Micro-Gardening: How It Transforms Philadelphia Into An Urban Jewel

– Posted in: Garden Design, Garden Travels

Green roofs and walls, urban agriculture, planting trees, and large swathes of native plantings are what most gardeners discuss when the topic of gardening in urban areas arises.

What often goes unnoticed is small space gardening – window boxes, containers, and entryways.

It doesn’t matter whether it’s a celebration of color with a variety of plants that intermingle or shades of green that create a calm and stately presence.

These tiny areas of plants – what I call micro-gardening – bring beauty, community, and peace to a city like Philadelphia.

Micro-gardening transforms Philadelphia into an urban jewel. A tapestry of texture and color.


Window box gardening near Rittenhouse Square, Philadelphia

Micro-gardening transforms Philadelphia

Window box gardening in Philadelphia

The Micro-Gardening Journey

Appreciate your own journey as a gardener

I wasn’t always an evangelical urban micro- gardener. I’ve journeyed through several phases of gardening to reach this juncture.

When I moved to Philadelphia at age 17 after having lived in Montreal, I only knew that it was where our Founding Fathers signed The Declaration of Independence and Constitution.

As my mother and I drove down the East River Drive from the airport, I saw the majestic Art Museum perched on the edge of the winding Schuylkill River, with lush grass, shade trees, sculptures, and seating areas abutting it. At that moment, I knew that Philadelphia and I were going to become great friends.

I returned to Philadelphia after college. Within a few years I married, had small children and a house in the suburbs. It was then that gardening took root in my soul. For the next 20 years, I was passionate about garden design, perennials, and sprawling landscapes.

Working at Doe Run, originally the garden of Sir John Thouronย  and now of Richard Hayne, founder and CEO of Urban Outfitter and all of its subsidiaries (including Anthropologie and Terrain), I had the privilege of not just working in the garden but being there. Walking about, observing, touching, smelling and feeling its undulating glory.

I discovered Chanticleer Garden when it was still a personal residence. For 2 decades, I have observed its radical changes – from a private estate to one of the all time great pleasure gardens. I marvel at the genius of the place and all who have played a part in creating it – and continue to do so. And I am forever grateful to Chris Woods for jump starting my love affair with perennials and a renegade sensibility.

Moving To The City Changed My Perception of Gardening

It wasn’t until I sold my house in the suburbs and decided to spend much of the year renting a rooftop apartment in the center of Tel Aviv that the magnificence of plants and landscape of the city lit a fire deep inside of me. Especially micro-gardening.

On a recent trip to Philadelphia, I walked from one of the most prestigious areas in the city- Rittenhouse Square – down to South Philly (think Rocky and the Italian Market) to get a stronger sense of what’s happening today with ‘micro gardening’ in the City of Brotherly Love.

Well designed window boxes, containers, and small space gardening soften the hard surfaces of a neighborhood. They bring greenery and color into bare areas. And even the smallest of gardens – one container perhaps- can help an individual feel a sense of peace and happiness.

How  Micro-Gardening Transforms Philadelphia Into An Urban Jewel

window box gardening in Philadelphia

Window box and container gardening

Window box and container gardening

A large cement container on the sidewalk of a busy side street turns a hard cement surface into a riot of color.

Tropical planted container on side street of Philadelphia

Tropical planted container on side street of Philadelphia

A restaurant adorns its entryway with a festoon of flowers and greenery.

Container vignette at entrance of Philadelphia restaurant

Container vignette at entrance of Philadelphia restaurant

By the way – on my way to visit a friend in Philly one morning, I couldn’t resist stopping into one of my favorite South Philly diners – Morningstar Cafe.

They have some of the most delicious muffins in the city. After much deliberation, I chose the lemon poppy seed. I sat down at the counter, and along with a cold glass of milk, I sliced the muffin and with deliberation, I enjoyed every morsel of it.

Morningstar Cafe in Philadelphia - Lemon poppy seed muffin

Morningstar Cafe in Philadelphia – Lemon poppy seed muffin

Outstanding urban micro-gardening and muffins in one city – what more can you ask for?

NOW IT’S YOUR TURN. Do you live near or in a city that’s filled with micro-gardening? And do you practice micro-gardening (no matter where you live) ?

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." ย 

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
28 Comments… add one

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Sam July 2, 2013, 6:48 pm

Great story on micro-gardening! I have often noticed this when I’m in city areas, especially last summer in Boston. I love how people either have time or money (or both) to spruce up their area wherever they may be.

Mary Yee July 2, 2013, 9:18 pm

Thank you for this post. Yes, small-space gardening can bring beauty and joy to any place. I just returned from a sabbatical in England where I delighted in the plant vignettes found in tiny front yards: a single plant of Cyclamen coum in bloom in January; a pot of nandina with red berries, the green bells of Helleborus foetidus, pale yellow primroses….

Anastasia Abboud July 2, 2013, 10:33 pm

What a lovely post! That muffin looks scrumptious! I don’t do much micro-gardening myself, but I like it. Philadelphia is one of my all-time favorite cities, but now I realize with some surprise that I’ve never really noticed the flowers. Thanks to you, I will next time!

Tess The Bold Life July 3, 2013, 7:05 am

I’m with ya Fran…I had the privilege of not just working in the garden but being there. Walking about, observing, touching, smelling and feeling its undulating glory. The best thing in the world to do:)

Angela Artemis|Powered by Intuition July 3, 2013, 9:54 am

I love all the gorgeous photos of Philly. I used to live in Collingswood when I attended Rutgers and spent many a lovely weekend there.

