How to create an urban oasis – Image magazine 2012


It has been said that one of the most delightful things about a garden is the anticipation it provides. A sensory and sensual urban paradise with ever changing supplies of colour, scent and texture is possible even in the tiniest of gardens. And in our fast and busy lives it has become more important than ever to have a little haven to relax in. Just imagine a comfy seat for al fresco morning coffee or your favourite tipple in the evening surrounded by flowers, the hum of bees and a gentle trickle of water. Establishing a garden is not as difficult as it may seem. By just following a few simple tips you will be well on your way to creating and enjoying your own garden heaven!

Choosing a style will largely depend on what you have to work with. Even if it is a basement courtyard, alley, roof garden, balcony or terrace, the aspect of your little patch of paradise will determine what plants to choose from. Consider how much sunlight your garden gets and how dry or damp the area is. Turn the shadows and shade cast from neighbouring buildings to your advantage by transforming your enclosed space into a lush refuge. Be inspired by The Elysian, now the landmark building in Cork. Designed with people in mind, its magnificent contemporary gardens lie at its heart. They are a truly unique example in Ireland of how to create a green oasis in an area surrounded by very high buildings as shown in the photograph. Containing a carefully chosen mix of profuse evergreen planting including mature deciduous trees, a beautiful cherry tree and an abundance of the quintessentially contemporary Japanese maple. A mini version of this look could be re-created in a space no bigger than your average living room.

Juxtapose this with the opulence of the terrace at Dublin’s luxury five star Merrion Hotel also pictured. The formality of the box hedging (Buxus), statuary and ornate antique urns can be duplicated with wonderful effect in the garden or terrace of any period city dwelling. Attend one of the many antique auctions held around the country or trawl through flea markets for your vintage finds to provide the elements of a classically fashioned garden.

No matter what your garden style, there are a multitude of plants suitable for cramming into narrow beds, climbing and rambling up fences, trellises, trees and railings. It is even possible to create a garden where everything is container grown. However, a small space that is too busy can be less relaxing to enjoy and it is important not to get carried away when planning a small garden. If your garden gets no sun whatsoever plant a mix of deciduous and evergreen plants using ones of architectural substance for impact such as Hostas, Ferns and Ivies. Other evergreens such as Sarococa provide a gorgeous scent from its tiny flowers in winter, and are one of the best shade tolerant plants. If your garden gets some light, Hellebores will thrive in dappled shade in winter and spring, as will Brunnera, Pulmonarias, Epimediums and most spring bulbs. Euphorbia and Heuchera do well in a shaded spot in summer and for flowers plant Foxgloves (Digitalis), Dicentra and Ajuga reptens.

A monochromatic colour scheme adds sophistication and calm to an area enclosed by high walls. Punctuate by introducing seasonal colour using bulbs and bedding plants. Use containers to grow Agapanthus and Lilies in summer, Gaultheria, Muscari and Tulips in winter and spring. These can be moved into pole position as required. The hardy Cyclamen are diminutive in size and are among the most beautiful when planted en masse under a tree or in a bed. This can be enough to provide all the colour you need. The sundial in my own garden, pictured, is positioned in a small circular bed in the centre of a larger circular lawn, ‘polo-mint’ style. I enjoy mass-planting multiples of the same flowers to great effect, such as these lovely tulips.

Repeating the same climber along a set of railings gives a lovely sense of symmetry and form in a tight narrow space such as steps leading down to a basement garden. Place small containers at the side of each step filled with the same bedding plants. This will draw the eye down to the next level.

On a balcony or small terrace don’t be afraid to use something big. A container with one large plant is worth 10 tiny ones. The Chaemaecyparis balls (pictured) at the entrance to Cork City’s five star Boutique Hotel, Hayfield Manor, are a talking point in themselves.

Pairs of pots either side of a front door is a look that will frame an entrance nicely in a static and formal way. But try planting the same plant in odd numbers. It’s amazing how this can create flow and movement. This is key for small gardens.

Incorporating a few simple principles can broaden a long and narrow garden. Choose a round, rather than rectangular, set of outdoor furniture and place on a circular patio, even this will soften the look. Your dining area should be located in the sunniest corner of the garden, not necessarily beside the back door. A winding path taking you through an archway and along a flower border makes for a more interesting route than a diagonal path across the lawn.

Growing up!

Utilise your boundary, be it fencing or railings, by erecting the same trellising all around. This will provide an attractive backdrop for climbers whilst providing shelter from wind and privacy from neighbours. ‘Clematis Montana’ is a tough species and will cope with a north-facing wall splashing it with small starry white or pink fragrant flowers in spring. Winter jasmine will also ramble up a shady low wall or fence providing beautiful yellow flowers on bare but bright green stems in winter. Don’t feel confined to simply planting perennially flowering climbers either. Runner Bean ‘Scarlett emperor’ has the prettiest red flowers and will grow to about 6 feet in summer. Plant squashes with a trailing habit up a trellis or pergola with the pretty climber Passion flower (Passiflora) for contrast. A climbing rose such as Zephirine Drouhin rambling up and over an apple tree makes a beautiful combination. Bamboo makes an elegant and interesting screening plant and looks great in a contemporary setting. Other plants such as climbing Hydrangea tolerate shade, as does Virginia Creeper. On a sunny wall like this one pictured at Hayfield Manor, plant Wisteria Sinensis for its magnificent violet flowers in May. But be warned of its prolific nature, like the desperate housewives of Wisteria Lane…. you may not want to encroach on your neighbours patch!

