10 no nonsense tips to jazz up your small city garden this summer

Ah, waking up to summer in the city. The sound of sirens and drunk people ringing your doorbell at 5am birds chirping. You reach for your phone to call the police yawn and leap out of bed and peer round the curtains clutching any heavy object you can find pull open the curtains to look at your alleyway garden. Ah summer. So beautiful, so… disappointing that the bags of compost, seedlings still clutching to life and hose are all on show. Fear not city gardening warriors for I am on your side with an armoury of foolish foolproof tips to get us through. And they literally all make sense.

1) What would Mary Poppins do?

Because I design gardens I feel pressure from visitors that our garden should look immaculate – something it doesn’t look due to all of the propagation I do at the start of the year. I mean, the plants look good, they’re just everywhere. Despite gardening being about perfect flowers, I find no flower makes a garden look as instantly beautiful as a good tidy. Down trowels for an hour and sweep, put away pots and cut back unsightly leaves. Instant makeover.

2) Shuffle house plants for a prominent display

House plants can be forgotten at this time of year but they’re often at their best now with the brighter, longer days. Position them near the garden (or in it over summer) and they become a focal point in their own right. My Pathiopedilum ‘Raisin Glory’ orchid is flowering  exactly a year to the week I bought it in flower at Hampton Court Flower Show. I keep it on our kitchen table where I house our purple and pink indoor plants, here they can be seen by everyone and grouped with some low cost but lovely Ikea plants making an impact.

3) Plug gaps with annuals

I love annuals I do! The most forgiving flowers in the garden a lot of the time. Tropaeolum majus, Lathyrus odoratus and Cosmos bipinnatus are some of my faves but one of the most refined – at least to my eye – seems to be Nicotiana. I grow Nicotiana alata ‘Lime Green’ every year but this year I decided to try N. knightiana from Chiltern Seeds as well and it’s a beautiful dainty little plant. Keep an eye out for classy annuals in garden centres, they grow fast so buy them small and preferably with buds, not flowers. That way they flower in your garden, not the shops!

4) Thumping foliage

This leaf is cool, ice cool. Fig “Ice Crystal” with pants fruit but pantstastic leaves. Get in my pants draw fig – Adam and Eve would have looked Da Bomb with one of these instead of a normal fig leaf. What you can’t say with flowers you can certainly say with leaves. The plural of the plural of leaf is foliage, which is weird when you think about it.

5) My dahlias bring all the boys to the yard and I’m like, they’re pinker than yours

It will come as a surprise that I like dahlias – I know, who would have guessed? Well, ‘Purpinka’, a tiny dwarf cultivar with a bizarre arrangement of petals is first to flower in our garden. It also multiplies like crazy. No matter how small your garden, with some sun you can squeeze in a mini dahlia. Or as our little garden proves, you can squeeze in about twenty full size ones. Only buy growing Dahlias in pots at this time of year.

6) Whack a Clematis on it

Yeah it’s midsummer but you know what? You can plant potted plants whenever the hell you want as long as you water them should a heatwave come along but how often does that happe… oh. Well you can still plant a Clematis if you have water to hand. Go for a type 3 because they’re better (there, I finally said what we were all thinking). In small spaces climbers are your friend because they’re huge but use barely any ground. Shamaze. Here I’m growing a Clematis viticella through an ivy instead of bothering with wires or trellis. Who’s got time for wires?

7) Prepare now to extend the season

This little pot of onions… gotchya! These bulbs are a bunch of Nerines, flowering in October just as you thought it was all over. One of the flower world’s best kept secrets, I bought three bulbs a few years ago at RHS Wisley Spring Flower Show after being barged out the way by some rude ladies. Patiently I waited despite being pushed in front of for the cultivar I wanted, ‘Mr John’. Two bulbs rotted but one lived and multiplied into this little clump. Tucked behind a Pennisetum they were living but not flowering so in spring I moved them to this pot where their roots would be nicely root bound, water would free drain and I could place in full sun. Which, you’ve guessed it, are conditions they lurve.

8) Pond it up

LOOK. Look at IT! Never has a leaky old wash tub been so majestic. Yes it is only 60cm wide and yes that is a tiny waterlily growing in it. That dwarf waterlily (don’t go trying a normal one you hear) has been sitting pretty in there for four years now and flowering happily. And you know what they say about the dangers of using tap water to fill a pond? Total nonsense my people because here is the evidence.

9) Distract with pets

If all fails and your roses have lost their leaves from from the worst case of blackspot you’ve ever seen, speak to your pet and arrange with them to create a diversion. Here’s our cat Rumbles pretending to faint for the fifteenth time during a dinner party the other week. No one even noticed I hadn’t swept up. (To clarify he was just rolling around purring for more Dreamies, something we are always manipulated into giving).

10) Focus on views

In reality, if people aren’t distracted by pets they’re distracted by football or something else. People don’t really care that our grass and perennial combinations look exceptionally good this year *wipes solitary tear from eye*. Often our spaces are so small no one is actually going to go out into them, what a dream that would be. But people will be drawn to views from windows. If your view is like ours – three feet deep to a fence followed by flats looking right back – pay special attention to it. Here I’ve chucked everything (even a cactus) at it to mask the fact this century old beautiful Victorian sash window looks onto what would be the worst view ever if not for room 312 in Travelodge, York looking onto air conditioning units. Thank plants for saving summer.

Do you live in a city or town? How are you jazzing up your garden this summer? Comments below peeps!

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Jack Wallington

I'm an RHS qualified garden designer living in Clapham, London who loves growing plants and designing with them. Follow me on Twitter.

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5 thoughts on “10 no nonsense tips to jazz up your small city garden this summer

  1. All , very cool mate, but especially the old wash tub pond. On my list for next year, I’m gonna paint it white and black like the hide of an old heifer, and call it Florence after a particularly mean old teacher who whacked us with rulers.

    1. Yes everyone loves the little pond. I’ll do a dedicated post about it soon. Really easy though. Just water and mini pond plants.

  2. I LOVE these tips! I have a medium-sized garden in suburbia but all of this still applies, right??!! I particularly like the clematis one – we have about 18 pine trees in our garden , which I hate as they suck all of the moisture out of any other living things within a mile radius, but the lady who lived here before us whacked a clematis on the one closest to the house and it is it’s only saving grace!

    1. Awesome! I love growing climbers through other less interesting plants. I do it a lot! Tough when there’s no moisture though because climbers love water generally.

      And yes deffo this applies to a medium garden! 😀

  3. Hi,
    Loved this atricle. Especially the point about plug gaps with annuals
    Sharing this on facebook and pinterest

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