08 April 2024

5 expert design tips for urban gardeners

08 April 2024

Living in a town or city may often seem like a huge barrier for novice gardeners, with reduced space and lots of concrete and shady corners.

But it is possible to turn your urban space into a grower’s paradise – as will be demonstrated at the RHS’ new Urban Show in Manchester, which will be awash with inspiration for city dwellers.

“Everybody living in an inner city has a different space, a different size and a different criteria for what they want to get from their garden, and I think it can overwhelm people who have a smaller outside space,” says designer Conal McGuire, who scooped a gold medal and people’s choice award for his ‘Brickyard’ garden at last year’s RHS Flower Show Tatton Park in Knutsford, Cheshire, and is designing an ‘Urban Shade’ garden at the Manchester show.

“They may think, ‘There’s nothing I can do’, when in fact there’s lots that you can do to benefit the environment and yourself.”

McGuire offers the following design tips to budding gardeners, who don’t know where to start with their urban plot…

1. Use all your space

“If you’ve a small garden or yard, use all vertical space, go vertical, go horizontal. Don’t be afraid of planting big plants, which can really give an impression of a much bigger space,” he advises.

McGuire has built narrow grow frames which could be used to support climbing plants or other varieties, depending on how high you want to go. “They give people the opportunity to encourage wildlife and biodiversity in a space that is traditionally quite sterile.”

2. Blur the edges and borders

“Big plants blur the edges. If, for instance, you plant a tree in a container and put it in the corner of the yard, instead of seeing that corner as a definition of the area around it, you blur the border of your outside space and create an illusion of depth,” explains McGuire.

“All of the height above the tree is vertical space that is often overlooked, so you are kind of borrowing free space from above that you usually wouldn’t use.”

Suitable trees for containers include ornamentals such as magnolias, colourful-leaved acers or figs, trees which offer dappled light, aren’t too obstructive and provide seasonal interest flowers, he suggests.

3. Attract wildlife

This is possible in all urban gardens, McGuire says – even if you just have some shelving on your outside wall where you place pollinator-friendly plants in pots to attract bees, butterflies and other beneficial insects.

In a larger city garden, try planting at least some of your boundary with native hedging, even if it’s just the back rear wall or the front garden boundary.

“If you put in a native hedge and the neighbour copies you, that can have a huge impact on the environment,” he says. “You can easily buy native mixed hedging at different levels of maturity. Any dense planting acts as buffer and helps noise reduction, and will definitely have an impact, softening the space and making it more enjoyable.”

Native hedges will also attract local wildlife, while the area you have dug to plant the hedging will help provide sustainable urban drainage.

4. Go for companion planting

If you are growing vegetables, think about companion planting – so put peas with parsnips, parsley with carrots, interplanting with marigolds and even some garlic, which can act as a natural deterrent to whitefly and negates the need for any spray.

“Even in a small space, you can have a great mix of planting. It could be fruit and veg, depending on your positioning, but could also feature wildlife habitats, like bug houses or bee hotels, which are quite versatile.”

5. Avoid excessive hard landscaping

Don’t over-engineer your small urban garden with hard landscaping. Instead, use planting as the key material, McGuire advises. Plants such as Trachelospermum jasminoides (star jasmine), a climber, can completely transform a boundary and has the added advantage of scent and is attractive to pollinators.

“Minimise excessive construction if it’s not needed. As for materials, if you live in an older property you could use reclaimed brick, which can be laid in a contemporary pattern,” says McGuire. “Some people like to use compressed stones and gravels, which can be texturally quite nice in a small space. Pea gravel, for instance, will give you a bit of crunch outside and is a budget-friendly choice.”

Obviously, your options here may also depend on whether you rent your property, in which case you’re unlikely to be able to change the nature of the landscaping and may have to rely on pots and furniture to create your own style.

“If you own the garden, you can look at patios and pavements. But try to create an indoor outdoor atmosphere, don’t give yourself just an outdoor room, especially in a city,” McGuire adds. “Give yourself a designated seating area, such as a small bistro table and two chairs that can completely transform a little yard, especially if you have wrap-around planting.”

The RHS Urban Show runs from April 18-21 at Depot Mayfield, Central Manchester.

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