Tips for Growing a Bountiful Urban Garden
Small city gardens can be bold and lush. Get lifestyle expert Vivian Reiss's tips for packing vibrant blooms and delicious veggies into any space.
Photo By: Courtesy VivianReissLiving.com
Photo By: Courtesy Vreiss.com
Photo By: Courtesy Vivian Reiss
A Front Yard Garden
Designer, artist and lifestyle expert Vivian Reiss grows a whimsical mix of edibles and flowers in front of her home in the historic Annex in downtown Toronto. Her garden mixes 16'-tall Hungarian broom corn with red amaranths, zinnias, eggplants, kale, artichokes and more in a happy tumble of colors and forms. Don't let a small space limit you, she says. "Think big," and vary the heights of your plants for excitement. "Think of your garden as a canvas."
Front Yard Flowers and Edibles
People come from all around to see Reiss' city garden. She uses an edging of brightly colored, plastic tulips to define her dense plantings. Nasturtiums and other trailing or low-growing plants are tucked into the beds and allowed to spill gracefully onto her walkways. "Part of the garden design allows for that. It's okay to have a gentler border so plants can grow onto the stones."
A Whimsical Backyard Garden
Reiss, who is also an artist and interior designer, plays with color and whimsical designs in her backyard urban garden. This textile theme was inspired by the mill her father owned in New Jersey. "The grass becomes a background of solid color," she explains, for beds that include paisley shapes. The small area doesn't constrain her plantings or statuary, like the giant teak elephant from India.
Stumps as Stools
When a mulberry tree had to come down in her yard, Reiss put wheels on several slices to make portable tables that double as stools. The giant scissors behind them are part of her textile theme. "Pack things in tightly," she says, "to make the most of your space. Lots of shapes make a very exciting garden." Although most of her plants are edibles, "the garden looks decorative," she adds. "Plant at least some edibles. You'll really enjoy picking and eating them."
Reiss continued her backyard textile theme by "knitting" together three garden hoses. The hoses lead into a tree by the gazebo that holds a giant "yarn ball" with two knitting needles. She arranged the stones beside the hoses in a herringbone pattern; the dots and squares represent argyle. "I used different textile designs and methods to create a garden in hard materials and plants," she says. The result: a small garden with big visual interest.
Found at a flea market, this tabletop gnome is holding an ice cream sandwich on a plate. The ice cream, Reiss says, is chocolate mint, garnished with cuttings of fresh chocolate mint. "Only plant mints in pots," she says, because they grow aggressively. "Otherwise, they're impossible to get rid of." She uses architectural elements, and pots on stands or other focal points, "to help break up the green. They can work even in a small garden."
Pack your plants in tightly, Reiss urges, to make the most of limited space. She ignores the spacing recommendations on seed packets. "If you grow just one plant in a lot of dirt, that's a different aesthetic. You don't get that lushness." As a painter, she says she "composes her garden, but I don't try to control it. Nature is my ally. Sometimes I pull things out, sometimes I let them go to seed because they're so pretty." Roses are the only perennials in her yard.
Reiss estimates her front yard garden, which is divided by a sidewalk, measures about 15' x 50'. She has 3 other gardens that are approximately 15' x 10'. "A huge tip for gardening in a small space is to feed your plants with ground fish fertilizer mixed with water. I also recommending irrigating." She uses primarily drip irrigation. "We don't have a water shortage here in Canada, but make sure you water before dawn, so you don't waste water, and your plants can soak it up before the sun comes out."
Succession Planting in a Small Space
To increase the yield from her small, urban space, Reiss does some succession planting after her spring plants are finished. She plants most of her tomatoes behind her home, because "tomato plants are not that beautiful," but some grow in her front yard garden. "I live in a very elegant neighborhood, but people are delighted by someone who doesn't take a garden so seriously." She grows many varieties, starting most of her plants from seeds.
Reiss is working on a cookbook featuring recipes for garden-fresh foods like this tart, made with orange tomatoes, quail's eggs and snippets of herbs from her small, urban garden. The cuttings around the tart include calendulas, marigolds and anise hyssop.
'Coffee Cup' Colocasia
Reiss isn't afraid to let huge plants take up space in her garden, like this 'Coffee Cup' colocasia, also called elephant's ear. "Don't think a small garden means you have to plant little, tiny things, unless that's just what you want," she says. "Don't be afraid of being big and bold." She uses trailing or smaller trailing plants under the big ones. "It's like Monet's garden. Nasturiums can grow lushly onto the path."
Planting like a Painter
Reiss has a studio on the third floor of her Toronto home, but loves to paint outside in the summer. She captures her garden from different angles. "I like to plant so that you see different things in the garden from every angle." Even a small garden can attract butterflies and hummingbirds; "animals animate a garden and make it even more beautiful."
When it comes to gardening, "if it looks good and feels good, that's what I do," Reiss says. Here, a fence of plastic tulips surrounds a bed of eggplants, artichokes and other edibles. Get to know your plants, she recommends. "Observe what kind of lighting you get where you're going to plant. But don't get too caught up in it. You can grow things on the fringes of where they're supposed to be, whether they need a lot of light or a little light. You might get smaller plants, but they can still be beautiful. Don't fight nature. You never know what's going to thrive, so plant densely."