City gardens, by which I mean both private and communal gardens but not parks and open green space, account for about a quarter of the area that Greater London covers. Greater London is roughly the area contained within the M25.
For comparison, Sheffield has a similar ratio of private gardens in its main conurbation.
Look around you; does that feel like a reasonable proportion where you are? Some of you will be in a rural area, but I’m guessing that most of you reading this will be in a suburban or urban scenario. Do you feel that about a quarter of the area is comprised of gardens?
This statistical figure includes front and rear gardens, which, you might be thinking, is why it seems quite a good proportion.
However, one of the issues with this statistic is that it includes ground covered by both hard landscaping – paths, patios, decking, drives – and soft landscaping – lawns and plants. also included are areas of land which have ponds, compost heaps, greenhouses and sheds on them.
Now this is where the astute among you perceive a flaw. How are we to define a city garden?
One person has a block paved drive full of cars and bins but devoid of plants. Another has a rear garden which is mainly grass and weeds such as dandelion, nettle and bindweed. A third has a tiny front patch with recycling bins and two big pots of topiary by the front door. Yet another has a decked rear garden with some troughs of bedding plants for summer colour. Are these gardens?
A first floor flat with a balcony has pots and troughs full to bursting with herbs and red hot chilli peppers. An office block has stunning metallic planters at its entrance; they’re filled with a bit of dirt and some cigarette butts. A second floor flat has window boxes of sempervirens and alpine bulbs that flower in the spring. A local hardware store has used old watering cans as containers for Hostas. Are these gardens?
The worrying trend over the last ten years or so has been the reduction in the amount of green space in city gardens. London city gardens may cover a quarter of the space within the M25, but of that 25% only about half is vegetated green space. There are about 12 square miles of front gardens which are paved, equivalent to 22 Hyde Parks.
This is a trend which we need to change – for lots of reasons. Flooding, air pollution, shade, human health, biodiversity and quality of life, for example, are impacts whose effects can be reduced if they’re bad or increased if they’re desirable, by turning London and all of Britain into a ‘green and pleasant land’.
And no, I’m not suggesting we have to rip up all the concrete, there are ways around the constraints which we have. For example, Plews has designed, built and planted raised beds and green roofs to cover recycle boxes. Easy maintenance gardening doesn’t mean boring or no flowers at all, it just needs to be designed well, so the planting adds to the enjoyment of the garden, relaxing, not stressing the occupants.
For a shadier border, lamium maculatum is good evergreen ground cover, with green leaves or variegated foliage, flowers ranging from magenta pink to soft yellow. You could under plant this with spring flowering bulbs, golden-yellow daffodils like Narcissus ’jetfire’ perhaps. The lamium will help disguise the dying foliage of the daffodils after flowering.
An easy maintenance foliage combination of shrubs and ornamental grasses could be Physocarpus opulifolius ‘diabolo’ with bronze/purple foliage, Miscanthus ‘silberfeder’ and Sambucus racemosa ‘golden aurea’ (golden elder). Under planted with ground cover herbaceous perennials, such as Heuchera, would keep the foliage interest year round. The seed heads on the Miscanthus would feed many garden birds, especially the greenfinches and goldfinches. Whilst the Heuchera provide cover for newts and other small garden wildlife.
City gardens and suburban gardens are a vital element of habitat diversification; they can provide corridors for wildlife to move through and a friendly environment for wide range of plants and animals.
Mixing ornamental and edible plants, herbaceous perennials, shrubs, trees and annuals all helps with biodiversity. Which in turn improves the health of the plants themselves and encourages predators to help take care of the pest problem for you.
And all this can equate to an easy maintenance city garden, if properly designed and planned. Of course you can have a garden that needs more time spent on it instead if that suits you better. Even a fairly minimalist garden can add to the biodiversity of our cities. It just takes the right attitude and someone who knows what they’re doing to get it right for you…and the rest of the city dwellers will benefit too.