Rehab the outdoors with urban garden


May 30, 1992|By Karol V. Menzie and Randy Johnson

It shouldn't be surprising that many rehabbers, who make old houses live again, are also gardeners who make neglected plots of land come alive.

Garden space is often at a premium with rehabbed houses. Town house dwellers may luxuriate in 40-foot living rooms, but garden in a space not much bigger than a dining table. Long, narrow plots are common, too. And long, narrow, dark plots aren't out of the ordinary.

But because it's scarce and because it's in the city, garden space is especially valuable. A pleasant garden gives the house another "room," provides a buffer between house and busy streets, and offers environmental benefits as well -- cleaner air and a home to birds, bees and other desirable wildlife.

The trick most urban gardeners discover early on is to treat the outdoor space as another architectural challenge. And it can be quite a challenge, requiring you to think in three dimensions and long-term time spans. (Just how big is that tree going to get, anyway?)

If you haven't tackled that concrete wasteland yet, here are some things to consider:

*That concrete may conceal -- more concrete. Or rocks. It's possible that no one has ever grown anything there before. If that's the case, you'll have to bring in the soil. Ordering a load of topsoil will fill it up quick, but if you want lush growth, you'll have to improve it with sand, peat moss and fertilizer.

*Think about gardening up. The smaller the area the more important the vertical space will be. Put up walls or fences, if they're not there already, and use them to hang planters or train vines.

*It may be easier to build raised beds, at least in some places, than to replace all the dirt. Raised beds can be made of brick, rocks, railroad ties, lumber -- anything you can think of (though you may want to avoid pressure-treated wood where you plan to grow vegetables). They're attractive, easy to weed and water, and are one good way to take advantage of vertical space.

*Containers, such as half-whiskey barrels or concrete urns or terra cotta pots or elegant white-painted woods boxes, can liven up a space quickly, and they can be moved around as the garden scheme gets more elaborate.

*A curving path, even in a very small space, makes the garden more interesting visually and makes it seem larger because part of the space is always hidden.

*Water trickling from a fountain provides a soothing background noise that can help filter out traffic din on the other side of a wall.

*A simple small pond can be made out of a buried plastic mortar pan (line the edge with rocks) or a flexible liner from a landscaping or water-gardening supply outfit.

*Ugly walls can be dressed up with trellises or climbing vines, or both. The trellis can be as simple as a piece of lattice panel on uprights or as elaborate as imagination can make it.

A recent house and garden tour in a Baltimore neighborhood of many rehabs yielded example after example of imaginative structuring of outdoor rooms, and of ways to create interaction between indoors and out. Here are some of our favorites:

*Window boxes, not just at ground level, but outside windows of every level. Bright flowers in the foreground softened many a city-roofscape view.

*Raised brick beds in geometric shapes placed on the diagonal to break up a narrow space visually and make it seem larger.

*A narrow deck that filled the areaway between two houses. Just steps from the kitchen, it was furnished with a table and chairs and made a great al fresco dining spot. Plants in containers made it inviting.

*A narrow, winding S-curved walk in a long, narrow garden with several levels and many large plants and trees. The path led to a parking pad, but it seemed a very long ramble back there.

*Instead of an ordinary garden light, a decorative lamp post with a 19th-century look that perfectly suited the house.

*Tiny fountains -- one no more than a bucket with a recirculating pump -- were surprising and romantic touches in many of the gardens.

*Rooftop gardens. One of the most spectacular gardens on the tour was off the third floor of a house. It had a few planter beds, but most of the profusion of plants were growing in containers. There was a tiny lattice-shaded dining area, and at the end, an arbor seat. And it even had a little fountain.


There are many good garden books that concentrate on small spaces and urban areas. Three of our favorites are:

*"The Small Garden Planner," by Graham Rose (Fireside by Simon and Schuster, 1987, $14.95);

*"The City Gardener's Handbook: From Balcony to Backyard," by Linda Yang (Random House, 1990, $26.95);

*"Building Your Garden," by Ian Penberthy (Macmillan, 1989, $17.95).

Next: Answers to readers' questions.

Mr. Johnson is construction manager for Neighborhood Housing Services of Baltimore. Ms. Menzie is a home writer for The Sun.

If you have questions, tips or experiences to share about working on houses, write to us c/o HOME WORK, The Sun, 501 N. Calvert St., Baltimore 21278. Questions of general interest will be answered in the column; comments, tips and experiences will be reported in occasional columns.

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