By Julie Wright and Graham Wright

02 November 2018 - 10:19

Block of apartments with plants in windows
'If your window box is tricky to reach, water-retaining granules in the compost will reduce the number of times you need to water the plants.' Photo ©

Roman Kraft used under licence and adapted from the original.

Gardening in an urban environment can be challenging. But the British Council's Julie Wright and gardening blogger Graham Wright have advice to grow a beautiful, productive garden, even in a small or difficult city space. 

How to share a gardening plot

Collectively agree on what you want from the plot. These are some things you might talk about:

  • Do you want a formal, or an informal space?
  • Do you want the garden to be productive, with fruit and vegetables, or is it to be mostly aesthetic?
  • Should there be space for children to play?
  • Do you want to encourage wildlife into the garden?

Accessibility and safety are important. You might need to adjust paths for wheelchair-users. You may need to avoid plants and features that could be a hazard for children.

Whether you choose a high- or low-maintenance garden will depend on how much time people have for working in the garden. You might need to make compromises.

But it's important to agree a solution that provides something for everyone, and that everyone has agreed to. That's the best way to ensure that everyone involved will have a sense of ownership.

Share your enthusiasm. In gardening, as elsewhere, it can be infectious.

How to garden on a concrete or paved area

Plants generally need soil in which to put down their roots, but what if your only space for a garden has a solid floor?

There are ways around the problem. The most obvious way is to use pots.

Almost anything that can grow in the open ground can also grow in pots; even small trees. Japanese maples, for example, which are valued for their beautiful foliage and their spectacular autumn colour, are suited to growing in pots in a temperate climate.

And pots don't need bottoms. You can build raised beds on a hard, impermeable surface such as concrete. They give a larger growing area than a pot. Most plants need less than 45cm/18 inches of soil, and even those that would prefer to send their roots down much further can still flourish in a restricted soil depth.

Raised beds reduce the need for bending, making cultivation easier for wheelchair-users and people with restricted mobility.

If your plot is paved, you could remove some of the paving stones, and plant directly into the ground. You may need to improve the soil first.

How to garden when your only space is a window

Buy or build a window box. If you put it on the outside of your window, make sure it's firmly secured, particularly if you live a couple of meters above the ground. You must also have access for tending the plants, from inside or outside.

If your window box is tricky to reach, water-retaining granules in the compost will reduce the number of times you need to water the plants.

On the inside of your home, a window sill provides a protected environment in which to grow plants in containers. Grow herbs on a kitchen window sill and you'll be able to reach them easily when you cook.

Centrally heated and air-conditioned homes can be dry, but you can raise the humidity around plants by misting them, or sitting them on trays of water.

By using both inside and out, as well as windows on different aspects – north, south, east and west – you will be able to grow a wide variety of plants.

How to garden when your space doesn't get much sun

Not all plants like to bake in the sun all day; many evolved to thrive under the shade of a forest canopy. Ground-cover plants including geraniums, epimediums and anemones will grow in a shaded garden. So will shrubs and climbers like pyracantha and hydrangeas, and small trees including Japanese maples (Acer palmatum species).

If you want to grow food in the shade, you can choose leafy greens and root crops, and herbs including parsley, basil and mint. Plants in the zingiberaceae family – the gingers – are exotic, with impressive flowers and in some cases, edible tubers. They all prefer shade.

Shaded gardens are often relaxing, with green foliage accentuated by splashes of flower, often in fresh whites that stand out in the low light.

How to garden when you live in a dry city with limited access to water

Rainwater harvesting systems that collect large quantities of rain from roofs and store it in large underground tanks are expensive. But it's cheap and easy to redirect your gutters into any containers you can get your hands on, from purpose-made water butts to old baths.

In many countries, irrigation systems are cheap and easy to install, and will use water more efficiently than a watering can or a hose. Watering in the morning or evening – rather than during the hottest part of the day – minimises evaporation.

You can use 'grey water' – from washing – for watering, so long as you avoid harsh detergents that contain harmful substances such as bleach or salt.

You can use plants that are adapted to a dry climate, like the Mediterranean herbs rosemary and lavender, or succulents such as sedums, aloes and agaves, which store water in their leaves. Or, you can use cacti.

How to garden when you live in a city with high pollution

Hardy evergreen shrubs are among the most resilient plants to pollution. 

Look at nearby gardens. Plants that are thriving there should grow well in your plot too.

Trial and error is also a good way to find out which plants will survive in a polluted city. You can do research, but as experienced gardeners will tell you, plants don't read gardening manuals.

Many of the pollutants that are harmful to humans are actually beneficial to plants. Carbon dioxide (CO2), for example, is essential for photosynthesis. Plants absorb CO2, as well as extracting nitrogen from nitrogen oxides (NOx).

When it comes to edible crops, the concern is that pollutants will be absorbed by the plants and then consumed by us. But while there are many pollutants in the air, and the ground, that are harmful to humans, research suggests that the risk is insignificant.  

However, we should wash crops well to remove particles that have settled on their surfaces.

Another bonus: plants help to filter out air pollution, cleaning the air we breathe, as well as noise pollution from vehicles, aircraft and machinery.

If your soil is contaminated, plant in pots or raised beds. Make sure the raised beds are built over an impermeable membrane, to stop contaminants coming up from the soil below.

How to garden when you have limited time

There are some techniques you can use to reduce the amount of work in gardening.

Mulching helps to suppress weeds. You can spread loose mulches, like chipped bark, on the ground around plants. If you have ground that isn't already planted, you can use solid mulches including black plastic, cardboard or old carpet to suppress the weeds until you are ready to plant.

The 'no-dig' technique saves time. One way to do the no-dig technique is to spread a mulch of soil improvers, such as garden compost or leaf mould, and let organisms like earthworms take them down into the soil. So, the worms do the hard work for you.

You can install irrigation systems to save time on watering. One common irrigation system is a series of flexible pipes that are connected to a water source, such as a tap, or a container of water. Pipes run to each plant and drip water onto the soil at the base of plants in a controlled way. Choosing plants that are suited to the conditions, such as drought-tolerant plants in a dry climate, will help. So will using plants that are resistant to pests and diseases.

If you are creating a new garden, use a simple design or work with what you have, rather than making too many changes. Wildflower meadows need cutting only once a year. If you must have formal lawn, a robotic lawnmower can cut the grass for you.

What are the benefits? 

Research, including the report from The King's Fund, Improving the public's health, shows that gardening provides both physical and mental health benefits. Community gardening brings people together in areas where they might otherwise feel isolated. National Health Service doctors in the UK are being encouraged to prescribe gardening to help with mental health issues and loneliness.

Urban plots can be challenging, but with creativity and collaboration, it is possible to produce an urban garden that is both beautiful and productive.

Join Café Scientifique in Madrid on 6 and 7 November and find out more about sustainable cities and urban gardening. Café Scientific is organised by the British Council in Spain, in collaboration with La Casa Encendida. 

Read Graham Wright's gardening blog

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