Tips for Creating a City Garden


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An Upper East Side balcony with built-in planters.

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Robert Deitchler for The New York Times

With a little planning and dedication, it’s possible to turn even the dreariest outdoor space into an urban retreat. Whether you have a big backyard or a tiny balcony, here is how to make your outdoor space work for you.

DECIDE HOW YOU WANT TO USE THE SPACE “Ask yourself what you see yourself doing in the space,” said Sera Rogue, the owner of Red Fern Brooklyn, a landscape design firm. “Yoga? Reading? Entertaining? Morning coffee?” This will drive most of your decisions, including where to put the plants, what furniture to buy and how to address noise or privacy concerns.

SKETCH OUT A PLAN “When you talk to an interior designer, it’s about flowing through rooms, transitioning through space and creating focal points,” said Todd Haiman, a landscape designer, who pointed out that the same principles apply to creating outdoor rooms. In a small space, he suggested, “design on a grid,” using squares and rectangles, rather than circles, to take advantage of every square inch. If you don’t have much width, go vertical: A tall hedge, a few small trees or trellised vines in planters can create privacy. “I always try to create a sensory and experiential journey,” he said, which can be as simple as placing a pot of lavender near the door “so you brush up against it, every time you step out, and release its scent.”

BE REALISTIC ABOUT UPKEEP Even the hardiest plants require regular watering and pruning. If you travel frequently, a well-furnished terrace with an occasional bouquet from the farmer’s market may be more your style. Sedums and ornamental grasses generally do well in full southern sun. “I like to use full-sun-loving sedums in hanging baskets,” Ms. Rogue said, as they require little water and are “colorful, draping and textural.” She also suggested using sedums “in low bowls for full-sun rooftops and balconies — you can put them anywhere, as they do not need to be connected to an irrigation system.” For shady spots, her go-to plant is a Britt-Marie Crawford ligularia dentata, for its “large, round leaves that give height and volume,” she said. “In the summer, it sends up an otherworldly wand flower.” Whereas hostas, she said, are “overused.”

CONSIDER URBAN WILDLIFE If not carefully maintained, plants that drop fruit, like figs or tomatoes, can attract rodents in city gardens. Overgrown backyards with bird feeders and standing water are havens for all kinds of four-legged creatures, as well as mosquitoes. “City squirrels in backyards tend to dig up tulips in their search for nuts,” Mr. Haiman said, and water leaking from a hose or spigot “is like a water fountain.” Trim tree limbs and tall plants within a few feet of the house, he suggested, and in lieu of bird feeders try native plants like serviceberry trees or maple leaf viburnum.

CHOOSE FLEXIBLE FURNITURE Benches with built-in storage can save space while offering a place to hide hoses and gardening tools, said Ms. Rogue, who likes the Keymar Teak storage bench ($399 at Signature Hardware). Mr. Haiman’s go-to: 24-inch bistro tables (from $251 at Fermob), which easily fold up for storage. The Sweethome, a product review site owned by The New York Times, recommends the wooden Ikea Applaro table and four armchairs ($370 for the set), which has drop-leaves that can be folded and removed, so you can adjust the table size according to your needs.

FACTOR IN THE WIND Trees in planters can blow over if not properly secured. If windy conditions are a problem, try birch trees and ornamental grasses, which tend to be less wind resistant — so strong gusts pass through them, instead of blowing them over — and will rustle and “dance in the wind,” Mr. Haiman said.

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