City Gardens: Up Close and Personal

Mark Cullen loves city gardens and believes urbanites have a unique opportunity to create a very personal environment in their outdoor space. Here, he offers nine different ways to (beautifully, uniquely, easily) enhance your little oasis in the city.

Credit: Courtesy Mark Cullen

City gardeners have a unique opportunity to create very intimate environments in their outdoor space

An excerpt by Mark Cullen, from The Canadian Garden Primer: An Organic Approach.
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I love city gardens for their intensity.

City dwellers have the unique opportunity to create a very personal environment in their outdoor space. Though urban spaces are generally small, it is possible to transform them into beautiful and intimate gardens for relaxing, entertaining or enjoying family activities. But this cannot be achieved without careful planning and some special considerations. A skillful design that fits the space can make a small garden appear much larger.


In a small landscape, everything is up close and personal, from flowers and foliage to hard furnishings and structures. The focus is on detail, so plant selection is of utmost importance; any plant that doesn’t fit, in size or colour, will stand out. Space is at a premium: every plant should bear close inspection and have something to offer in as many seasons as possible.

choose foliage

On the downside, areas of neglect are equally noticeable: overgrown shrubs, leggy annuals, spent flowers and thriving weeds are sure to catch the eye.

While small gardens demand careful attention, they also are easier to maintain than their suburban and rural counterparts. 


To make your city garden really work for you, choose annuals and perennials that have unusual and interesting leaves as well as flowers. While there are many excellent flowering plants to choose from; the truth is that there is no such thing as a perennial that blooms nonstop all season long.

Gorgeous foliage will provide a constant feast for the eyes, even from the vantage point of your favourite garden lounger. In a small space, opt for subtle colours, as very bright hues can be overpowering. 


A common goal in an urban environment is to create privacy, often through screens or fences. When choosing these permanent structures, think carefully about what will be most attractive as well as practical, as they will likely be visible from every vantage point.

It is worth stretching the budget to get the effect that you want. Solid screens and fences may offer the most privacy, but it is important that they are open enough to allow sunlight and air to penetrate. A garden with good air circulation is less susceptible to disease and moss and cools down more effectively in the heat of summer. 

Privacy that allows air to circulate



grow vertical

Often city gardens are surrounded by tall walls or neighbouring buildings that loom over the space. Mitigate this by planting a specimen tree or tall shrub; the greenery will act as a soft backdrop to your garden and make the forbidding walls seem to recede. 


Vertical gardening adds another dimension to a small yard and creates the illusion of more space by adding height and drawing the eye upward.

Vines and climbing plants can be trained to grow up trellises and arbours, as well as sheds, garages, walls and fences. There are many plant possibilities, for sun or shade, featuring colour, texture and often fragrance to beat the band!


As many interior designers will tell you, sometimes by dividing a space you can actually make it seem bigger. Don’t be afraid to create a few distinct areas or little “rooms” within your small garden. Low hedges of boxwood or dwarf spirea are terrific to make “walls” defining the rooms and adding structure to the space.

A change in grade—a step or two onto a different level—is also an effective way of dividing space to make it seem larger.


Add structure to the garden



Be creative with your use of space.

Are there any areas of hidden space on your site? A small pocket of soil at the base of the garage wall might be the spot for a vine-covered trellis. That ribbon of turf alongside the driveway might become home to a narrow flowerbed. Is there enough light and good soil in the space between your house and your neighbour’s to plant a luscious shade garden?

If you have lawn at the front of the house, why not transform it into a front-yard garden? Not only will you create an attractive and inviting introduction to your property, but you’ll also have additional planting space!

You can fill it with flowers, but don’t be afraid to plant vegetables there, too. You’ll have a feast for the eyes, as well as the table.



Add a water element

Containers are useful in every city garden, but particularly so where the space is limited to a patio or deck. In containers, you can change the plants from year to year, as well as from season to season to extend the colour and interest. Containers give you complete control over soil and watering conditions, and they’re portable so you can change their location according to your (and the plants’) needs.



In many small garden designs, I recommend the addition of a water feature, such as a fountain or water-circulating birdbath.

The sound of trickling water helps to muffle noise from the street and, even better, attracts birds to your garden while providing a relaxing aural backdrop.

To avoid worries of mosquitoes and West Nile virus, try installing a bubbler (a rock with a hole drilled through it). The water comes up from a hidden pump, trickles over the stone and into the pebble-covered reservoir, so you get the sound but no open water.

The Canadian Garden Primer

Book Profits Help Third-World Farmers

Canadian expert gardener Mark Cullen’s new book, The Canadian Garden Primer: An Organic Approach, has left no stone unturned in offering readers everything from how to grow fruits and vegetables to ornamental and lawn gardening using an environmentally sound approach. Cullen covers all forms of gardening: sun and shade, native, edible and northern, country, suburban and city. Lawn care, soil health, planting techniques, water conservation and mulch also receive special attention.

A portion of the proceeds from the sale of each book will be donated to SHARE Agricultural Foundation, a Canadian non-profit charity organization devoted to “Sending Help and Resources Everywhere.” The Honorary Patron of SHARE, Cullen travelled to Brazil this year on his third volunteer monitoring trip.

Visit the website to learn about how SHARE provides funding and guidance to community-based agricultural projects in third-world countries, with a focus on Central America and South America.

Win a copy of Mark Cullen’s excellent book, The Canadian Garden Primer: An Organic Approach!