13 New Rules for City Gardening

– Posted in: Garden Design

18 Century Philadelphia Garden

I’ve been devouring the spring blooms in Philadelphia over the past 2 weeks. As I take my daily morning walk, I’m amazed at the simple beauty of the plantings in both personal and public spaces.

When walking down a city street, window boxes, container plantings, trees judiciously positioned, and pots strategically placed on the steps or sidewalk can create a feast for the eyes.

But at the same time, with so little space to work with, gaffes in color combinations, plant choices, and design are glaring.  There is less room for mistakes when gardening in such a small area.

Everyday I made mental notes of the plantings I loved vs. those that I thought could use some help.

This led to me creating a list of 13 New Rules for City Gardening.

1. Do experiment with complementary colors and softer contrasting colors in containers to create a profusion of color and a romantic, cottage-garden design.

2015-04-29 08.36.51.jpg- New Rules Photo-#2- using Color in containers

2015-04-29 08.37.02.jpg-Photo #3- Using Color Effectively in Containers

2. Do not use one of each plant variety and do not stagger heights in a straight row. It’s a jagged look and not pleasing to the eye.

2015-04-29 08.38.11.jpg- New Rules- #4- Do not do ones of everything

3. Do not clutter front steps with odds and ends and single plants in small containers. It ends up looking disheveled and like you’ve carelessly thrown some things together.

2015-04-29 08.38.28.jpg- New Rules- #3- Don't clutter steps up with odds and ends

4. Do plant trees in containers on the perimeter of your property. They add color, texture, and life to a paved sidewalk. Plus, they’re good for your health and the environment.

2015-04-29 08.41.18.jpg- New Rules- #4- Do add trees to property-including containers

5. Do use a focal point in sumptuous and large container plantings. But be judicious in your choice. Whoever designed this garden did a masterful job in selecting a large Digitalis (foxglove) as the focal point, along with slim, curving bare branches.

2015-04-29 08.44.15#8- Do find creative ways of having a focal point

6. Do use hardy, easy to maintain perennials in abundance if you garden on a piece of land.

Brunnera macrophylla

In the photo above, Brunnera macrophylla, commonly known as Siberian bugloss, is known for its forget-me-not spring blooming flowers. It does well in moist, partial shade, in acidic soil.

Pulmonaria augustfolia and Dicentra spectabils

In the photo above, 2 delightful spring blooming perennials, Pulmonaria augustfolia, commonly known as lungwort, and Dicentra spectabilis, commonly known as Bleeding heart, make perfect partners in a small garden, at Fitler Square, in Center City Philadelphia.

Dicentra spectabilis dies back to the ground by early summer so be prepared to have an empty space in the garden that will need to be filled in. But if you love the plant as much as I do, it’s worth the extra effort.

ajuga reptans

The photo above is of Ajuga reptans, a herbaceous, shade loving ground cover.

7. Do create narrow beds around the perimeter of your house filled with bushes, perennials, bulbs, and annuals. When done correctly, it is visually stunning and awakens your senses.

2015-04-29 09.08.33.jpg- New Rules- #7- Do Create a Perimeter Garden around your house

In the photo above, a lilac bush in full bloom on the corner anchors the other plantings which consists of lilies, tulips, hyacinths, and several perennials.

8. Do not leave evergreen material in window boxes when planting for spring. Trying to add some flowers and plant around them rarely works. The end result is an off-scale, thrown together vignette.  Start fresh: remove all plant material and work in compost and fresh soil to already existing soil.

2015-04-29 08.38.59#6- evergreens in boxes

2015-04-29 09.14.51.jpg- Evergreens

9. Do plant spring bulbs and native wildflower seeds around the perimeter of trees on your city block. It’s surprising how effective it is in adding color, beauty, and bringing pleasure to folks walking by.

2015-04-29 09.15.58#8- Do Create Naturalized Bulbs Plantins Around Trees

10. Do create containers with the focus on foliage rather than flowers.

2015-04-29 09.13.31#13- Foliage Green Plants

The container above is filled with ivy, begonia, hellebore, heuchera, perennial grass, and fern. The shapes, colors, and variegation of the leaves make for a stunning, yet simple container.

11. Do not use the sidewalk as a space to create your own version of paradise.

sidewalk display garden

In this photo, the owner of the home placed the shelves, the buddha, and a plethora of plants on the edge of the sidewalk near the street. Not only is it illegal and obtrusive but in this case it proved to be an eyesore.

12. Do not plant annuals in blocks of colors in a garden bed.

2015-04-29 09.04#12- Multi-colored annuals

This planting is just plain ugly. It would look so much prettier if it had been planted up with perennials and bulbs,  as suggested in #6.

13. Do advocate for your city to create as many green spaces and community gardens in your city. Research shows that being surrounded by green spaces and working in a garden have a significant positive impact on your health.

2015-04-29 15.09.22#10- Do Have Beautfiul green spaces

The photo above was taken at Rittenhouse Square in Philadelphia, a favorite place for folks to meet up, eat, relax, and bring their dogs and children.