Margaret (Peggy) Herrman July 3, 2013, 10:36 am

Fabulous journey. thanks Fran. learned a lot. need to come back to philly. Best, Peggy

Elle July 3, 2013, 11:50 am

Great pics Fran. As someone who loves gardens and greenery and flowers I too appreciate gardens in the city. The last time I was ‘home’ in the UK I noticed that more and more people are adding window boxes and containers in towns. And even the tiniest plot of land will have flowers growing.

They beautify our lives in so many ways and are most definitely food for my soul.

Thanks for sharing your love of micro gardening Fran.


Cathy Taughinbaugh July 3, 2013, 1:00 pm

Hi Fran,

Love the planters in the Philadelphia! It adds so much to the buildings to have some greenery in the window boxes. The muffins look yummy as well. I do a lot of pots in my back yard and on my porch. We put in a dry rock river bed surrounded by 5 redwood trees, so no grass in back or edges to plant. I do love the big pots as they are fun to create and it does add so much. I also took a break from the veggies this year – will get back to that again next season. Thanks for sharing.

David Stevens July 3, 2013, 6:24 pm

I’m not much of a gardener Fran however I enjoyed this. The imagery and word imagery made this a nice read. Thankyou.

be good to yourself

Donna July 4, 2013, 2:37 pm

I first fell in love with window boxes while traveling in the Netherlands, and practice my own micro-gardening on a postage-stamp sized balcony. I usually use trailing geraniums for their bright colors and ability to stand strong sun and (sometimes) spotty care.

Fran Sorin July 5, 2013, 8:27 am

David- am so glad that you enjoyed!

Fran Sorin July 5, 2013, 8:29 am


I love the dry rock river bed- what a great idea. It’s good to take a break from doing what you normally do and try something new. I know you have a green thumb. ๐Ÿ™‚

Fran Sorin July 5, 2013, 8:31 am

Donna – I love trailing geraniums. I was in Assisi, Italy and saw several – fell in love with the way they were used. i think that the smaller the garden, the more challenging. ๐Ÿ™‚

Fran Sorin July 5, 2013, 8:36 am

Mary – lucky you being on sabbatical in England. The first time I went there, like you, I noticed the front gardens-all the way from the- airport into the outer suburbs of London. It didn’t matter how small they were but everyone did have a garden….you’ve mentioned some specimens that I love – nandina, Helleborus foetidus and primroses – thanks for sharing! Fran

Fran Sorin July 5, 2013, 8:38 am

Tess – I know that your background in gardening is rich. And with your love of life, i know that the sensuality of flowers would rock your boat. ๐Ÿ™‚

Fran Sorin July 5, 2013, 8:39 am

Peggy- am glad you enjoyed~ would love to see you in philly. fran

Fran Sorin July 5, 2013, 8:41 am

Hi Anastasia – if you don’t do micro-gardening, it’s easy to bypass it. If you haven’t been back to Philly in a long time, I think you’ll be surprised by what has been done. Thanks for chiming in!

Fran Sorin July 5, 2013, 8:44 am

Hi Sam – Boston certainly does beautiful micro-gardening in the city ~ you know, it’s really a lot less about money than intent when it comes to any type of gardening – especially micro. I’ve seen in what’s considered ‘inner city’ areas some magnificent front yards, containers, and window boxes. Thanks for chiming in! fran

Fran Sorin July 5, 2013, 8:47 am

Ange- wish I had known you back them – we could have had a blast. but when i’m in philly for a longer period of time, I would love it if you came to visit.:)xx00

Evelyn Lim July 8, 2013, 10:47 pm

I live in a island-city that has a lot of tropical trees, bushes and shrubs with flowers. You can google to find out about Singapore – City in a Garden and about our national efforts to shape the island if you are interested. Micro-gardens are therefore seen everywhere ๐Ÿ™‚

I am very drawn to gardens myself, despite not doing much gardening. I live two doors away from our national park too. I must be drawing influences from these when I design my website.

Have a blessed week, Fran!

Grace July 10, 2013, 8:24 am

Micro gardening and muffins are a lethal combination in this post. Love your refreshing take on window gardening. Flowers are really irresistible and yes they can transform any space into an oasis. I have these copper planters installed around the window areas of the house. They are made of sturdy fiberglass and coated with a real copper outer layer.

Betsy/Zen Mama July 10, 2013, 8:26 am

This is just beautiful. I visited NYC last year and found the same to be true. It seems like European cities have been doing this for years and now we’re finally catching up!!
Thanks for sharing!

Lily Parkes July 11, 2013, 10:07 am

I never had been to Philadelphia before. After reading this wonderful article about window box and container gardening, I felt a sudden urge to visit the place. I admire how they do this very artistic gardening. It’s truly amazing! ๐Ÿ™‚

kate July 11, 2013, 10:32 am

Thank you for this post. I took me back to the time when I was living in the city. I had a similar box garden with flowers. They cheered me up every day watching them bloom in the middle of the busy town.

Cassidy July 15, 2013, 10:34 am

I am definitely a fan of micro gardening! I am renting so I can’t plant things in the ground. I’m always finding new ways to use containers inside and out.

Fran Sorin July 16, 2013, 6:41 am

I think that micro-gardening is going to continue to gain momentum as urban populations continue to grow.
From your site – which is beautiful – and your e-book, it looks like succulents have you hooked! Fran

Fern @ Life on the Balcony July 24, 2013, 12:02 am

Have you ever seen the sidewalk koi pond?

Fran Sorin July 25, 2013, 1:04 am

Fern – I haven’t- but have heard about it through word of mouth.

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