Concrete Jungle

This feature appeared in the Guardian Weekend magazine on November 5th 2011

If you rent a flat in a paved over part of town it can be hard to be a grower, not least because you may not want to invest time and effort into somewhere that’s only ever going to be temporary.  And autumn surely isn’t the obvious time to start a garden.  But perhaps urban, rented places are ones most in need of our love and attention, especially during the bleaker months of the year.

A few pots can help serial renters make a house feel like a home.  And when you move, because move you must, all those planters, and plants, have the potential to move with you.  There are lots of hardy evergreens and edibles that can bear bad weather and an entirely container bound life.

Lost and found spaces

Many flats don’t offer tenants much in the way of vegetated outside space.  An urban trend to cover front gardens in concrete means valuable green land is rapidly being lost.  Instead of shrubs and flowers welcoming you home, you’re likely to get bleak paving slabs and a lonely looking bin.  But all is not lost.  A snatch of gravel can quickly become a garden; a set of front steps can host a range of well placed pots; doorways were surely made for hanging baskets and window ledges for window boxes.  The humblest balcony can offer plenty of growing space.  In fact, pretty much any hard surface in your possession has the potential to be planted.

The front step garden

Town houses often have a set of steps leading up to a shared front door.  If the steps are wide, you could place a pot on each one and so create a striking walkway.  The key is to choose containers that feel stable, and steps that comfortably have room for both people and plants.  A series of silvery blue lavender plants would look good.  Lavender is an evergreen that’s happy in pots and offers year round interest.  A large planter at the bottom of the steps could house a small bright stemmed Prunus serrula or a Betula jaquemontii, although these attractive trees will eventually need to find a more spacious home.

The ledge or bracket garden

Some renters are lucky enough to have sash windows with wide ledges that can house a collection of pots, which is a particular privilege if the window belongs to the kitchen.   Delicious edibles like chervil, chard, mint, mizuna, rocket, rosemary and thyme will all survive in winter and provide flavour for salads, soups, roasts and stews.  If you don’t have luxurious ledges, a neat little window box could be attached to a south facing wall with a couple of simple but sturdy shelf brackets (see thebalconygardener.com for wooden window boxes and fruit crates, or make your own).  Such a box would look lovely packed with cheerful spring bulbs, like miniature daffodils and crocuses, which you can plant in autumn and winter.

The hook garden

Hanging baskets are most popular in summer – every self respecting pub has several eye-achingly bright ones, while foodies stuff theirs with strawberries and tumbling tomatoes.  Hanging baskets can be lovely in the colder months too, and are a perfect way for tenants to cheer up their limited space with some small scale growing.  All you need is somewhere you can secure a hook and a container that’s been adapted to hang (try theonlinegardener.com for hanging basket paraphernalia).  A planting scheme for winter could include trailing ivy, combined with flowering heather and the heart-shaped foliage of a hardy Cyclamen purpurascens.

The wallflower’s garden

One thing that houses and blocks of flats have lots of is outside wall space.  A narrow, trough style container pushed against a warm wall could be planted with winter flowering jasmine and honey suckle, or some festive holly and ivy.  Weave a support system out of bean poles and netting, and watch your walls become tangled with growth.  Such knotty plants are loved by wildlife, as they provide food and shelter during a tough time of year.

The concrete garden

If you rent somewhere with a paved over front garden, an unused parking plot or a balcony, there will be plenty of potential to create a jungle of pots (see thegardensuperstore.co.uk for pot ideas).  If you have space for a fairly large container or two, you could plant some small trees and shrubs that will look good throughout the winter.  Try a potted flowering quince (Chaenomeles) or some spicy scented witch hazel (Hamamelis).  Evergreen virburnums can grow in deep pots, and some varieties flower from autumn to spring.

If space is more limited, smaller evergreen options include handsome hebes and heathers. If edibles are of interest, plant a few cloves of garlic 5cm deep in a pot now, to harvest the strong tasting leaves in spring and the bulbs in summer.  I’ve tried growing expensive garden centre bought garlic and cheap supermarket bought bulbs and got similar results from both. Alium and anemone bulbs can also be planted in containers now for pretty spring flowers.

Creative containers

Classic terracotta may be your material of choice, although it’s heavy and not especially portable (see terrapot.co.uk for ideas).  Plastic pots are lighter and long-lasting, or you could even try easily transportable planting bags (see rocketgardens.co.uk).   Zinc watering cans, oversized plastic teapots and tyre trugs could all make quirky containers (see henandhammock.co.uk).

But if recycling appeals, all sorts of things can become plant pots.  Old colanders, pet travel baskets, paint pots, wooden drawers, vegetable boxes, holey buckets and even old suitcases can be filled with compost and stuffed with plants.  The most inspiring transportable gardens I’ve seen recently are soil filled shopping trolleys in Deptford, a flowering wheelbarrow in Harrow and planted plastic milk crates in Berlin.

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