Urban Gardens: Make It Easy

By Christie Barry

Nowadays with the rush and tumble of our daily lives, it is great to come home and relax in the beauty of a garden... especially in the potentially crowded space of our urban dwelling. We see articles on how simple gardening can be. We are given a myriad tips on plant colors, texture, fragrance, watering needs, flowers, rarity and on and on.

As a person who has had her hands in the dirt for the past 35 years, I would like to approach this from a different angle. How to keep our urban space alive and attractive. What will our dwelling look like after a year of care, neglect, drought, cold, and just not enough time to maintain?

First of all check out:

  • Sun or shade?
  • Good dirt or bad- does it drain and can you get a shovel in it?
  • Is a hose faucet near by?
  • Is there anything you like in it now?
  • Can you afford to have someone work in it for you?
  • If so, what’s your budget?

The problem is not in the buying or even the planting of the garden but keeping it looking good..the maintenance. All of us have good intentions - but what illusions do we need to release before executing our urban space?

Let’s start with a few basic questions -a lot of them will be framed in "Would you be willing to..." I find this tends to keep the response simple, and allows the gardener to be honest.

OK. Would you be willing to:

  • Water once a week in the spring/fall and 3 times a week in the hot summer?
  • Weed this garden- bi-monthly?
  • Prune flowers back twice a month in the summer?
  • Mow a small lawn once a week in the spring/summer/fall?
  • Clean and/ or fill up a water feature?

These are basic questions. If you don’t want to do any of these things but still want a garden space, all is not lost... .there are still options.

Here is what I suggest ideally for the biggest bang for your buck and ease.

  • Some evergreens for structure and winter interest
  • Some ground covers so you don’t have much lawn
  • A stone feature or two/ bench or boulder or sculpture
  • A little gurgle of water- self contained fountain, wall fountain is easiest
  • Something that flowers that you don’t have to mess with. A flowering shrub in summer or one or two type of massive perennial that blooms a long time
  • A little wooden accent- trellis- little pergola
  • A pot or two of something that is colorful or with good texture that you won’t neglect
  • A tiny bit of lawn as a green accent and aplace to dig your bare feet into
  • A plan before you start- not an impulse job- that you actually lay out in real space with spray paint or flags to see if the dimensions really work

I have included here some pictures of a few options in following these guidelines.

zen garden

This picture is of a Zen garden for the real low maintenance person who has a place to put a garden that can’t be disturbed. If you have cats or dogs that run through the area, it wouldn’t be too great. Basically you dig out a base for crusher run gravel and place 3 boulders; one vertical for the sky, one horizontal for water, and one in between for earth. Then you edge the gravel with steel edging to hold the form. Voila, you are done. A few simple plantings in oriental style like Japanese maples, peonies, oriental evergreens and low acorus grasses can be used for accents..not a lot...just tucked in here or there.

urban garden

This fan yards shows a mulched area with antique irregular cobbles unearthed from the property. Use these old cobbles as part of the landscape. This plan from left to right has an evergreen ground cover, evergreen plum yews and 3 or 4 flowering shrubs. Easy. The stones are the artsy feature that helps set off the plants. Placement is everything for the objets d’art.


Lots of texture and color in the leaves and blooms. Shade and sun areas- good dirt, years of growth where plants just get bigger and better. There is no lawn but a sweet bench near the pond with koi fish. Let’s remember this is for the urban dweller who wants to putz on Saturday afternoon and summer evenings.

garden focal point

This is perfect for the garden focal point/ nook. Gurgling water, a rebar trellis with clematis, ferns, variegated leaf with texture and color, and, don’t forget a hose nearby. Perfect for a Sunday morning cup of coffee outside or waking to the sound of the fountain outside your bedroom window.

Christie Barry is co-owner of Christie-s Fine Gardening