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Container Gardening Inspiration: Grow a Thriving Oasis in Small Spaces

June 26, 2024

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Container Gardening Inspiration: Grow a Thriving Oasis in Small Spaces

Carving Out a Sanctuary in the City

I was painfully shy as a child, often taking refuge in the forested greenbelt adjacent to our suburban backyard. It was the early 1970s, before children were kept on a short tether, and I was allowed to wander so long as I was home before dark. I would explore the paths, climb trees, and collect nature’s treasures, creating my own little garden oasis on the forest floor.

The forest of my youth was mostly conifers, where an occasional “mother tree” would establish dominance, reaching out with a great protective canopy. Underneath these towering sentinels, little could grow, but that didn’t stop my young, imaginative mind. I would adopt the ground beneath, carefully removing debris and crafting a garden of collected flowers and plants, sometimes with roots still intact, arranging them in small, mossy circles.

I would sit in the dappled light, my back against the trunk of the mother tree, feeling safe in the solitude. It was an idyllic refuge of my own creation, all done on a five-year-old’s salary. Little did I know that this childhood sanctuary would later inspire my adult pursuits as a painter, sculptor, and curator, and that I would one day transform a small urban lot into a living art installation – a true garden oasis.

Cultivating a Sanctuary in the City

The property I purchased two decades ago to create my living art installation is a strange cutout from the city around it – a narrow, L-shaped strip of land, holding its breath between three normal-shaped lots. When I first found it, all that was there was a hobbled-together house, once a garage, under the canopy of a massive, century-old cherry tree (Prunus cv.).

There was no garden, only hardscrabble earth between patches of beastly bamboo and blackberry. One can renovate a house and create a garden, but the magnificent scale of that tree took generations to realize. So, I bought the tree.

To filter out the surrounding world, create privacy, and provide a solid canvas upon which other plants could shine, a solid green backdrop was installed along many of the property lines. But due to the size of the massive tree’s canopy, the plants beneath needed to be shade-loving and willing to put up with lots of root competition.

Several years ago, I planted a hedge of Leyland cypress (Cuprocyparis leylandii, Zones 6-10) to provide privacy between my residence and the neighbors’ house to the north. Now about 10 feet high, it makes a wonderful green foil for an array of architectural containers and textured foliage, as well as creating a comforting garden room.

Elsewhere, a Teddy Bear rhododendron (Rhododendron ‘Teddy Bear’, Zones 6b-8) offers a velvety backdrop, while a grove of limbed-up lilacs (Syringa cv., Zones 3-7) with zigzag trunks contributes a mundane yet protective canopy. These deliberate measures give the garden a protective “womb” quality, allowing me and others to be mentally present within the space.

Taming the Thugs and Embracing Foliage

Several thuggish plants tend to behave better when starved for nutrients and resources like light and water. For example, butterbur (Petasites japonicus, Zones 5-9) can run rampant if given its preferred moist, rich soil. In my garden, however, it stays a fraction of its mature size and politely remains in check.

I have chosen many robust plants, some of which would be absolute thugs in more favorable conditions, but are subdued here due to the extreme root competition. My garden isn’t about blooms; it’s foliage-first. Therefore, I choose plants that exhibit bold textures, colors, and shapes, positioning them in a variety of ways to create rhythms throughout the space or to create complements and contrasts – much as you would with an artwork that aims to produce a certain mood.

For example, I adore the color of the Wolf Eyes kousa dogwood (Cornus kousa ‘Wolf Eyes’, Zones 5-8). Its sharply variegated leaves allow it to be a focal point, especially when surrounded by plants with foliage of a contrasting color. You’ll also find drifts of Japanese forest grass (Hakonechloa macra and cvs., Zones 5-9) along the pathways of the garden, and the texture it provides is exceptional. The repetition of this fine-bladed plant provides rhythm and movement to the art of the garden.

For form, it’s hard to beat the imposing structure of butterbur. Most of the plants I rely on sparkle regardless of the season, but I do have some seasonal stars that help to complement the surrounding foliage at specific times of the year, adding interest to an area that might otherwise be lacking.

Seasonal Highlights and Hardscape Harmony

With its curled, wax-paper-like party blossoms, Jelena witch hazel (Hamamelis x intermedia ‘Jelena’, Zones 5-8) is the first in my garden to herald in the new year. Fothergilla (Fothergilla gardenii, Zones 5-8) has delicate, airy blossoms that seem to float independently of the bush itself in spring, while Martagon lilies (Lilium martagon, Zones 3-8) dot the canvas at the peak of the season, their hues peeking out against the foliage mosaic beyond.

Root competition from the giant cherry tree is a significant challenge, but I have adapted several strategies for dealing with it. I choose perennials that thrive in dry shade, use containers to maximize planting space in areas with heavily root-bound soil, and allow native mosses to take over in some spots.

I’m a fastidious gardener, preening and cleaning. Even the bare earth is swept clean. In a shade garden that’s regularly watered and rarely top-dressed, this encourages moss. Here in the Pacific Northwest, the mid-green hue of common garden moss creates a web of wool, easily rolled back or picked apart by birds and squirrels looking for insects, worms, or a fight.

Within this tiny landscape are a small courtyard, a brick patio, two concrete pathways, and even a series of granite pavers laid atop the cherry tree roots to create an additional entertaining space. All of these hardscape elements play different roles in the garden, some serving as extensions from the house to the garden, such as an existing concrete pad that I turned into a patio.

The sidewalk pathways and other hardscape elements are used to draw people deeper into the landscape, all while giving the illusion that they are journeying through a much larger space. All of the hardscape in this garden is laid out true to the horizon, creating a foundation and a sense of depth and immersion for the viewer.

A Living, Transformative Sculpture

Over the years, I have transformed the pocket of land beneath the cherry tree into a garden that I love – a place of safety and retreat. Nothing is ever static in this space, and that makes it genuinely transformative for all who step inside it. It is constantly evolving, like a living sculpture.

Creating this space was a challenge, but as a gardener and artist, I relish a good puzzle. What I love about a garden is that it is constantly changing. I am always pruning down and thinning out. The plants are always growing up, seeking light, dropping blossoms and leaves, changing their colors and forms. The art is never complete, but on occasion, the garden inspires me to create a work of art, or a work of art inspires me to try a new planting in the garden.

This living, breathing sanctuary is a far cry from the forested hideaway of my childhood, but it embodies the same sense of safety, solitude, and creative expression. It is a testament to the power of container gardening to transform even the smallest of spaces into a thriving oasis, a true work of art.

So, if you’re looking to carve out your own urban sanctuary, take inspiration from my journey and let your creativity run wild. With the right containers, plants, and a touch of artistic vision, you too can grow a flourishing oasis, right in the heart of the city. Visit Thornappple CSA to learn more about how we can help you get started on your container gardening journey.

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