Big City Gardens

Tips for the Urban Gardener

Even in a relatively park-rich city like Boston, having your own bit of private green space can soothe the senses on a hot summer afternoon, and brighten a gloomy winter day. Whether you have an entire backyard, or a free spot on the balcony or patio, don’t be afraid to explore your options. Or course, the urban gardener has a unique set of obstacles to overcome. Below are a few of the ones we believe you should consider:


Perhaps the most obvious problem urban gardeners face is space, or the lack of it. The easiest solution is to think vertically. Thread stainless steel rods through terra-cotta pots and suspend them from horizontal surfaces to punch up the smallest balconies and patios. Spray-paint a wooden ladder and adorn it with pretty pots and planters, and use it to store garden tools and potting soil. Stack crates or handmade boxes and secure them vertically to a wall. If you’re renting and not allowed to hang anything from your outdoor walls, make a free-standing plant wall using wood and mesh rebar. Hang pot plants using S-hooks and they’ll provide privacy for your space as they grow. A tiered potted garden tucks nicely into the corner of any deck or patio. Also, consider plant varieties that will help you get the most out of a small area with a more rapid harvest, such as cherry tomatoes or Japanese eggplant instead of their regular cousins.

Consider Pollution and Soil Quality

Smog and ozone damage are common in inner-city areas, but it’s not so much what’s in the air that you should worry about, but what’s in the ground where your plants grow. Urban soil can often be toxic from years of industrial activities, poor land use, and vehicle exhaust. Choose your garden site carefully and consider the ways the land has been used in the past. The ground may look pristine and ready to plant, but the soil may contain toxic substances such as pesticide and herbicide residue, lead-based paint chips and asbestos, and oil and other petroleum products. Surround your garden with a hedge or a fence to protect it from windblown debris. Dig in plenty of organic matter to enrich the soil, improve its texture, and help it replace some of the lost nutrients. Worst case scenario, you may need to bring in clean topsoil provided by a reputable dealer. A raised bed or container gardens are also options.


Don’t Overdo It

While tilling before planting loosens the soil and spreads nutrients around, too much of it throws off the delicate balance of the soil, encourages erosion, kills beneficial worms and nematodes, and unearths weed seeds. Plants’ root systems are specialized, and while the top roots absorb nutrient-rich topsoil, the lower roots bring in minerals from deep within the soil and provide an anchor against the wind (especially at balcony or roofdeck elevation). Rather, consider a no-dig garden bed. If your desired spot already has grass or weeds, don’t dig them up. Mow or cut them close to the ground, lay your frame, then cover the ground with a few sheets of wet newspaper that will eventually kill the grass and decompose with it. Cover your newspaper with alternating layers of compost, manure, and mulch, and sow your seeds. The key to creating raised beds in urban settings successfully is disturbing the soil as little as possible.

If your green space is a patio, roofdeck, balcony, or even your windowsill, you’re probably familiar with container gardening. You need to water container plants often, especially considering how hot exposed balconies in high-rises can get as the sunlight reflects off other structures. However, make sure the water drains properly and doesn’t sit in the saucer holding the pot. This can lead to root rot, fungus, and mildew.

Choose the Right Plants

Be aware of your microclimate conditions. The urban climate is influenced by a variety of factors, including solar radiation, surrounding air temperatures, air movements, sun orientation, humidity, topographical location, proximity to lakes or waterfront exposure, paved surfaces such as roads and parking lots, buildings, and existing rooftop conditions. Native plants are the easiest choice. They’re well adapted to your environment and require little to no maintenance since they’ve evolved and adapted to local conditions. Natives are vigorous and hardy, able to withstand local weather patterns, including Boston’s freezing winters and scorching summers.

However, that is not to say that the dedicated gardener can’t or shouldn’t get creative. You can grow pretty much anything other than pumpkins or melons in a small space and, above all, you should take delight in the final product.

Design for the Senses

Think about height and depth and keep the tallest plants on the north side of the garden so they don’t shade-out or hide smaller plants. On decks shaded by house walls or trees, plant hostas, caladiums, or lush ferns. Small hydrangeas look great in pots in light shade on patios. If the deck is on the west side of your home, a trellis will cast shade on hot summer afternoons. Flowering vines soften the architecture. Ornamental gourds or feathery cypress vines will cover an arbor in no time, and can easily be grown in pots for deck or patio gardening. Consider the time of day you enjoy your plants. White and pastel flowers show best at night, while deep blues and purples need sunlight to show off their colors. Incorporate fragrance by planting heliotropes, flowering tobacco, herbs, or roses, and remember that moonflowers and nicotiana release their aroma at night. Add a soothing water feature like a self-contained bubbling-fountain. With a little planning and a few choice plants, a deck or patio can become the heart of your garden, instead of just a useful extension of the house.

Sources: Burpee,, Gardening Know How, Reader’s Digest, HGTV