Spotting garden gems in tiny backyards


May 28, 1994|By Karol V. Menzie and Randy Johnson

You've finished the renovation, the dust has settled and you're tired of being cooped up in the house. Or maybe you're partway through a painting project and the weather's just too nice to stay inside. What are you going to do for a break? How about a little work in the garden?

Whether you're an urban pioneer or suburban dweller, a pretty and comfortable garden can provide an oasis of civility, a place to refresh mind and body, soul and eye.

We were pleasantly reminded of this recently at the annual Victorian Garden Tour put on by Baltimore's Union Square neighborhood association. None of the dozen or more gardens on the tour is large, and most are as narrow as the 19th-century rowhouses they belong to. But even the tiniest of these had some touches that made them special, and all together they were an encyclopedia of clever gardening ideas.

The homeowners have devised various ways to give character to the blank rectangles most started with. Here are some of our favorites:

* Tiny fountains. In one small garden, a half whiskey barrel had been filled with a liner and a little bubbler-type fountain. It had rocks, plants and even a couple goldfish.

* Arbors. One enterprising homeowner used copper tubing to make an arbor of arches from the side of the house to the fence on the other side of a narrow areaway. He is training vines on the pipes, but in the meantime they're decorated with strings of tiny white lights.

Another yard had a simple, old-fashioned wooden arbor -- basically posts with a piece of lattice on top -- draped with grapevines. In the cool space underneath, white wrought-iron furniture made a pleasant spot to sit and enjoy the garden.

* Tiny fences. The same garden with the copper arbor had a tiny, ornate wrought-iron gate leading into a square rose garden. The owner said he cut it down from a piece of fencing left over from the front walk.

* Raised beds. Since a lot of urban rowhouses have paved back yards, raised beds can provide an environment for plants without demolition and hauling. We saw both tall raised beds, 2 1/2 to 3 feet off the ground, and short ones, as tall as one railroad tie. (If you're planning to grow vegetables, you might want to consider using wood that hasn't been treated with chemicals to resist insects and decay.)

* Brick patios or walkways. In one long-ish yard, there were two paths: a straight one followed the fence to the back gate, and a curvy one wandered between wide border beds. The meandering path made the garden seem much larger.

Garden projects are among the easiest and most rewarding you can undertake. Even an element as dramatic as a pond, if you have space for it, is remarkably easy. You can buy a rigid black plastic liner and dig a hole to fit it, or you can dig a free-form space and fit it with a flexible liner. (Just be sure the liner is big enough to cover the excavation.) Add a plant step about 9 JTC inches from the top, if you're planning to add water plants.

Line the excavation with damp sand, drape the liner over it, and place bricks or stones around the edge to anchor it. Gradually fill with water, adjusting the bricks as the liner sinks to fit the contours of the pond. Trim the liner, leaving about 6 inches to fit under the edging. Flat stones are the traditional edging, but bricks will also work.

Brick walks and patios are also easy to build.

As with ponds, the hardest part is the digging. Mark the sides of the path or patio, and excavate about six inches. It's best to install a permanent edge; you can use pressure-treated 2-by-6s, held in place by stakes driven below ground level, or you can use concrete and pour permanent sides and bottoms.

If you're not using concrete, put 2 inches of sand in the bottom of the excavation and tamp it down (you can buy or rent a hand tamper). Level it a brick's depth below the top of the edging (about 3 inches), using a board notched on each end to ride on the edging. (For a large space such as a patio, level with the longest board you can comfortably use; check for level by placing a level on the edge of the board at intervals.)

Deciding what pattern to lay the brick in is one of the fun parts of the job -- will it be straight, herringbone, diagonal herringbone, lattice, or something of your own invention? Just be sure to use a brick that is designed for paving. Some old bricks aren't glazed, and will crack and crumble. Tamp the bricks into the sand with a board and fill the gaps with more sand.

Some people line the excavation with black plastic sheeting to keep weeds from growing between the bricks. The walk may still need occasional weeding, and because it's set in sand, it will move with the heaving of the earth, so you may have to reset a brick every now and then. A concrete foundation will offer a relatively weed-free and perfectly level surface, but it's a lot more work, more expensive, and it won't have the hand-made charm of the sand.

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