Cement Gardens for the City
written by Valerie K

Believe it or not, all these blooms were grown either in pots or in a raised bed that has only about 6-7 inches of soil.

You may have seen BiG TeA PaRtY’s Elizabeth Fiend‘s garden and how gorgeous it is [to take a look click HERE]; an oasis in the grime of a big city.  But not every urban home has enough space for that much greenery, in fact most back yards where I live in South Philadelphia are covered in cement and cinder block, and it’s not always possible or financially feasible to tear up the cement and get back to the earth.

Despair not, city dwellers, with just a few feet of space there is room for a healthy, happy and beautiful garden!

My yard is about 14′ x 7′ of cement, enclosed by cement block walls, sounds grim doesn’t it?  But look what I got last year – this is mid-June during the second wave of blooming – mostly perennials highlighted here but a few annuals are spicing it up, like the hot pink Snap dragons in the left-hand photo

You don’t need soil that reaches down to the water table to grow flowers like those pictured above.  With raised beds sitting on top of cement, and a variety of pots and containers you would be surprised (I was!) how lush your yard can be.  And after a couple years it starts to really flourish if you get some good perennials going, and then it’s up to you how much work you want to put into it….

I took these photos this year (2011) on April 28th – and I hadn’t even planted anything new yet!

As you can see in the photos above, by the end of April a lot is happening even though I did not put much effort into it.  Sure, I pulled some weeds but I’ve been really lazy and at the time of that photo, I hadn’t added compost or planted annuals or started many of the containers that will fill out my urban backyard garden.  I had not even pulled out the dead stuff from last year until the day I took this photo (In the fall I like to leave most of the carcasses intact for birds and insects to feed on through the winter).

But my garden starts without me, ready or not, and what you see in that last photo grouping is the result of six years of work and experimentation – by this point I don’t really have to add more flowers if I don’t feel like it, the plants you see above would be just fine all on their own.  But I like to add splashes of color in the form of annuals, and try new varieties so that each summer my garden has a different look.

Of course you can grow food, but this article is about flowers.  If you want to grow vegetables, you need to do a bit more research to make sure your soil is healthy, your compost is safe for food and any non-food plants near your food are not toxic.

Personally, I’m in it for the flowers.  My goal is to look out my kitchen window and see life, color, green, hopefully some birds, some bees, maybe even butterflies.  Also my goal is not to work too hard at gardening, and with flowers you can be a lot more lax than with vegetables and herbs.

Read on to get some tips on getting started.  I’m not just being modest when I say to you: if I can do it, anyone can.

Raised beds
* Arrange a layer of bricks in the size and shape you want for your bed, then stack more levels of bricks on top to form a wall.
* If you’re using mortar to seal the bricks, put a layer of broken cement, crockery or gravel or stones on the bottom for drainage.
* If you’re just laying the bricks down without sealant, you will get drainage naturally so you don’t need to layer the bottom as described above
* Pour dirt inside your shape and you’re ready to plant.
* Add more dirt on top, preferably composted soil, at least once a year.  Especially if your bed is not sealed with mortar; soil will leak out during heavy rains and you’ll be slowly losing volume of soil so you need to replenish.

 

Picking your perennials

 

 

 

* Look around your area every spring/summer to get a feel for what flowers grow well in your local environment – stick with varieties that you see a lot, some people force plants with chemical fertilizer that really don’t belong so don’t get too enamored of the one house that sports a tropical plant that will be tough to maintain.

* Ask your friends who have gardens if they have flowers they are thinning out that they could give you.  A lot of flowers are programmed to spread so there are always extra flowers that need removing.

* Keep your eyes peeled in the spring for plant sales, lots of community gardens or community centers or other orgs have plant sales as fundraisers and you can get good deals.

* Once you pick some perennials, plant them with some distance between since most will spread after the first year or two and you don’t want too much competition.  These will form the “bones” of your garden and hopefully come back every year like mine did.

* Put tall perennials like Lilies and Iris in back, shorter perennials like Evening Primrose or “short-term perennials” that come back for 3 or 4 years, like Columbine or Snapdragons in the middle or in front.

* Plant short annual flowers like petunias, marigolds or pansies in the front or in pots that you can place wherever they look best.

* To contain plants that like to spread, make a line with bricks or stones and then any plants from one section that pop up outside the line get yanked – make sure you yank down to the roots, it’s more discouraging that way.

 

 

Feeding and care

FERTILIZING
* I never use commercial fertilizers.  With compost as a natural alternative, who needs it?  And my feeling is: why force something that doesn’t want to grow?  I want to know what flowers will be happy and healthy in my particular environment.  Remember my credo is low maintenance.
* If you don’t do your own composting, ask around – most people who do compost have more than they can use, plus your town or city may have a composting program and give away free compost to residents.
* For tips on how to compost, click HERE.
* I could definitely stand to compost more often, but I do cover my beds and pots with a layer of composted soil two or three times per growing season.

