Urban gardening ideas – 16 ways to make the most of your outdoor space in the city

For most of us city dwellers, we feel blessed even to be graced with a place to perch a window box, or a small patio to call our own. However, even the smallest of outdoor spaces, whether that be a garden, a roof terrace, a courtyard or a balcony, can provide a sanctuary to escape city life. A tiny spot that’s totally yours to relax in, entertain in and of course, get gardening in. 

But when space is limited is can be tricky to know how to make the most of it – what plants grow best in city gardens? What layouts will expand your space? How can you add that much-needed privacy? All of these small space hurdles can easily be overcome and there are plenty of urban modern garden ideas that are equally as beautiful as their spacious country counterparts, it’s just about being clever with the space you do have. 

1. Opt for hardscaping in an urban garden

modern garden ideas with asymmetrical lines and levels

(Image credit: Chris Snook)

Embrace modernity in urban gardens by keeping a sense of formality. The clean lines, asymmetric layout and contrasting materials reflect the architecture of this extended Victorian terrace in London, making the garden feel almost like an extension of its design. There’s still texture going on here with the beautiful, slightly wild raised beds and there’s even a lawn squeezed in too, so it doesn’t feel unnatural, just a lovely balance between architecture and nature.

2. Ditch the lawn in an urban garden

Abigail Ahern garden tips, urban garden in London

(Image credit: Dobbies)

And if a lawn isn’t a top priority in your garden, then ditch it altogether. A small square patch of lawn floating in the center of a garden isn’t going to add anything, so instead copy this gorgeous urban gardening idea and turn your space into a jungle-like space, with towering exotic plants, colorful raised planters and at the center of it all the perfect patio for alfresco entertaining. 

3. Plan your planting 

small garden ideas - urban patio garden with slatted wood fence, brick wall and stone floor

(Image credit: Paul Massey)

Speaking of exotic planting, this is one huge pros of urban gardening, you have the benefit of these spaces often being sheltered and relativity warm, so you can grow more exotic plants that would struggle in a larger country garden. 

Another thing to consider when choosing plants for a modern garden is that urban gardens do tend to be surrounded by buildings, or to avoid being overlooked, tall fences. This does mean they can be quite shady spaces so opt for shade-loving plants and climbers like foxgloves, ferns and hostas.

4. No soil? No problem. Create raised beds

modern garden ideas with rewilding plants

(Image credit: Future)

If you have inherited a city garden that is just a sea of paving slabs, the easiest way to turn it into a plant-filled oasis is by adding raised beds that you can fill up with compost rather than digging down to create flower beds. 

The relaxed feel to the raised bed on this roof garden, works perfectly to add privacy with their layered plants and larger trees dispersed amongst the osmanthus, lavender and grasses – lots of inspiration to take from here. And why not build some seating into your planters too, saves on space and looks stylish. 

5. Blur the boundaries between outside and in

Dining room opening out onto small garden with levels

(Image credit: Future)

We all know that indoor/outdoor living spaces has been a huge garden trend in recent years, which is a bonus for urban gardens because you can essentially borrow space from indoors to allude to a more open feeling outdoor space.

The most straightforward way to create that seamless flow between indoor space and a garden is to pick the same flooring for both inside and out. Choosing a decking in the same tone of wood as the wood used inside your home, or patio tiles that match the indoor floor makes even the smallest of urban gardens look bigger as it just feels like an extension of the house.

6. Think big even in a small urban garden

Small courtyard garden with large palms

(Image credit: James Merrell)

There’s a tendency when planning a small urban garden to think small – small plants, small pots, small patio tiles, but scaling down on everything is only going to leave you with a cluttered, fussy space. 

So instead go big, go oversized and create a garden that feels lush and full. Plus adding this depth with larger plants can make a small garden look bigger as they can blur the boundaries of your space. Case in point this fabulous courtyard garden that’s filled with towering banana trees. 

7. Switch flower beds for stylish containers

modern garden ideas with a pond in a bowl

(Image credit: James Merrell)

Containing gardening is another easy alternative to flower beds and can work so well on balconies or as a roof garden idea. Cluster different sized pots together to create almost the same effect as a flower bed, with plenty of different heights and textures going on to add lots of depth. On this thriving rooftop garden, you’ll even find a pond in a pot, complete with goldfish!

8. Add privacy with stylish fencing 

Small garden with textured privacy fence idea

(Image credit: DKClarke Photography)

Privacy fence ideas are of course key in any urban garden that is overlooked. But they needn’t be a purely practical feature, opt for a design that’ going to add style to your garden as well as seclusion. 

For a fence that really blends into the garden, pick a design that has natural shape to it. You don’t often find neat lines and equal measurements in nature, so for a fence that feels part of the garden keep your panels different sizes and overlap them to add texture. You can see in this fence, lengths of bark have been added too for an even more natural feel.

9. Embrace awkwardly shaped urban gardens

Small garden with built in bench and flamingo decor

(Image credit: James Merrell)

A quirk shall we call it, of urban gardens if that they often don’t come in the form of neat squares. Many are narrow or penned in by adjacent boundary walls, or as is the case with this garden, triangular. But there are some really simple urban gardening ideas you can steal from this space to get your looking bigger and brighter, so you won’t notice the slightly odd floor plan.

