rhodos and camellias. I added a number of choisya ternata here that have grown to five feet tall….a Mexican native thriving on the Canadian mountainside. The ferns, hellebores, hostas, heather, Japanese anemone, clematis Montana have all done a bit better than survive here. Thanks for sharing your gardening ups and downs, your posts are the best thing to find in my inbox!

    1. I’d love to see pictures of your Vancouver gardens. (Do you mean B.C.?) I live in much dryer Central Washington state but, in our four decades here, I’ve managed to create my own microclimates from a sunny herb garden to a shady Asian retreat, as well as English-style gardens of roses and perennials.

    2. Despite the rocks, soccer balls and hockey pucks I can guarantee most people reading this comment will now have serious garden envy! I am dribbling just thinking about the rhododendrons and camellias, which is what I’d plant if I had the space and the right growing conditions. I’d plant them as far as the eye could see and for as long as my budget would hold out!

      I am so delighted you enjoy reading my posts and thankful for your lovely, evocative comment. You had me at ‘towering firs and cedars’! Dan

  3. This week’s post on your blog is inspiring me to return to my Asian Garden project on the north side of the house. A dislocated shoulder and torn ligament in June of last year has hampered much of my gardening joy. Right now, my herb garden needs the most attention. In the meantime, I’ll research and write about the cloistered herb gardens of the old monasteries. Think Caedbury!

    1. I’m thinking! Both Herterton House and Alnwick Castle in Northumberland have poison gardens, if those are of interest for your research. Neither are old, but they demonstrate that the interest in edible and medicinal plants continues.

      I hope your shoulder gets better soon so that you are able to throw yourself into gardening again. The Asian Garden (I am thinking Japanese, right?) sounds like a great project to have. Dan

  4. I loved reading this article and seeing your uncle’s beautiful garden. I live on a large corner plot. Unfortunately there are two large Council trees outside my walls. One a large beech tree the other a large lime tree. I have clay soil. The roots of both invade my garden, moreso the lime. So frustrating digging roots out every year. Barriers have been put in place by the walls but it doesn’t stop the roots. I am restricted as to what I can plant and it takes an age to dig a hole to plant something. It’s like digging through a carrot bag. The roots have lifted paving in the garden. You would think that having a large garden I could plant just what I like. Not so. Last year I planted 50 alliums – not one flowered. The matter is now in the hands of loss adjusters, who say just because I have trees outside my house doesn’t mean the roots belong to their trees! So, my dahlias have for years been in large pots.
    I heard it said on a Gardener’s Question Time programme that anyone who plants a lime tree within 15 feet of a house, particularly on clay soil, is highly irresponsible. I agree.

    1. Me too. Limes are stunning trees, but messy ones, and far too large to be close to buildings.

      I feel your pain with the trees. They can be so divisive. Beautiful, cooling, sheltering on one hand, destructive and dehydrating on the other. Planted carelessly without consideration for their future scale they can cause a lot of angst. However, it sounds like you are persevering and working around them as best you can. The Loss Adjusters sound suitably pedantic. I wonder whoever sets out to have a career as a Loss Adjuster?

  5. Great advice, Dan. Wish I was able (i.e. had any restrain) to follow your first one… Love the photographs – your uncle’s garden is amazing and hosta leaves get me hooked every time – would make wonderful posters for a “calm” zone in anyone’s home.

    I would like to add an aspect to point 6: in a small urban garden you are likely to have one or two “views” of the garden which you’ll see most often. Usually these are from the house and perhaps from a seating area in the garden itself. While you touch on “viewpoints” and how to lead the eye via vistas or by deliberately concealing/ obscuring, I’d recommend giving equal thought to the “view” that may not immediately spring to mind:
    Myself, I have spent more time looking at the garden from my bedroom window upstairs than even being in the garden, I guess. It may only be ten minutes’ musing of what needs doing or nothing in particular at the end of the day, but I find myself “hanging out of the window” a lot. From there I can easily overlook the entire (patio)plot. Not ideal, perhaps, but I make sure that my many pots are arranged so as to create the best picture from that particular angle. Though you would not notice that when in the garden.
    Even if yours is densely planted with tall, jungle-like plants, say, I’d suggest that there could still be “something nice” to rest your eye on from that higher vantage point – a gap in the canopy through which you can glimpse a special plant in a container, perhaps – even if at ground level it does not appear to be “a view”.

    1. Good point, very well made Stefanie. I am now kicking myself as this was in my notes and in my rush to publish the article I left it out. I will now go back and correct my omission. The point of including the image of Rhododendron ‘Percy Wiseman’ (splendid plant) is that this is immediately …. and I mean immediately …. outside my uncle’s kitchen window. So, when he’s washing up, this is what he sees, framed by the window. Glorious, although not all-year-round. I had a whole section about views from above and edited that out as I felt the same would apply to a larger garden, but this wasn’t the smartest logic.

