Once again, homeownership – and by extension, land ownership – is being pulled further out of reach from people with dreams of a large garden. The housing market has inflated to 2007 levels, inflation is handing us an 9%+ pay cut, and interest rate hikes to curtail inflation are going to make that monthly payment cost a whole lot more. If you add this to the woes of the last two years, it’s easy to feel hopeless over finding that “perfect place” anytime soon.
It doesn’t matter that these things happen in cycles. When your window of opportunity happens to coincide with the world’s latest economic maelstrom, it is no consolation to know that in a decade, things might get better. And if you’ve made good economic choices yourself, it’s a particularly large and bitter pill to swallow.
But we cheat ourselves if we keep waiting for the perfect/better/Insta-worthy place to garden. That’s why, ‘midst the ornamental garden porn and the edible garden prep, I am thankful for books that help gardeners face the challenging reality of spaces in which they find themselves right now. And a lot of those spaces are urban. And a lot of those spaces are rented.
How To Garden When You Rent
First up, How To Garden When You Rent (Dorling Kindersley, 2022) a debut book by Matthew Pottage, the young, hip, head of the Royal Horticultural Society’s flagship garden at Wisley, and a humble renter in Northwest London for the last ten years.
The moment I heard this book was coming out, I requested a review copy. The challenges of a renter are notoriously underrepresented in garden books, and I’ve followed Pottage’s remarkable, urban garden on Instagram (@matt.pottage) for a couple of years. He’s taken a tiny outdoor space once choked with bamboo and vines and created a showpiece garden that creates a sense of rest and center and enhances the view from within his flat.
Having created a garden against the odds, Pottage is beautifully qualified to break down the process of claiming a rented space. And as a horticulturist who spends his days figuring out how to engage a public who does not share his expertise, he brings a teacher’s heart to the book – focusing on the projects and plants that will make a measurable difference to life in rented digs – containers, climbers, dining spaces, contained water features… Even perennial borders and smart tree choices are discussed, all within the framework of keeping lines of communication open with your landlord.
Pottage’s relative youth is also important to note (though I am sure he is sick of being referred to as some version of “The Wisley Wunderkind” on Gardeners’ Question Time). It adds a layer of hipster sophistication and style to the book (if not perhaps its utilitarian orange cover), which will be very appreciated by younger generations.
The downside to this book for the American gardener are some of the plant choices, which make fabulous container choices in a temperate Zone 9 without intense humidity or extreme weather patterns and with Septembers that feel more like Mays; but which might be difficult for some gardeners with less experience or zone hardiness. But as with all books from foreign shores, that’s not really the point. The point is taking techniques and inspiring ideas and applying them to your own region.
Get inspired globally and then think regionally.
The Urban Garden
Next, The Urban Garden by co-authors Kathy Jentz and Teresa Speight, garden editors and writers in the Washington DC area who bring experience and joyful enthusiasm to the strategic task of making the most of an urban space, whether rented or owned.
It’s been nine years since I gardened in tiny-lot suburbs, and nearly twenty since I battled for garden space in asphalt jungles, but I’m still fascinated by the incredible freedom an urban garden gives the gardener – the freedom of limitation. Yes, that’s a thing.
When you’re not trying to manage weed-whacking on three acres, or repair a bridge while you hold down a job (she writes, crying softly), you are granted a bit more balance between garden and life. You’ve got time to create what the authors term in their introduction as “tiny jewel boxes of perfection.”
That doesn’t necessarily mean pill-box hat perfect. It just means perfect for you. It may be classic, effusive window boxes or an intimate corner for a gorgeous tablescape, or a collection of high-impact flowering shrubs that fill indoor vases in their spare time. Jentz and Speight not only give the reader 101 ideas for cultivating beauty and food in an urban setting, but they include the extras we rarely consider in our efforts to get some tomatoes going: lighting, creative storage areas, keeping good records and even pitching a tent and doing a bit of glamping in your urban oasis.
The style is light and fun and ultimately, accessible. I could wish for more personalization in the book, but then I’m a sucker for story, and this is instead a compilation of ideas intended to whet the appetite. Fair enough. Half of the struggle in gardening is believing that you can. And that starts with being pointed in the right direction.
To that end, my last recommend: If Pottage and Jentz/Speight give you a lot of How when gardening an urban or rented space, this one is all about the Why. And it’s an older book – connected [if tangentially] to GardenRant.
From The Ground Up
From The Ground Up (St. Martin’s Press, 2001) was the first book written by GardenRant co-founder Amy Stewart, who went on to write NY Times Best Seller List’s Flower Confidential and The Drunken Botanist, and who now chronicles the goings-on of the Kopp sisters in a series of highly acclaimed detective novels.
I’m not sure Stewart ever set out to be a garden writer, but found, like many called to and trained in the writer’s life, that the exploratory process of garden creation cries out for someone competent to document the hell out of it. I’m glad she ran with the feeling, as a varied and beautiful career has since emerged.
In its pages, peppered with humor and the occasional recipe, Stewart chronicles her first, rented, garden in Santa Cruz, California, and the challenges and joy of giving her heart to a place that she couldn’t, technically, call her own. It gives the practical reader a reason to fall in love. Sure your heart may be broken someday, but it may also provide an entryway into deeper, lasting love affairs. And you will look back with fondness and gratitude for every lesson learnt.
Yes, it’s worth it. It’s a message that people needed to hear in 2001 (I sure did) and one which will always be resonant.
Garden Right Where You Are
In the chasing of our dreams, we cheat ourselves if in the interim, we wait to garden. From window boxes to 20th floor balconies, to a patio which faces the street scene beyond, a little bit of Eden can be yours if you shift your perspective and embrace it. These books can help with the shifting. Enjoy. – MW