Easy start – paint your garden walls or fences in pale tones as we all know what space-expanding effects they have. Then train climbers up to soften the look and any awkward angles that might be going on. Adding levels to your garden, especially if it’s narrow, will also distract from the shape, adding interest and depth. 

10. Create zones to expand your space

modern garden ideas with seating area that leads through to wilder garden

(Image credit: Future)

If space allows, breaking up your garden into ‘rooms’, adding intrigue and alluding that the garden goes on beyond the boundaries of what you can immediately see. 

See how in this city garden the eye is drawn through zones – first the patio, then a small lawn, then an outdoor living space and then a strategically placed path weaves its way to the back of the garden, where a cleverly placed mirror only continues the illusion that the space goes on and on. 

You can divide your garden using large plants and hedges as seen here, or for a more structured design choose trellis or fences that can protrude just slightly into the garden to act as walls. 

11. Bring in plenty of different textures

modern garden ideas with potted plants

(Image credit: Future)

Texture, texture, texture, it’s key in an urban garden even if you are going for a very minimalist look. It’s texture that will add interest to your space can be used to blur the edges of your garden. Plants and trees are the obvious way to bring in lots of different textures, so when planning your planting be sure to pick an array of sizes and shapes. And go big too, choosing larger trees will also create privacy.

12. Plant vertically 

patio garden with decking with glass panels

(Image credit: Frenchie Cristogatin)

If your urban garden is really on the tiny side, avoid any solid walls or fences and this is just going to make the space feel claustrophobic. Cover the walls in greenery, whether that be beautiful climbers than billow messily over your fence or something more contained and contemporary like a living wall. 

Plus, adding greenery on the walls rather than with flower beds will free up that precious floor space, giving your more space at ground level to add a lawn or look into stylish decking ideas. 

13. Switch traditional garden furniture for a hammock

Small garden with hammock and greenery

(Image credit: Matthew Williams)

While hammocks may seem like something that should be reserved for vacations, not city gardens, they are in fact the perfect piece of garden furniture if you are tight on space. They take up zero floor space, don’t add any visual bulk and can easily be stored away should you need the space for entertaining. 

14. Trick the eye with outdoor mirrors

patio garden with alfresco dining and arch leading through to wild garden area

(Image credit: Katherine Pooley)

We all know the powers of a strategically placed mirror, and this old design trick can work just as well in urban gardens as indoors. Go oversized and mirror a whole wall of your garden to ‘double’ the space, or be more subtle by hiding mirrors in amongst your greenery. 

15. Use tiles in an urban garden

small garden ideas with floor tiles and wall tiles

(Image credit: Image Photography / Anna Stathaki)

If you aren’t the most green-fingered so want to keep your urban garden stylish and functional, tiles can be a fun way to make your space interesting without the need for lots of plants. In this patio garden, imposing brick walls have been covered in lighter tiles, instantly making the space feel lighter, brighter and more creative. The patterned floor tiles have a similar space-enhancing effect, plus the casually strung-up festoon lights and olive tree add a Mediterranean vibe. 

16. Make the most of a light well garden

Small light well garden with staircase and vintage garden furniture

(Image credit: Future)

Sometimes with urban gardening, the only outdoor space you are blessed with is a light well or a tiny internal courtyard garden. But these small green spaces can still be beautiful and provide you with all you need from a garden. Take inspiration from this simple space – whitewashed walls and pale floor tiles turn it from what could be a dark and dingy space into an area you’d actually want to spend time on a Sunday morning with a cup of coffee. 

Note the use of just a few large plants rather than lots of small pots, there’s an elegance to the towering tree ferns and palms combined with the Victorian-style spiral staircase and vintage bistro set. 

What can you plant in an urban garden?

The best plants for urban gardens are ones that work hard, and by that, we mean that they look good for most of the year and aren’t too fussy about light or soil quality. As a lot of urban gardens tend to be enclosed by have high walls or fences for privacy, they don’t usually get tones of natural light so look out for shade-loving plants like ferns and hellebores for the ares of your garden that don’t see much sunlight. 

Climbers are also great for urban gardens as they can soften up those walls and fences, plus give you extra privacy. Try climbing roses and Jasmin for gorgeous blooms and delicious scents. Urban gardens can sometimes have warmer microclimates too, so you can grow more exotic, less hardy plants like ferns, palms and bamboo that are used to warmer climes. 

And as we’ve said, don’t just opt for small plants, small urban gardens can handle large plants and trees and choosing these over small fussy shrubs will make the space feel bigger as well as more exciting. 

How can you add privacy to an urban garden?

The best way to add privacy to a an urban garden is with fences. Even if you have to go tall with your design for maximum privacy, prevent fences from becoming too imposing by painting them either in a lighter shade (or opting for a light wood) or go the opposite way with a dark shade which you can then disguise with plenty of lush greenery and climbing plants. 

Trees are also a more natural way to add privacy, so try planting them around the perimeter of your garden. If they become too unruly or you want to maintain a neater look, pleached trees that grow above the height of a boundary wall will add extra privacy but have a more natural look than a towering fence. 

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