In a city, a front garden may be nothing more than a narrow strip of land to separate a house from the curb. How do you make the most of such a small space?
The rationale that UK-based designer Sheila Jack applies to her own small front garden in West London shows that elegance and generosity are not mutually exclusive. Here are nine ideas to steal for your own city garden.
Photography by Britt Willoughby Dyer, for Gardenista.
Rewards for passersby
“Neighbors and passersby often stop and look at the roses (and even get their phones out to take a picture), which I love,” says Sheila. Our photographer Britt Willoughby Dyer adds: “The frontage is so pretty, it really stands out along the road.”
For Sheila Jack’s back garden, see Designer Visit: Sheila Jack’s White Garden in West London.
Railings to support plants
Use your railings (or wall) to good effect. Sheila Jack’s iron fence is sturdy, low enough for roses to spill over, and doesn’t need painting very often. Rosa ‘Iceberg’, shown, is not actually a climber but it leans on the railings and does not need tying in. Other plant possibilities besides roses: wisteria, jasmine—carefully trained—or easier Trachelospermum jasminoides.
Containers to consider
Whatever they happen to contain, a container’s size, color, and material are important. Avoid anything too precious because of the possibility of theft. After a pair of containers was stolen, Sheila replaced them with a pair of matching vessels made from inexpensive, powder-coated steel, in a color not unlike the front door.
Although the boxwood balls stationed by the door have not been discovered yet by caterpillars, Sheila is thinking of changing them to pittosporum cut into mounds, for added texture.
Plants that flower for months
Sheila chose the reliable floribunda rose ‘Iceberg’ to provide a long season of flowering. “I just have to remember to deadhead them and they literally flower from May until Christmas.” Similarly white and repeat but with a stronger scent is Rosa ‘Margaret Merril’.
Small trees, evergreen or otherwise
Trees are important to give height but the wrong choice can look out of scale and cast too much shadow. When Sheila moved to this house, the holly shown here was a shrub, which she cut into a “rough standard,” bringing out some character. Which brings us to another point: Don’t get rid of everything when you move somewhere new.
Prejudices against variegated plants are due an overhaul. One of the easiest variegated varieties to come to grips with is holly, with either silver variegation or gold, as shown here with Ilex ‘Golden King’. Each leaf looks individually drawn, bringing vitality to this evergreen. If you think that it doesn’t go with the paintwork, or with your white color scheme, think again. Like its nonvariegated counterpart, it goes with everything.
Elizabethan knot gardens were designed for enjoyment from above, via an open window or even the roof. This approach is still relevant, since the view down to the garbage cans in the basement is seen daily and is usually a missed opportunity. Sheila turned her bin area into a matrix, with box framing the roses and plenty of gravel to keep down weeds and retain moisture.
The inevitable epilogue to the above scene is that the boxwood has since fallen victim to the box tree moth caterpillars that have been devastating English gardens. “I didn’t want to use insecticide, taking out all the pollinators with it, and picking them off proved futile,” says Sheila. “I’ve replaced it with Taxus baccata (yew), an experiment to see if I can get it to make a good low hedge.”
“The Iceberg roses are so completely easy,” says Sheila. “They never get watered and they are disease-resistant.”
Are you designing a new small city garden or updating an existing layout? Start with our curated guides to Garden Design 101, including Roses: A Field Guide to Planting, Care & Design and Fences & Gates 101. Read more: