Today’s harried commuter, living in a townhouse, condo, or on a postage-stamp-sized suburban lot, has to be ingenious about the use of his or her gardening space and time. Getting the most from your plot of Mother Earth—with the least amount of negative impact on either yourself or the environment—is a challenging way to stretch your imagination and expand your horticultural horizons.
A few simple rules apply:
Choose `double-duty’ plants. Whenever and wherever possible, choose perennial plants that provide both visual beauty and food for either yourself or wildlife. Blueberries, cranberries, Juneberries, and compact bush plums and sand cherries are low-maintenance, high-impact shrubs that can be tucked in among foundation-hiding yews and azaleas. The cool, moist, well-mulched soil found along the north and east sides of most home foundation plantings is ideal for these acid-loving plants, and their spring bloom, summer fruit, and blazing autumn color enliven and enrich the home landscape.
Fruit trees. Especially dwarf and semi-dwarf varieties make great ornamental trees. Don’t limit your use of fruit trees to single specimen or shade tree status. A neatly trimmed hedge of dwarf apples, an espaliered pear climbing the wall of the garage, a potted dwarf apricot in the perennial bed, an artfully pruned plum arching over a small garden pool— all add both beauty and `fruitfulness’ to your garden. Try new or unusual varieties—no need to limit yourself to a single Red Delicious when there are literally hundreds of apple cultivars to choose from. Spend a little time browsing through a catalog of “antique” fruit varieties to find the tree of your dreams.
Companion plant with abandon. An assortment of herbs and flowers are naturally repellent to the insects that feed on vegetable plants. If vegetable gardeners can tuck marigolds among their cucumber crop to deter cucumber beetles, why not slip a bush-type cuke, like ‘Spacemaster’, between the marigolds in your planter box? Add a few plants of airy, lacy-leafed fennel to lighten the atmosphere around sword-leafed iris; tuck a clump of lavender-flowered chives into a window box of rosy-pink petunias; use aromatic dill’s feathery foliage and lacy flowers as a frothy background for stately hostas. All these edible herbs will serve as natural pest-repellents for the flowers they complement.
Look for beauty in every plant. When taken out of its usual regimented rows, even humble cabbage acquires an entirely new persona. Witness the sudden popularity of fantastically frilled (though sadly inedible) ornamental kales and cabbages. Why not slip a few seedlings of highly edible dwarf Scotch blue kale into the back of the flower bed? Their arching, ruffled, cool bluey-gray leaves provide a perfect counterpoint to the hot oranges, reds, and yellows of daylilies, geraniums, or zinnias. Although I wouldn’t recommend a stand of sweet corn in the rose parterre, you can seed lettuce, spinach, mache, and other small-leafed greens on any patch of bare earth, to serve as both a salad bed and as a filler for leggy perennials.
Use common plants in uncommon ways. Strawberries make a lovely fruiting groundcover beneath ferns and shrubs, or to disguise the fading foliage of spring bulbs. They require little care beyond an annual clean-up of old plants, and will spread and establish themselves easily in most locations, plus the reward of fresh-picked fruit can’t be beat.
Peppers, too, have great ornamental value. Compact, neat-growing, pest-free, covered with early white flowers and smooth waxy fruits simultaneously, I love the look of their glossy, dark green leaves as a backdrop for the brilliant colors of portulaca, coreopsis, or impatiens. With the new Early Bird varieties that fruit in every imaginable color from white, to blue, to chocolate brown,—both hot and sweet—these peppers can’t be beat for adding a little `spice’ to any flower bed or window box.
Experiment. Unusual, edible plants like hardy kiwi, paw-paw, Oriental persimmon (for outdoor, year-round beauty); Persian limes, Chiotto oranges, and Buddha’s hand bananas (for Summering-out / Wintering-in) can be a source of endless fascination and a wonderful way to stretch your gardening muscles.
Have fun. Edge a walkway with neatly clipped mounds of edible or a lacy frill of radishes, ferny-leafed carrots, or the rich purple foliage of red beets. Trellis a vine of zucchini, squash, or cucumbers up among the clematis or morning glories; pot a cherry tomato up with a supporting cast of purple pansies and white sweet alyssum; let red, white, and purple-flowering peas run riot along a fencerow; give a potato plant a starring role in your deepest planter.
Remember, the adage of “all work and no play” applies to gardens as well as gardeners!