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Urban Gardening- What to plant when you’re low on space!

Hi there!

The weather is finally perking up here in Richmond which makes us gardeners ever so happy.
With warm summer weather on the brain, let’s talk today about a topic near and dear to my heart– urban gardening!
I hail from a tiny apartment in the Fan, so I’ve had to get creative in the past 4 years when it comes to planting my garden. As a plant-lover with limited space and limited time to tend, I’ve spent the last few seasons honing a list of essential plants that make my garden complete. I call it my ‘Great Eight’
To make the roster, each plant must meet a rigorous series of criteria because, let’s face it, space is precious here and I need each plant to be high impact!
Before I reveal my starring plant lineup, there are a few things you need to know about my gardening space:
-The front ‘yard’ is full sun, surrounded by concrete, and approximately 20′ wide and 12′ deep with a curvy brick pathway through the middle leading to the front door. It is hot, hot, hot all day long out in the front, and the soil is pretty terrible (though I have been amending it with compost for the past two seasons in hopes of improving it!)
-The back ‘yard’ is tricky- most of it gets about 6 hours of morning/early afternoon sun, and one little section of it is pretty shady. Same soil conditions (in fact, when we first moved in I found several chunks of granite slab in the soil while planting one of the beds…)
-Most importantly, I have no outdoor water source so any watering I do is from a watering can that I fill from the shower inside (read into this: any plant in my garden must require little to no supplemental water!)
Now that you know the background, here’s who makes the cut (in no particular order!):
1. Prostrate Rosemary – let me tell you about this high-impact plant. I popped 2 of these 1 gallon gems in the ground 3 years ago flanking either side of my front steps. They are now about 16″ tall , 2′ wide and BEAUTIFUL!
Here’s why they’re so great: they are much more compact than standard rosemary, they required very little water when I first planted them and I never water them now, they established quickly,  I use sprigs of them in all sorts of dishes and cocktails (there’s nothing like walking outside to pick fresh herbs for dinner!) they put on beautiful purple flowers in the early spring, they are evergreen, they smell fantastic, the bees love them, and I prune them once in the winter and use the clippings in my holiday greenery. Clearly, prostrate Rosemary definitely earns its spot in the garden!
2. French Lavender – I’m a bit of a francophile when it comes to gardening (and wine and pastries…) so my love affair with lavender goes beyond the utilitarian perks of this plant. Nonetheless, I’ll stick to the horticultural basics and tell you that this plant is another absolute workhorse in the right gardening condition. I planted 3 of these 1 gallons as a border along the sidewalk in front of my garden at the same time I planted the rosemary. (To be honest, I planted them in this way to protect the herbs I cook with from dog passers-by– a very important consideration for the urban gardener– these three lavenders have served as excellent gate keepers and really ‘take one for the team’ so to speak.) 3 years later, they are about 18″ tall and 16″ wide and have created a beautiful silvery-green screen topped with dancing purple blooms.
Here’s what they add to a garden: their evergreen foliage is a beautiful silvery-green that contrasts really nicely with most other plants, bees LOVE their blooms, they add a fun vertical shape in the garden, you can use their blooms as cut flowers, or dry them for use in cooking (we had a delicious lavender and sea-salt butter served at our rehearsal dinner that I’ve replicated every summer since!) and if you rub the blooms on a fresh bee sting it takes out some of the ouch! Definitely makes the cut. Water input: haven’t watered it since the first summer I planted it!
3. Lemon Balm –  I love this stuff. Lemon balm is a leafy perennial herb that adds a great color to the garden. Its lime-green leaves smell so lemony and delicious! It’s great for covering space, but it’s fairly compact, so it doesn’t look too wild and unkempt. You can use it in salads and dressings and even to perk up a drink. Since it’s a perennial, it graces your garden every spring and lasts through the first few frosts. All you have to do is water it until it establishes, and then cut it back once a year when the leaves die back. And it’s great at suppressing weeds, which cuts way back on my tending time.
Photo credit: Proven Winners
4. Catmint (Nepeta)- This trooper makes the list for aesthetics and strength alone. I planted 2 of these opposite my lavenders to protect the other herbs and greet visitors and boy do they serve their purpose! These perennials also have silvery-green leaves and purple blooms. They spread nicely and bloom from April well past the first few frosts! In fact, mine was blooming in December last year! For looks alone this is a great pick, but it also establishes easily and requires little to no supplemental water.
5. Oregano- A staple for all Italian gardens. This perennial herb is so versatile and crucial to any culinary garden! It’s got great color and a great scent and, of course, can be used in all sorts of recipes. I use it weekly for making dipping oil for bread. Cut it back once a year when the cold kills its leaves, and you’re good to go! I haven’t watered it since it established during the first summer I planted it.
6. Genovese Basil– If I were to choose a favorite herb, it would have to be basil. I could live on pesto linguine alone. My favorite variety of basil is Genovese for its sweet taste and lack of licorice twang. Basil is an annual herb, so every year I pop in 3 new plants. Of all my all-star plants, basil takes the most time and attention, but it is absolutely worth it. I do have to water the plants regularly (depending on the rainfall) and it takes some time to weed around them, but the flavor it adds to dishes and drinks is heavenly!
5. Mint-My husband is a novice bourbon connoisseur, so mint was a must-have from the start of our first garden. We have a small patch of soil in the front yard that is bordered on all sides by a concrete curbing; to cut back on weeding, provide some uniform color and texture, and of course have fresh mint on hand 8 months of the year, I filled the spot with some mint cuttings. *Be aware that mint is an aggressive spreader! Make sure that you plant it in a place where its runners are confined (like a container or a small concrete bed) lest you end up with a garden full of mint and nothing else! The only work involved with this guy is keeping it contained and cutting back the dead foliage in the late fall.
(photo credit: Proven Winners)
6. Creeping thyme- I originally chose this marginally evergreen little herb mostly for its creeping habit, but it has turned out to be a great addition for many reasons! Because it spreads nicely, it covers the ground and helps reduce the weeds, which saves me a ton of time. Its leaves are, of course, edible and a great addition to dishes. But what surprised me the most was how beautiful it is when it flowers! It looks like a little blanket of soft purple blooms. I do have to water the thyme once or twice a week (depending on the rain) but for the most part it is fairly low maintenance.
7. Knock-out Roses- One May I salvaged 3 pink knock out roses from a friend’s house that were destined for the trash. They had been sitting bare-root by the trash for a few days when I spotted them and with her blessing I took them home to see if they’d survive. I planted them in my questionable backyard soil, crossed my fingers and was pleasantly surprised when they bloomed like crazy a few weeks later. All this to say, these plants are TOUGH! They bloom from April to December and require little water at all. I do have to weed underneath them every other week, but for the beautiful impact they bring to the garden, they make the cut!
8. Moonflower- This annual vine is so neat! It serves many purposes in our garden and is such a treat for us in the evenings. We have it trained on wires to grow up (and disguise) a very unsightly cinder block wall in the backyard. The best thing about moonflower is that it blooms at night! It has these beautiful white flowers that burst open each night (in fact, you can actually watch them open it happens so quickly!) Typically, by the time my husband and I get home from work it is almost twilight, so the white, night-blooming flowers allow us to enjoy our garden much later than we otherwise would!
And with that, you’ve met my ‘Great Eight’ essential urban garden plants. If you’re strapped for space and time, try one (or all!) of these plants in your garden- I bet they won’t disappoint!
There are tons of great plants out there! I’d love to hear your suggestions for great small space, low input plants that would make your list! Share your favorites in the comments so we can all see!
Thanks for dropping in!


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