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Urban Gardening in Small Spaces

By PAMELA DITTMER MCKUEN
The gardens of summer are beckoning us outdoors for interludes of relaxation and conviviality. But urban dwellers needn’t head for the parks and preserves. They can fashion their own green retreats, even when the available space is better measured in inches than acres. And offer no earth to dig. Whether yours is a balcony, deck, rooftop terrace or narrow city lot, begin by understanding its micro-climate, says Seth Harper, a horticulturalist at the Peggy Notebaert Nature Museum in Chicago. The conditions are more severe than you might expect. On high-rises, for example, the upper-most balconies endure stronger wind and more intense sun than the lower ones. On ground level, homes can sit so closely together that the nooks and plots between them rarely catch daylight.
 
 “Don’t try to force plants where they don’t want to grow,” he says.

“There are no magic bullets, which are plants that grow everywhere. You have to be thoughtful about it.”
  
Most likely you’ll be planting in containers. Almost any type will do as long as it drains, but plants don’t adore confinement.
   
Containers add further stress by limiting the room for roots to spread, and they expose them to greater temperature fluctuations. Some choices are better than others. Copper teapots and other metal vessels heat up too quickly. Color makes a difference, too. “A dark container absorbs the radiation of the sun like the black dashboard of your car, and it can roast the roots of your plants,” says Harper.

Container gardens require extra-frequent watering and fertilizer treatments because plants have less natural access to the nutrients they need than do plants in the ground, says Mike Murgiano, a rooftop and patio gardener who lives in Lakeview. Professionally, he is a market manager for seed products for plant breeder Syngenta Flowers Inc. in Greensboro, N.C. Another tip: If you re-use your containers, besure to replace the old soil with fresh potting mix every year, advises Kristan McGuigan, Syngenta market manager for vegetative material.
 
“Plants from earlier seasons have eaten all the food and used up all the nutrients,” she says. McGuigan gardens in-ground beds at her North Aurora home.
  
You also need to check the rules of your community association if your building is governed by one. Associations typically bar residents from adding plant material to existing landscaping or attaching anything permanent to decks and balconies. “You don’t want to spend a bunch of money and have to take it down because you violated an association rule or city building code,” says landscape designer Craig Jenkins-Sutton, president and co-owner of Topiarius Urban Garden and Floral Design in Chicago.
  
The next step is to select plant material that will prosper in your particular environment. Ask for recommendations from your garden center or landscape designer. And be flexible about your choices, or you might be disappointed. You might want to replicate a patio garden you found in a magazine or catalog only to learn those species don’t thrive in the Midwest or need more sun than you can provide.
  
Or consider Syngenta’s Kwik Kombos ™ collection, which removes the guesswork from choosing plants that grow well together. These ready-made assortments are pre-selected for compatibility and can be transplanted into your decorative pots and urns.
 
“We have the recipe in place, whether you need plants that will grow in the shade or sun sor produce early blooms,” says Murgiano. “The colors and textures are all ready put together, so you don’t have to worry about matching.”
 
“We make sure the Kwik Kombos ™grow at the same rate so there is always a balanced combination,” says McGuigan. “They’ll be just as stunning at the end of summer as at the beginning of summer.”

Depending on the location, you may wish for a themed garden. A few suggestions: Desert scenes will be happy in hot, dry spaces. Many miniature vegetables, such as eggplant, tomatoes and peppers, have been cultivated to grow compactly and prolifically; intersperse them with annual flowers for a unique array of color and shape.  Put in a small water feature with the Patio Pond by smartpond ®. It’s a handsome, easy-to-assemble unit that measures less than a yard square. Just add a few aquatic plants.
  
If you are drawn to butterflies, note that they are not high-flyers. They prefer large patches of flowers, which they locate by sight. “It’s pretty unlikely that a butterfly tooling along 20 feet above the ground can see the three plants on your 10th floor balcony,” says Harper.
  
“Think about the overall look you want to achieve,” says Jenkins-Sutton. “Do you want permanent plantings or seasonal ones? Do you want evergreens out there or annual flowers? If you want more of a perennial-type planting, your plant palette goes from 10,000 plants to like 7. You can do it, but there are some sacrifices to be made.”
   
But plant life is only one element of your setting. Others are furniture, flooring, screening and weather protection. Topiarius customizes solutions to fit a client’s space, location, objectives and requirements.
  
Privacy is often an issue at townhome and rowhouse communities, where neighboring decks and patios are closely aligned. One of Jenkins-Sutton’s favorite clients sought privacy for his small first-floor terrace, which was easily viewed by upstairs and adjacent neighbors. The association’s rules prohibited permanent structures. Topiarius designed and built a free-standing aluminum pergola—complete with lights—that can be assembled and disassembled like an erector set. On other projects they have created screens with opaque glass, slatted wood, metal sheets with decorative cut-outs, and rows of stately urns planted with tall, dense evergreens.
 
“You can’t always get total privacy, but you can get a sense of enclosure as well as airflow and light,” says Jenkins-Sutton.
  
On another project, also where rules didn’t allow attachments, paving stones were laid atop small pucks rather than secured to the concrete floor.
 
“It’s amazing the creativity you can do,” he says. “That’s how you get instant impact.”
 
And you’ll never have to mow.

Published: June 15, 2013
Issue: Summer 2013 Issue