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Urban Garden Oasis

By: Sherri RibbeySherri Ribbey
Find out how to take a small, bare-bones space with lots of challenges and turn it into an urban garden oasis that's the perfect place to get away and relax.

Urban Garden, vertical garden, patio: Surrounded by lush foliage, what was once a utilitarian area for this historic Boston home has been transformed into a retreat where the homeowner can recharge her batteries.

Make the most of a small urban garden space

Gardeners are a creative and optimistic group — they can transform just about any space into a beautiful getaway. What would you do with an urban courtyard that's just 12 feet wide and 26 feet long, surrounded by multistoried brick walls with little sunlight, soil or space? Alecia Manning turned it into this lovely outdoor living area right outside the back door of her Boston, Massachusetts, condominium. It’s now her favorite place to sit and enjoy a morning cup of coffee or entertain family and friends. She did such a great job that it’s been part of the annual Beacon Hill garden tour for years.

This old courtyard was originally a bare-bones space meant for receiving household goods back in the day, so there wasn’t much to work with when she moved in 23 years ago. In addition, this narrow area is shared with two neighbors, each one with their own section beyond the folding chairs.

Urban Garden Patio space with blue table and planted wall: The bright blue patio set acts as colorful focal point in this small space.

Plant in layers

This urban garden has evolved over the years. Shades of green and a variety of textures provide a woodland feel from low to high overhead. At 25 feet long, 16 inches high and 18 inches deep, the bluestone raised bed in the photo has the most room for growing shade-loving annuals and perennials. It gets plants up off the ground where they’re less likely to be stepped on. In addition, the 7-inch-wide bib provides seating for guests.

Garden vertically in an urban garden

Alecia takes advantage of every possible planting space by gardening up instead of out. While tough, easy-to-grow Boston ivy (Parthenocissus tricuspidata) climbs the wall without taking up much bed space, wall sconces and hanging baskets also help fill vertical real estate and provide additional planting opportunities. See how the baskets of Boston ferns (Nephrolepis exaltata) hang at different heights? It fills the wall and is more interesting than a straight line. The fern above the table in the photo below is suspended from the fire escape to fill the empty corner and give the dining area more of a feeling of enclosure. Containers on the ground are easy to move around and bring soft greenery wherever they’re needed — even a window sill.

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Blue patio furniture in urban courtyard with mirror: A wrought-iron patio set, wall sconces and a decorative mirror add style to this small space.

Furniture that fits a small urban garden

Since this area is right outside the dining room and kitchen, Alecia thought that it would be the perfect spot for entertaining. The challenge was finding furniture that suited this small space. Many contemporary pieces were too large and would make it awkward for the neighbors that share the courtyard to get by. After a lot of searching, she finally found the antique wrought-iron set that works perfectly.

Add a pop of color!

Inspired by Majorelle Garden in Marrakech, Morocco, and its famous cobalt-blue buildings, Alecia painted her dining room set the same color. It really pops against all the warm-toned brick and deep green foliage and is repeated in some of the ornaments and flowers to tie it all together.

Creative use for lattice

Lattice can do a great job of "hiding the uglies." Since this courtyard wasn’t originally meant for outdoor living, no one thought to cover the important, but unattractive, necessities, such as cables or pipes. Now, a few lattice panels (on the left of the patio table in the photo above) take care of the problem and give the dining area a more pleasant look.

Make a small space seem bigger

Adding a decorative mirror creates the illusion that you can see into the area beyond the wall. Its arched top and the organic ornament provide some relief from all the straight lines and hard angles of the bricks.

Urban Garden Courtyard doorway: A set of string lights adds charm and brightens the short passageway from the street to the courtyard.

Shared space gardening

Open the door in the photo above, take the passage from the street and you’re transported from the hustle and bustle of an urban neighborhood into this peaceful getaway.Part of what makes this courtyard so unique is that it’s shared with two other neighbors. Over the years they’ve gotten to know each other and developed an easy camaraderie.Though the entrance above is shared by all, each has developed and defined his or her section in a unique way.

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Casual seating in an Urban garden courtyard: This Japanese maple growing in a container along with the lattice trellis creates a sense of separation in this small space.

Create separation

You can see that Alecia has an elegant Japanese maple (Acer palmatum) in a container that sits in front of her neighbor's formal lattice trellis. Since the courtyard provides extra protection, it survives winter without any problems. This multilayered approach provides a sense of separation without making it difficult for those that need access to parts of the courtyard beyond.

Be choosy with plants

With only 1½ hours of sunlight a day, it’s tough to find plants that grow well in the shade here but Alecia has found some reliable performers in hostas (Hosta hybrid), Solomon’s seal (Polygonatum odoratum), Boston ferns (Nephrolepis exaltata) and impatiens (Impatiens walleriana) to name a few. Limiting the color palette — usually to blue and white — creates harmony and ensures the courtyard doesn’t look too busy and chaotic.

Keep it low-maintenance

Because this is a small space, the work needed to keep it tidy is limited. The raised bed gets topped off with compost annually, there’s a small amount of deadheading to do and an occasional feeding with a fish emulsion fertilizer, such as Neptune’s Harvest. Moisture-and humidity-loving Boston ferns are too hard to keep happy over winter so Alecia buys new ones each year. They come in green plastic pots that aren’t noticeable once the plants fill out. A long watering wand makes it easy to get them the moisture they need. With just these few things to do now and then, there’s plenty of time to relax, enjoy the view and visit with neighbors.

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Published: Sept. 24, 2020

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