Philadelphia Community Garden

The photo above is the entrance to a community garden in center city Philadelphia.

Now it’s your turn! Do you have any New Rules that you’d like to add to this list?

Fran Sorin

Fran is the author of the highly-acclaimed book, Digging Deep: Unearthing Your Creative Roots Through Gardening, which Andrew Weil, M.D., recommends as "a profound and inspiring book."  

A graduate of the University of Chicago with Honors in Psychology, she is also a gardening and creativity expert, coach, inspirational speaker, CBS radio news gardening correspondent, and Huffington Post Contributor.

Learn more about Fran and get free resources that will help you improve your life at www.fransorin.com.

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Fran Sorin
23 comments… add one

Leave a Comment

jomarch May 1, 2015, 7:25 am

gREAT LIST. aS A RESIDENT OF cAMBRIDGE ma I SEE examples of all the good and bad that you have here. I do like odd little spaces like # 11. Maybe in a formal “square ” setting it might seem a little rough but I like the funkiness and individuality that it shows. Gardening in the city has become such a gentrified hobby that this appeals to me.
Here the plantings that look like # 12 are often in public spaces.

Surreal Landscapes June 28, 2015, 10:08 pm

great list! just like you, i love walking on the streets with many flowers, trees and plants to look at. i totally agree with number 13, influencing your community to live in a greener environment. it’s good not only with the people living in that community but to the ecosystem too.

Reese September 2, 2015, 12:05 pm

I love it! thanks for sharing.

Fran Sorin September 2, 2015, 11:22 pm

With pleasure Reese. Fran

Sarah Mitchell October 7, 2015, 9:56 am

Great rules! Agree with #10 it’s so much better the whole view changes with such green elements. Thank you for sharing!

Exotic Plant Nursery Sussex October 30, 2015, 6:45 am

nice information, great blog, thanks for sharing.

Fran Sorin October 31, 2015, 4:18 am

With pleasure. Thanks for your comment.

Kate Harrison November 9, 2015, 6:22 am

Hi Fran
Thank you for sharing this article, its very helpful and creative. Points are easy to follow. Nice going! 🙂

Jessie April 26, 2017, 3:15 am

I love trying complementary colors but I like to see more green in my garden.All what you have mentioned above are good tips but my problem is growing these trees and bushes like in the above pretty images is not easy.I love growing agricultural stuff but due to the climate changes in the city I live, it is difficult to maintain these plants.

Fran Sorin April 26, 2017, 9:59 pm


It is true, especially in the city, that you need to be mindful of the soil and growing conditions. My suggestion is to always look at what is growing successfully in your neighborhood and then mimic what you like. Best-Fran

Jessie May 22, 2017, 1:58 am

Thank you very much for the suggestion.

Fran Sorin June 4, 2017, 6:56 am

Jessie- You’re most welcome!

EL CHINO NURSERY June 21, 2017, 11:53 pm

Thank you for sharing! i love walking on the streets with many flowers, trees and plants to look at.

Essential Home and Garden June 25, 2017, 9:36 pm

Number 13! We need more green spaces in our cities and busy suburbs. If you let your local representatives know this is what you want, we are more likely to get more. I feel better as soon as I go somewhere with more trees and gardens.

John July 2, 2017, 6:46 pm

Some great rules of thumb highlighting quite a few common mistakes! Nice to have a piece focussed on how to make the maximum use of small spaces – well done 🙂

Garden Maintenance Ilkley July 7, 2017, 10:48 am

number 8 definitely – we see this time and time again – it might be a real shame but it’s good to start again from time to time.

Ammy August 3, 2017, 8:14 am


Fran Sorin August 15, 2017, 7:21 am

I’m so glad that you found this article helpful. Your comments brought a smile to my face this morning! Fran

Garden Maintenance in Ilkley September 19, 2017, 12:19 pm

I have to say, I think you have captured the best thing about ‘gardening’. You dont have to have acres of land, you dont have to have a pristine green lawn. All you need is space for a pot to put some flowers in . Great article and it just shows, even if you do live in the middle of a city, you can garden like you live in the suburbs!

Tia Steward December 19, 2017, 10:27 am

Great article! I used to live in the city. I find it extremely accurate that one must test combinations, color schemes and designs since there is such a small space to work with. I personally love #5. Thanks for the awesome article!!

-Tia at Trimyourgarden.com

Fran Sorin December 30, 2017, 11:30 pm

Tia- Glad you found the information helpful. Over 50% of the population now live in cities and that number is increasing; therefore, it’s critical that we focus on creating greener and more beautifully designed urban areas. Have a beautiful New Year. And thanks for your comment! Fran

Fran Sorin December 30, 2017, 11:44 pm

Thanks for your comments. Have a wonderful New Year! Fran

wheelbarrow October 1, 2018, 10:47 am

Thank You so much for sharing some great rules of city gardening. I always love to walk with the street of flowers, gardening, tree etc. I am thoroughly following your 4, 10 and 13 points.

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