Urban gardening:how to make even the smallest of city balconies look fabulous

Inventive urban gardeners are transforming dreary city spaces and concrete slabs into decorative metropolitan ecosystems.

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As outside space becomes increasingly scarce, city dwellers worldwide are growing more resourceful. They are transforming any scrap of soil, concrete, wall or rooftop into their own little Eden. 

Last year, London writer Lucy Scott, with photographer Jon Cardwell, scoured six cities — London, Berlin, Tokyo, San Francisco, New York and LA — for the most ingenious of these planted pockets for their book, My Tiny Garden. The results show beyond doubt that when space is in short supply, the ideas start to flow.



“Most of these gardeners aren’t designers,” says Scott. “They’re just giving it a go. People think that because you live in the city and have little space, you should go for a couple of pots and a clean, minimal look, but these tiny gardens, overflowing with plants, tell a very different story.”

Smooth sailing: sailing rope keeps pots intact in winter on a Brooklyn rooftop

Case in point is the narrow Tokyo terrace of Jared Braiterman and Shu Kuge, where morning glory creates an azure curtain over wire-framed window boxes as well as camellia, olive and fig trees. “We’re not into that minimalist aesthetic,” says Kuge. “A garden has more impact when it’s packed full. It has more stories to tell.”

Filled with greenery, urban plots become part of a wider story, too. Elisa Baier, founder of San Francisco outdoor design firm Small Spot Gardens, aims to make backyards as environmentally useful as they are decorative. She says: “An urban garden is part of a fascinating metropolitan ecosystem. By working with natural processes, your garden can clean air, filter polluted run-off and help wildlife.” 

High fliers: in their LA workspace, Deborah Burch and Faith Blakeney's ceiling supports a dynamic cascade of foliage

London firefighter Simon Jakeman, increasingly called out on shouts related to climate change such as flooding, decided to do his bit by planting a lush garden on the roof at Surbiton Fire station. With upturned helmets as hanging baskets, fire buckets of pollen-rich bedding, raised beds and bird boxes, it is a welcome pitstop for wildlife and now features in the London Fire Brigade’s sustainability plan.

Scott was struck, she says, by the generosity of spirit displayed by the gardeners. Kimberly Conley and Deep Jawa created a parklet — a small park in pavement space — at the front of their Victorian house in San Francisco’s Mission District for passers-by, as well as themselves. “I hated the space,” says Jawa, referring to the concrete slab the couple have since covered with deep planters of yuccas and drought plants, as well as a bench to encourage folk to linger. “Part of the idea of parklets is to highlight the spaces our society unthinkingly reserves for cars.” 

Inventive urban gardeners don’t dwell on what they don’t have, but use what they do have. On her Brooklyn balcony, stylist Lara Backmender’s dining table is a slab of weather-beaten wood from Coney Island, while sailing rope around her ceramic planters, fixed with duct tape, prevents them cracking through harsh New York winters. Why use standard-issue trellis on a rooftop terrace when you can make a square privacy screen from cut birch trunks, as Harlem-based Marie Viljoen has done? Birds settle on the poles, the snow-white bark brightens dark days and, as Viljoen says: “Vertical plants are crucial in a small area.”

Let it grow: a plant-packed Barbican balcony camouflages concrete beneath

What is clear is that greenery gives cold, urban buildings soul. Just ask Londoner  William Howard, whose flowery Hanging Gardens of Barbican, several floors high, cascade over his balcony, concealing the unforgiving concrete façade. Or enterprising Deborah Burch and Faith Blakeney, who, within their industrial workspace in LA, have created a fabulous leafy hanging garden from 100 modular planters, in three rows at ceiling height. As all intrepid urban gardeners know, when there’s no available ground space, the only way is up.

Reader offer
My Tiny Garden (Pavillion) by Lucy Anna Scott with Lucy Conochie costs £14.99, but Homes & Property readers can buy it for £12 including p&p by calling 0141 306 3296 and quoting ref CH1960


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