(Please note that if you plan to grow food you should research any free compost outlets – not all compost is safe for food even if it’s fine for flowers)

DON’T USE PESTICIDES OR HERBICIDES
* Probably goes without saying but no pesticides or herbicides whatsoever.  I want bees and birds and other critters to use my garden and not get sick, not to mention it’s not healthy for me either.  Don’t trust claims that chemicals from big chain home improvement stores are ‘natural’ or ‘harmless’ (that goes for fertilizers as well as pesticides/herbicides).

WATER
* I water my plants daily starting in mid- or late May depending on the climate that year, if it stays cool and there’s enough rain some years I don’t really start watering till June.
* I water twice daily in the hotter months – preferably first thing in the morning and after dusk because if you water in the middle of the day, the sun will evaporate a lot of it before it’s absorbed and also having water sitting on leaves and petals magnifies the sun’s rays and can burn your plants.

WORMS
* I don’t know where the worms came from but they just appeared in the second year – I was shocked to see them.  If you don’t get worms by magic like I did, you could look into either buying some or just ask a friend with a garden if you can steal a few from their yard.

 

containers from 2010 – first mid-June and then late July – note the gigantic Coleus in the square pot in front!

Containers can add visual interest and allow experimentation

* Adding containers can be a great way to spruce up your yard even more and add colorful accents.
* You can experiment with perennials you don’t have room for in the raised bed.
* You can test out plants you’re not sure will get along with what’s in your bed by starting in an individual container.
* You can move your containers around for maximum beauty.  As various flowers come into bloom, you can rearrange potted flowers to mix or match heights, colors, types in whatever arrangement suits your eye.
* If any of the potted flowers are reacting badly to their allotment of sun or shade, you can move them around till you find the area of your yard that makes them happy.

 

Weeds can be your friends

* They are obviously adapted to your area and eager to be part of your garden, so choose a couple that look pleasing to your eye and let a few shoots grow and see what happens (but first pull most of them just in case they are really invasive).
* A few to avoid because they will take over your beds: Morning Glory, English Ivy, Vinca vine.  Also the Coleus family make lovely accents in pots, but in your bed they could grow into huge almost-shrubs and rob your other plants of nutrients.
* You could grow weeds in a pot to see how they behave and move them into a bed if they seem cooperative. One thing to check is how deep the roots go, if deep then maybe better to get rid of the plant or confine to its own container.  If roots stay shallow that means it will be easy to pull out if you decide you don’t want it, so then it’s a better bet – some ‘weeds’ with shallow roots will grow really well and fill out your garden without impacting the flowers around it.

 

Let your garden stay up late

* The gardening concept of “putting your garden to bed” in the fall – cutting brown, dead plant matter down to the ground and/or covering the ground with tarp or mulch – makes sense if you’re growing a field of vegetables and you have to worry about frost killing your produce, but for a city back yard like mine you don’t need to do this.
* Use a more habitat-friendly approach: if you leave your dead flowers alone, birds can feed off of them during the winter months.
*  In general it should not hurt your spring growth not to cut dead plant matter off – think nature; in nature no one comes along and cuts everything down – and might even provide some natural nourishment as fallen leaves rot.
* One notable exception is flowers with large heads; many of them need to be “dead-headed”, or have the flower heads cut off so they don’t get top-heavy and bend over as the stalks dry out.
* Treat it as an experiment – if you leave flower carcasses intact, you’ll find out which ones the birds like, so then the next year you can selectively cut back dead plants.

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I hope this article is inspiring to other potential “learn as you go” gardeners.  I get so much enjoyment out of just looking out the window every morning to see what’s new, I encourage everyone to try it.

Please add a comment if you have gardening advice or experiences to share, or if you give it a try let us know how it goes!


4 Responses to “Cement Flower Gardens for the City”

  1. Debbie Says:

    Any suggestions for growing vegetables?

  2. Jayne Keller Says:

    Lovely! Hope you get lots of equally lovely blooms this year, too. Fun to see the changes that occur with the passage of time.

  3. Valerie Says:

    If you plan to grow vegetables, don’t follow this article. It is geared toward growing flowers in the most low maintenance way possible. I am not knowledgeable about growing food, and because of health concerns you need to do some research and be careful about what you use for compost, mulch and so forth. Thanks for asking the question, Deb, it reminded me to add a couple lines about that to this article.

  4. Camille Edmond Says:

    Val, your garden looks fabulous! I’m so impressed with how well you’ve cataloged it’s growth over the past few years. As ones who did tear out the concrete backyard and put down grass, it never ceases to amaze me how well things will grow in the soil around here, with very little maintenance. We have found annual vines like coral honeysuckle, orange trumpet and purple passion flower grow very easily as well. We have also found that herbs do well, as do strawberries, onions, tomatoes and cucumbers.

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