Most renters, especially if they’re not planning a long stay, prefer not to spend too much time or money fixing up someone else’s property. But what if they still want a nice outdoor space? We asked Brooklyn-based garden designer Brook Klausing for recommendations for finessing a space that you don’t own. Not only has he done it for clients of his company, Brook Landscape, he also has plenty of personal experience, having fixed up several rental gardens for himself.
To start, Brook suggests, figure out what your goal is and how much time you’re willing to commit. Maybe you only have a year’s lease, and just want a weekend project. Or maybe you plan to be there a few years, and you’d love to spend the summer playing in the garden because you enjoy the process. Either way, don’t get overly enthusiastic and embark on something you won’t finish. Assess your own ambition and organize a project that’s right for you.
His other directive: Go big. “Don’t get distracted at the nursery and pick up a lot of random small things just because they’re cute,” he advises. Better to start with strong moves to organize the space.
Read on for 10 more rental garden tips from Brook:
Photography courtesy of Brook Klausing except where noted.
1. Accentuate the positive.
“If there’s a great view or a tree you’re really into (even if it’s in your neighbor’s yard), clear out any weeds or shrubs that are in the way and position your seating and enhancements to maximize the sight lines.” By the same token, identify what you don’t love in the space and remove or, if that’s not possible, downplay the distraction. (See below for suggestions on dealing with ugly walls and fences.)
2. Prune boldly.
If the existing garden is full of messy, overgrown trees and shrubs, pruning is the fastest and cheapest way to rehabilitate and define the space and give yourself room to move around. “All it takes is a pair of clippers, and maybe a saw if you’re feeling more ambitious,” says Brook.
3. Fix up what’s underfoot.
Consider covering an unsightly concrete patio with a thin layer of pea gravel. Or, if there’s just dirt or a patchy lawn, lay some inexpensive concrete pavers to create an affordable patio. (You’ll first need to dig down about two inches, to make the pavers flush with the rest of the yard.) If you’re up for some heavy lifting, it’s easy to lay a flagstone patio, which doesn’t require perfection. Alternatively, dress up a concrete patio or roof terrace with artificial turf or an outdoor rug. (You don’t want pavers on a roof, because of the weight—and hard edges that could damage the membrane.)
4. Slap on a coat of paint.
Painting is an easy way to rehabilitate an old fence or a shabby wall. “We once used black paint to transform a courtyard where multicolored walls were creating a very distracting backdrop to the garden,” Brook says.
5. Try quick cover-ups.
Another way to hide an ugly or boring surface is by planting fast-growing vines such as hyacinth bean, wisteria, or even morning glory. Attach strings for them to climb. Or consider rolled bamboo or reed fencing, available at most hardware and garden shops. “It’s easily attached to any existing surface using zip ties,” says Brook, “and it makes an instant privacy screen.”
6. Invest in containers.
No need to waste time and money testing the soil (and probably having to ameliorate it). Just buy some attractive pots and planters that you can take with you when you move. (For large planters, the ones made of lightweight fiberglass will be easier to transport than terra cotta.) Feel free to mix sizes and styles and group them together, filled with colorful annuals or, if it’s a sunny space, herbs and vegetables. You can buy small thyme, sage, and rosemary plants in the spring and watch them grow all season. “A small tree, such as a potted cutleaf Japanese maple, is a great decorative element in any space,” Brook suggests.
7. Divide and conquer.
If your garden already has some well-established plants such as hosta, iris, liriope, or decorative grasses, you can save yourself some money and a trip to the nursery. Just cut the plants in half and transplant them in empty areas of the garden. Remember that things look best when they’re massed together.
8. Use grass for hedges.
Create a border in a small sunny area such as a terrace or balcony by planting some tall, fact-growing ornamental grasses in a row of rectangular boxes. Karl Foerster, which grows to about 3 feet tall and 2 feet wide, is a good choice for a skinny border; Miscanthus (maiden grass) is another option.
If you have a larger open area that’s surrounded by a chain link fence, consider planting large grasses along the fence to soften the perimeter. Pampas grass (Cortaderia Selloana) is a high-impact, low-dollar solution; a single plant can cover an area the size of a doorway in a couple of years.
9. Buy flexible furniture.
You probably don’t know where you’ll end up next, so resist buying heavy, clunky pieces that will be hard to move and may not fit in your future garden. Better to invest in smaller furnishings, such as folding tables and collapsible chairs, that will pack up easily and are more likely to suit any space you might land in.
10. String up some lights.
Urban gardens tend to be heavily shaded, and can benefit from extra illumination. But in any garden, string lights add a festive air after dark, and make the space feel more like an outdoor room. When you’re ready to move on, you can just pull them down, throw them in a box, and … be prepared to find them hopelessly tangled up when you go to use them again.
N.B.: For more rental garden ideas on a budget, see:
- Trees for containers: 5 Favorites: Colorful Japanese Maples .
- Grasses for planters: Before & After: A Modern Townhouse Garden in Brooklyn.
- Landscape on a Budget: 10 Ideas for Mown Grass Paths.