Urban Gardens: Small Garden Design

Here’s how two urban gardens—a townhouse courtyard retreat and a downtown apartment deck—make a big impact despite their limited space.

Credit: Stuart McCall

Here’s how two urban gardens—a townhouse courtyard retreat and a downtown apartment deck—make a big impact despite their limited space

There’s no denying it: condos are hot. You just have to glance at the cranes spiking the Vancouver skyline to prove it. Whether due to the housing boom or the baby boom, townhouses and condominium apartments are in demand—as “starter” homes for young people or as smaller homes for downsizing empty nesters—all over B.C. But just because they’re small, and in some cases soil-less, doesn’t mean the gardens that come along with urban living have to be any less beautiful than their larger counterparts. The two gardens discussed here—the rear courtyard of a townhouse and a deck atop a downtown apartment building—epitomize the challenges and rewards of small-space gardening.

Urban garden design

Small gardens offer several advantages. A small garden is also often enclosed, with fences and walls creating a microclimate that protects tender plants. Small gardens cost less to establish and maintain, and the labour involved is usually less time-consuming and backbreaking. The lighter workload of a townhouse or condominium garden can be a big attraction for many gardeners. But it’s not all sunshine and roses. Small gardens often present big challenges. The limited space is restrictive, and in the case of rooftop and balcony gardens, weight is a consideration. Sometimes the elements are the main problem; balcony gardens may suffer exposure to excessive wind and sun, while gardens that sit on concrete can be compromised by poor drainage.

More urban garden ideas

Then there’s the design. Totally aside from achieving a balance between a love of plants and aesthetics, it can be much easier to find space for a multiplicity of needs in a larger garden—outdoor-living basics such as a patio, barbecue, children’s play area, lawn and storage for tools and gardening equipment. Regina de Guzman of Ringwood Avenue Gardens Landscape Design and Construction says one of the challenges with small gardens is that “everything is visible at once.” Unlike a larger garden, which allows you to create garden rooms or “surprises” that are revealed as one walks through the garden, every aspect of a small garden is on display. That includes functional necessities like garden tools and hoses. Regina’s solution? Turn those functional elements into a feature. A gorgeous, wrought-iron hose reel, for example, makes you forget that you’re looking at a hose. Just be sure not to clutter your limited space with mismatched or overabundant accessories. When planning any garden, having a defined concept or theme helps to focus the design and give the space more impact. This is even more true of the small garden. If your concept or theme is clear, each potential addition to the garden can be considered according to whether it strengthens or weakens that theme.

Townhouse garden

In the case of John Friedmann and Leonie Sandercock’s narrow townhouse garden in Vancouver’s False Creek neighbourhood, Regina found inspiration in the existing Parthenocissus tricuspidata (Boston ivy) that covered the high concrete walls of the backyard. The 3.8 by 8.8-metre (12.5 by 29-foot) garden peaks in autumn when the Boston ivy turns a blazing red. Autumn “became a theme around which the rest of the garden was planned,” says Regina. “It’s still a lovely garden in spring, but that’s nothing compared to the fall.” The fall theme led Regina to choose Acer palmatum ‘Sango-kaku’ (coral-bark maple), with its golden autumn colour and bright orange-red bark, as the focal point for the small backyard. Hosta ‘Frances Williams’ brings light to the shadows under the small tree, while the sumptuous colour of the patio, done in Colorado Rose stone, echoes the Boston ivy above. “You can really only afford a single focal point in a small garden, as opposed to a large garden, which could have several. Otherwise,” Regina says thoughtfully, “the garden loses its impact. It’s like information overload for the eye.”

“You can really only afford a single focal point in a small garden…”

There were, of course, some challenges to overcome before the garden was lovely at any time of year. Although it faces south, its high walls and surrounding trees shade the property. Most of the site was directly atop the underground parking garage, and the resulting poor drainage had left areas of the garden swampy. To solve the drainage issue, Regina moved the patio from its previous location under the then-drab stairs to the centre of the garden, installed new drainage, and increased its size dramatically. In doing so, she eliminated soil from the soggiest section of the garden. Where the site isn’t paved with Colorado Rose, there is only 15 centimetres (6 inches) of soil, Regina recounts, “so we used drought-tolerant and shallow-rooted plants, as well as many large containers.” After relocating the patio, Regina had the stairs painted blue—in contrast with the dominant palette of warm earth tones—and an acidic yellow climber, Jasminum officinale ‘Frojas’ PBR fiona sunrise (golden poet’s jasmine) planted at its base. “It was a crazy idea that actually worked,” Regina laughs. “It just bumped up the energy level of the garden.”

Apartment garden

On the other side of False Creek in Vancouver’s West End, Brad Chiasson and David McGeein’s rooftop deck has a different kind of energy. Designed primarily for entertaining, the 91 sq-m (300 sq-ft) deck hosts social gatherings, barbecues and sunbathers. A small central greenhouse doubles as a summer kitchen. The couple’s west-facing, fourth-floor rooftop evokes a sense of late-summer languor: containers are buried under layers of decadent blooms; apples, plums, kiwis and grapes hang heavy from their branches. Bees drone by, following heady scents of annuals and herbs. Pebbles, a black poodle, takes refuge from the afternoon sun in a shady corner.

Rooftop gardens

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A lot of work goes into creating a space built for relaxing, however. Now in its ninth year, the garden is a constantly evolving project. But that’s one of the perks of container gardening, says Brad: “You can move it all around if you change your mind.” A former leaky condo, a new deck surface was added when the building was redone four years ago. Brad and David took that opportunity to custom-fit raised beds. A pergola, which had been dismantled and stored throughout the renovation, was restored and incorporated into the new rainscreen (moisture-penetration prevention) system. The pergola supplies some much-needed shade, increases the garden’s “vertical real estate” and provides a barrier to strong winds. One of the challenges of gardening on a rooftop or patio is exposure to the elements. Unlike ground-level gardens, which are often protected by surrounding buildings and trees, sky-high gardens face stronger winds and a hotter sun. Adding trellises, a pergola or other screening material protects plants from wind, sun and rain damage. Still, David and Brad secure all their trees for the winter by tying them to surrounding structures. Although container gardening allows for endless rearranging—to highlight plants in full flower, for example—those containers are certainly Brad and David’s main logistical concern. “Everything has to be as light as possible,” Brad says. “We fill our containers with two-thirds foam chips and one-third soil to keep the weight down.” The advent of attractive-looking plastic containers has also helped in this regard. “Plastic definitely lightens the load,” David adds. They also recommend consulting with a structural engineer or architect to ensure your roof can support the weight of a garden. During the garden’s first few years, all watering was done by hand, a chore that became onerous during the heat of mid-summer when smaller planters had to be watered twice daily. Recently, Brad bought and installed a watering system that hooks up to the outside hose bib and is fed through all the containers. “I definitely recommend automatic watering,” he laughs. David and Brad’s final advice? Fertilize regularly—plants in containers require regular feedings since frequent watering leaches nutrients from the soil. Then go pour yourself a cold one. The following plants are hardy to the zone number indicated: Acer palmatum ‘Sango-kaku’ (coral-bark maple) – zone 5 • Hosta ‘Frances Williams’ – zone 3 • Jasminum officinale ‘Frojas’PBR fiona sunrise (golden poet’s jasmine) – zone 7 • Parthenocissus tricuspidata (Boston ivy) – zone 4 Andrea Bellamy is a Vancouver-based writer and garden designer. She chronicles her adventures in urban, organic gardening at www.heavypetal.ca