An Urban Garden Oasis
All images by Helena Gouros

On a global scale, different climates produce different gardens. From Australia to America, when creating an urban garden, climate, size and environment are all factors to be considered.

But with just a little planning and know-how, you can tackle the ever-changing demands of seasonal perils wherever you are.

Living in Manhattan, then moving to New Jersey, I have learned that the winters here are long and brutal and the summers are short, hot and rainy.

The fauna is different and, apart from the mozzies, the insects are, too. But, the fundamentals of garden design are the same.

I do most of my urban gardening, commercial and residential, in New York City. Fast becoming very verde, the city is bursting with indoor and outdoor green spaces.

When my work is done, there is nothing better than escaping the mania of the Big Apple by crossing the Hudson River to my alluring, out of sight, back garden in Jersey City.

An enchanted space

The garden, located in the historical Italian Quarter, had an untouched sanctuary-like feel with established trees and vines, including a 70-year-old enchanted Concorde grapevine, when I moved in a few years ago.

Used to make wine back in the day, the grapevine runs lengthways down the centre of the garden and creates a stunning canopy from April until November, providing shade for humans and shelter and food for welcomed birds and insects.

Morning glory and ivy creep up the fences, giving the garden privacy. Two figs and a pine tree make up a dense middle layer.

To add a much-needed bottom layer, smaller flowering perennial plants were added to six garden beds.

The four corners of the yard and the space running along the side fences were turned into garden beds.

To prepare the beds for planting, compost, manure and fresh top soil were added. Borders were created with recycled wood, seashells and bricks.

layer plants in a garden bed for depth
Layer plants to create a lush bed with depth and height

Budget tip

Grow perennials from seed or cuttings, swap plants with other gardeners and buy a few annuals for seasonal colour.

Bountiful bulbs

All of the bulbs in my backyard, such as lilies, irises and gladioli were from the community garden in my area.

Growing easily in my climate zone and naturally multiplying, they are planted in five of the six garden beds.

They are remarkably easy to divide and replant, giving you new plants for next spring at no extra cost. I like to do this in early fall, giving the bulbs time to settle in over winter.

Columbines, with their long stems and star-like flowers were an obvious choice. Easy to care for, they work best in part shade, but don’t overwater. In summer, once a week is sufficient.

I grew mine from seed and have divided and replanted them over the last several years up to three times. I picked up yellow columbine seeds from a friend last year and I’m looking forward to adding them to the garden.

handyman magazine, columbine in urban garden,
Columbines, with their long stems and star-like flowers, are a beautiful plant option

Companion gardening

I grow yarrow in bunches in beds and pots. I grew mine from seed and they took two years to flower but were worth the wait, as they attract beneficial insects into the garden.

The fennel and blackberry bushes in the back corner are adored by bumblebees and butterflies, while the nearby sunflowers attract birds, too.

Marigolds have a strong scent which keeps critters away. Grow them like a floral guard around the perimeter of beds or scatter through.

Nasturtiums have long stems that creep easily, and bountiful flowers which help camouflage ground beetles and ladybugs. They are also decoys who lure pests from other plants.

yarrow, handyman magazine, urban garden,
Yarrow flowers attract beneficial insects to gardens

Seasonal annuals

To keep the garden looking current and suited to the weather conditions, add annuals at the start of each season.

Last summer I grew basil, sunflowers, marigolds and nasturtiums from seed. Here are my top picks for any garden.

IN SPRING plant pansies, as they don’t mind a light frost and a cooler temperature.

IN SUMMER add geraniums and wax begonias for classic blooms.

IN FALL add chrysanthemums and ornamental kale for warm autumn colour.

Starting out from seed

To avoid frosts and a cooler lead-up to the warmer months, start seeds inside 6-10 weeks prior to spring.

Use a seed-growing kit, small pots or eggshells. Plant seeds according to the packet instructions, covering with peat moss instead of soil.

Peat moss is a lighter medium and for most seeds makes it easier to germinate successfully.

Not all seeds like to be started inside or to be moved once sown, but starting indoors gives you a good head start on the growing season to come.

starting out from seed, handyman magazine,
Eggshells make excellent and economical seed pots

Easy upcycling

On a quest to keep the urban garden theme alive, I have taken cinder blocks that were lying around the backyard, filled them with soil and used them as planters.

The cinder block planters line the back fence and act as pots along the low wall left over from the old house, which over a century ago sat where the garden is today.

cinder block, handyman magazine,
Cinder blocks were filled with soil and used as planters in this urban garden

tea trick,
Add tea to compost or throw leaves onto garden beds for a nitrogen hit and soil conditioner, and to promote worm activity

Winter landscape

With temperatures dropping below zero degrees Celsius here in the winter, plants were chosen for their hardiness, flowers and capabilities
as companion plants.

While I’ve lived here, the garden has sat in a state of winter dormancy. With plenty of snow cover, there hasn’t been much to do outside.

But I have learned that there are trees and shrubs that thrive in the colder months and it is in fact possible to have a winter garden.

I’ve already started making plans for a winter garden next year and started looking for the perfect outdoor fireplace, making my garden a four-seasons backyard.

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An aerial view of the snow-covered winter yard

snow covered tree, handyman magazine,
Hardy plants were chosen for this garden as winter temperatures can drop below zero degrees Celsius

Backyard wildlife

Australia is known for its unique animals, but I have seen more wildlife in my garden in the USA than ever before.

There is a resident woodchuck that likes to eat my seedlings in spring, making it a good reason to start them indoors.

Susie, a black garden snake, sighted of a morning on a good day, likes to feast on slugs. This keeps their numbers down and saves my plants. What a friend to have in the garden. Scary, but good.

black garden snake, handyman magazine,
A black garden snake named Susie works to keep the slug population down in this urban oasis

garden from above
An aerial shot of the yard in the autumn months

About Helena

Helena Gouros is an Australian who lived in Europe for years and is now an urban gardener in New York City and its surrounds.

For more information about Helena and her garden escapades at her website, The Urban Garden Companion.

helena the urban garden companion
Visit Helena’s website to learn her tips on making the most of small garden spaces

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