Vertical gardening is the answer in a confined space and in some cases may be your only option. This was the theme of B & Q’s edible garden at last years Chelsea flower show. They created a vertical allotment garden 9 metres tall with edible plants growing layer by layer. The idea behind this was to bring a new concept of planting and ‘greening’ to the city garden.

You can achieve this by attaching pots of herbs and vegetables to a sturdy wire mesh attached to a sunny wall. Plant large containers with beans, squashes and nasturtiums at the base and train up the mesh for an amazing display. There is a wide variety of cost effective vertical gardening solutions available in gardens centres and online such as This product was used to create this stunning vertical garden for the Heather society at Hampton Court show last summer (pictured). It has a multitude of applications and works brilliantly for the kitchen garden too.

Try planting a hanging basket filled with cascading cherry tomatoes, and delicious herbs such as parsley, mint and thyme. Fastening shelves to a blank wall is another way to display pretty pots and containers. Vertical gardening has many more advantages than simply saving space. It is much easier on your back and knees when caring for plants at eye level. It also eliminates the problems of most pests and soil born disease. Cram window boxes full with herbs and cut and come salads too. If your soil is poor, as is often the case in a newly built development, make raised beds. Try this against a sunny sheltered wall and try your hand at growing exotic vegetables such as heat loving tomatoes, peppers, cucumber and aubergines. A hot summer may be necessary for some of these to crop but they will still look great!

Mix it up…..

Interspersing your fruit and vegetables amongst your perennials is the latest trend in gardening. Using your space at eye level as already mentioned, is the clever way to do this. But a bed of herbaceous perennials with the colourful leaves and stems of lettuces, cabbages, spinach and Swiss chard can look wonderful as well. If you have rich soil, plants usually won’t mind having to jostle for space. A clump of the pretty herb Borage, grown in a raised bed alongside tomatoes is an excellent planting combination. The Borage flowers are known to improve the flavour of tomatoes and are a wonderful adornment in your summer cocktails and salads. The leaves can be used as a substitute for lettuce too. Rosemary is as useful a kitchen herb as it is an evergreen shrub. It can also be used as a hedge or as an evergreen in a mixed border. Prostrate rosemary is great for ground cover and looks lovely spilling over a low wall or steps. Oregano and chives look lovely in flower as well as being useful kitchen herbs. Blueberries, Vaccinium Corybosum, are very happy to be grown in pots, as they require acid soil. They are also wonderful for their beautiful autumn colour.

Planting in succession is also a clever way to maximize space. As soon as one plant or crop has finished flowering or producing food move to a pot out of view and pop the next vegetable or shrub about to flower into the spot. Potager style planting makes for a plot brimming with ornamentals and edibles, providing enjoyment before the veggies even reach your plate!

Wildlife haven……..

It is lovely to have butterflies and bees in your midst and the gentle hum from your happy visitors can help soften the din from noisy neighbours and traffic. Plants such as Verbena, Lavender, Buddleia, Eupatorium and Sedum ‘Autumn Joy’ will do the job. A bird table or feeders hung from a tree will encourage feathered friends to call to your garden as well.

Water, water everywhere….

No garden is too small for water. A wall mounted water feature, a small pot or a sealed container will do the trick. There are plenty of aquatic plants at garden centres making it easy to create an oasis for birds, insects, butterflies and even small fish. Just keep your container free from algae and add fresh water from time to time. Plant Dierama ‘Angels Fishing Rod’ near your water feature and enjoy its wand like stems bobbing up and down above the surface.

Finally, Focal points and features….!

When all your planting and hard work is done, treat your garden to something different. Garden seats, bird baths, containers and urns can all act as a focal point in a garden. Place at the end of a border or path to draw the eye and pick ones that suit your garden style be it contemporary, classical or cottage. You can give a large terracotta pot an antique look by basting in natural yogurt. Simply painting your garden shed a bright modern colour can be enough to punctuate your green space. Check out this gorgeous blue shed photographed in the private garden of well known tree nursery man, Ronan Nangle. His multi-stem birch trees played a part in the creation of Diarmuid Gavin’s award winning Sky Garden. A stone statue (pictured) secluded amongst the shrubbery in Hayfield Manor shows how to display this lovely piece…. However, a brightly painted seat can look just as good.

So whether you opt for a pot of paint or an expensive antique to add quirkiness and character to your own garden the choices really are limitless. But be warned once you start you will never want to stop!

Written by

I am passionate about gardening and creating outdoor spaces that are gorgeous, adventurous, productive and fun. I have been advising and designing gardens for many years starting with friends and family as well as developing my own garden design in Cork near Crosshaven. I have been doing this whilst bearing and rearing our four children, who also garden with me and share my interest and passion, especially in the vegetable and fruit garden. I am the Gardening columnist for the Cork Independent free newspaper. I take all my own photographs for my articles on gardening and will also customise cards for clients using photographs taken in their home and garden.

No Comments Yet.

Leave a Reply

You must be logged in to post a comment.