      I am glad I have a follower like you who a) knows the subject and b) is prepared to leave constructive comments. If I ever need a collaborator or an editor I know where to look!

      1. You are being too kind 🙂 . (While I wouldn’t mind doing a project together one day – question is: would you really want to do it with such an annoying “know-it all”??? 😉 )
        I did wonder about the rhododendron pic, apart from its purely decorative purpose, of course – so one line of caption will render my comment totally irrelevant. What a glorious thing to have in front of the kitchen window, I don’t think I’d get much washing up done in May! In this spirit: hope you get to enjoy the fabulous streak of spring weather right now and feel you can leave the washing up in the sink (so to speak)!

      2. I’ve had my fair share of time off in April and May so I can’t complain. I adore May and struggle with having to work at all! I’ll be off all of next week for Chelsea – starting Sunday – which is a first for me!

  6. Hello Dan, thanks for the top 10.
    As a recent subscriber to the blog, I am delighted with the detail and well considered advice you share. Much appreciated.
    Looking forward to the summer garden.

    Cheers from down under ( Melbourne).

    1. Thank you Adrian. Welcome to The Frustrated Gardener, from the The Frustrated Gardener! Good to have another Melbournite (is that right?) on board. You join a few others, including my good friend Helen of Oz, from Hurstbridge.

  7. Sounds and looks like gardening runs in the genes. Your uncle’s garden is gorgeous. I have a shade area where we have a sitting area but also have a propane tank with a lattice work enclosure. Necessary but pretty much an eyesore. But, I try to draw your eye to several hanging pots of annuals, hosta of all shape and size, bleeding hearts, a few pieces of garden art, and my living firepit of Crotons surrounded by small pieces of wood. Thanks for sharing your tips. 🙂

  8. Loved your advice and the inspiring photos!! My small front yard (which happily no longer has a lawn) is a combination of sun and shade and you’ve given me some great ideas for the shady areas. – Karen

    1. I really should have mentioned lawn. I have never bothered growing one since I’ve had a garden of my own as they are largely pointless in small, shaded gardens. If they succeed at all, they need a disproportionate amount of care and attention. Less lawn = more plants!

  9. Excellent advise. I love designing gardens for small spaces. They can be fun and intimate and a retreat from the noise and commotion of city life. Thank you for sharing! Have saved this one in Pinterest : )

  10. I’m going to save this post as my south-facing garden already has lots of shade and is going to get a load more when my neighbour puts in a new fence…. A pond is a definite must when that happens – and I’m definitely going to get ferns 😊

  11. Your uncle has a gorgeous garden and I love the brick path! I have a shady border which I refer to as my ‘woodland’ border and have been busy cramming it with shade-loving plants. It already has many ferns and hardy geraniums and heuchera so I just wanted to add some colour. Astrantias and Aquilegias here I come! Thank you for such an informative and sensible post Dan. Lots of ideas here and I really want to get a Buddha like your uncle has for my front steps. North facing, but not dense shade so I am going to fill it with pots of ferns and maybe a dwarf Acer or two 🙂

  12. Dear Dan, your uncle’s garden is absolutely gorgeous! I wanted to point out one more issue with small urban gardens: they often come with rented properties (at least in the US). So you are renting a row house or a condo and have this piece of land you’d love to turn into a garden. But since you may have to move out in a year or two, things like trees are hard to incorporate into such a harden. My solution is growing in pots. Yes, they may be gigantic to incorporate a plant of decent size, but you can take them with you as you move…

  13. May I put in a vote for repeat planting – the same plant or plantings in three or more beds ( even on very small plots ) draws a space together and satisfies the brain’s eye. IMHO.

  14. I am a beginner gardener in Hampton Hill and wowed by the thoughtful detail and advice. I will return to this post over and over – thank you so much. Thanks also to the commenters who add much richness in their discussion! Delighted to have found Stephanie’s blog.

  15. Thank you, thank you for sharing your knowledge! What a treat! I’ll be sharing this with my local garden group.

  16. So much love and care and attention in a small space. It’s so inspiring to see this garden again, I feel like I’m there! Mary and Catherine

  17. Hello 😊
    Great article – just the inspiration I needed for my small urban front garden. Can you tell me what is the variety of aquilegia pictured – I want that exact one!

  18. Great Article! The tips you have mentioned in this article for urban gardens are impressive, helpful for those who are looking for it. Thanks for sharing valuable information!

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