Turning a weedy lot into an urban garden

By Kathy Garvin, Henrico Master Gardener

When I bought my Church Hill home three years ago, the backyard was a weed patch (pictured at right). I couldn’t wait to transform it into an urban garden! First step was to hire a landscaper who removed the weed trees and graded and put in two retaining walls to reduce the slope, yet allow gentle drainage. Since the slope was away from the house, we “hid” the retaining walls – one is not visible from the house and the other is just outside of the newly built privacy fence.

This concept allowed for two growing areas: One has containers for herbs, veggies and flowers, while the other has dwarf trees and shrubs, bulbs, perennials, ground covers and annuals.

The picture on the left shows the day the foundation plantings were delivered … after a walkway, the privacy fence and a potting shed were built.

To accommodate a 125’ x 25’ garden, most of the plantings are miniatures or dwarfs. Quite a few conifers have been used to break up the look of the space: Hinoki Cypress in various forms, columnar trees and dwarf shrubs. Miniature pine shrubs such as Dan’s Dwarf, Ruby Tear Drops and Bergman are included.

The Bergman Pine is a dwarf tree (pictured below right) with variegated needles and purple cones that only grows to 6 feet.

Dwarf flowering shrubs in the garden include hydrangea, oakleaf hydrangea, abelia, daylilies and camellia.

Placement of all of the plants was carefully conducted because of the 8-foot high privacy fence, tall trees behind the property and the fact that it is a west facing space. Plants on the left of the walkway receive a lot less sun than those on the right. Plants at the inside back wall get only a couple of hours of sun.

Since there was very little space for large shrubs and dwarf trees, I planted two espaliers. One is a dwarf self-pollinating apple (pictured below left), and the other is a camellia (pictured below right). Both were photographed in winter so they look ragged. Pruning will take place after they bloom.








In the lower level, two of the containers have Tuteurs –the French version of an obelisk – for vines (pictured at left). Both have several native perennials, including passion plant, climbing hydrangea, blue indigo and wild columbine. The inside walls of the garden have hanging containers, and the outside back wall has wisteria vines (pictured below right). I’ve also squeezed in Joe Pye Weed and milkweeds.

I’ve found there are several keys to maintaining an urban garden:

1. Understanding sun position in all seasons is important for the life and health of the plants. For example, I originally planted native Lobelia in the fall in what appeared to be a shady spot along the fence. The next August all but one plant died because their spot got too much sun. It is flourishing in its new location.

2. Before purchasing “dwarf” and “miniature” plants, research varieties you are interested in from reputable growers or universities with extension services. “Dwarf” is a term open to interpretation.

3. Heat inside the garden in the summer is often 5-10 degrees higher than outside because of the fencing. Air flow isn’t usually quite as good inside either. Monitor moisture levels with a good moisture meter around plants when it’s extremely hot. A simple irrigation system using garden hoses is useful also.

4. Pruning is very important. All plant research should include determining if/when is their optimal pruning time and how pruning should be conducted.

5. The confined space of containers should be soil tested annually to determine needed amendments, especially for vegetables.

6. Should you try an urban garden, you should consider all possible locations within the confines of the space. I moved trash cans to a new location when I realized they were getting great sun all year long. I dug a bed about 2 feet wide and 10 feet long; filled it with new soil; got the soil tested and amended, and planted arugula, spinach, greens and parsley. When it got cold I put hoops with frost protection fabric over everything. I’ve had a steady supply for salads all winter.

Questions? Email kathygarvin2@gmail.com Enjoy!