A Backyard Revamp

For A New Generation Of Gardening

by Joe Raboine // April - May - June 2018

Gardening isn’t just for suburban backyards anymore. A new generation of gardeners is taking to the soil, and they’re often planting in urban settings that present unique challenges and opportunities. 

Urban gardening is gaining steam with both millennials and baby boomers, who increasingly seek downsized homes in denser areas. While these neighborhoods have lots of amenities to offer, they typically don’t come with the same amount of yard space that a house in a more rural area might offer. There can be other compromises as well, such as fewer hours of direct sunlight or compromised soil quality. 

But aspiring urban gardeners needn’t fear: Integrating hardscaping elements with softscapes can solve many potential problems, and hardscapes can add additional aesthetic touches to gardens of any size. There are plenty of opportunities even for tighter budgets or unconventional environments, and contractors (who often don’t realize the untapped value of softscapes) can help homeowners realize all their gardening ambitions. 

One major factor driving the gardening trend is people’s increased interest in growing their own food. With heightened public awareness about health and nutrition, more people want to go organic, eat vegetarian, and eliminate genetically-modified foods from their diets. Plus, of course, it’s cheaper to eat food grown at home and not bought at a grocery store. It’s not just millennial homeowners pursuing this trend, either – aging baby boomers want to grow their own food, too. As a result, raised gardens and container or planter gardens are increasingly sought after. They’re easier to maintain, for one, and bending down typically isn’t required to work on them – a major benefit for older people. 

These garden types can be an extension of the outdoor living space. Use your garden as periphery for a patio, or design it with brick paths. Hardscaping wall products can work wonders for these purposes. Walls can also be used for creating platforms and privacy fences, which can rise to about six feet. If you want to plant something with a vine, like peas or beans, you can integrate different kinds of wall products to create a premium growing space. 
 
Meanwhile, smaller lots mean less space for planting, so interest in vertical gardens is also on the rise. The best product for that would be one like a modular wall system, which allows you to build out of a wood structure. Or, tweak that format to create a horizontal garden by essentially making troughs – like a windowsill box but bigger. To guarantee maximum sunlight, build it facing the sun in southern exposure.

Another way to create a slightly elevated garden is through edgers, which carry additional benefits for homeowners seeking a simplified gardening experience. Edgers can be used to create pathways that connect different garden areas, meaning there’s less lawn to mow and fewer weeds to deal with. And, linked pathways add a lot of new possibilities for design. Homeowners can form a symmetrical grid of planting beds, for example, or the center might have a fountain area with benches beside it. Swings and other aesthetic elements can be added around the perimeter, and small structures might have a roof enclosure for a hanging bed.

Both raised and vertical gardens will get a little warmer and dry out faster than a garden that sits at grade, so it’s a great idea to install drip irrigation. Gardeners who want to minimize their environmental footprint could also use permeable pavers, which allow people to capture water runoff (similar to how a rain barrel would). These pavers can make for a creative and eco-conscious way to water a garden. When gardeners do smaller plantings and have a perimeter, like gravel, it’s easier to weed and maintain (and there are fewer herbicides required). 

For people who are completely new to gardening, contractors can offer valuable beginner tips before making hardscape recommendations. Background research is crucial for burgeoning gardeners, especially if they want to grow particular kinds of foods. They’ll need to think about the amount of space they’ll have to work with, since growing produce like watermelons, for example, would require much more room than something like tomatoes. Most plantings need a site that gets between six and eight hours of direct sunlight, so homeowners should keep in mind that gardens don’t need to be in their backyards – spaces off the side of a house or driveway can work just as well too. Raised gardens are particularly good for these locations, because they look like hardscape features (so homeowners’ associations are typically more lenient with them).

Soil type and quality are important early considerations, too. Gardeners will usually need 12-18 inches of quality soil with which to work. For soil that’s not quite gardener-ready, buy some compost, add sand, and create a new mix that’s more conducive to growing. The bigger a garden is, of course, the more labor-intensive it will be, but hardscaping elements like walls and edgers can reduce some of the burdens. Raised and vertical gardens, bolstered by hardscaping, can also help ward off common hazards like rabbits and deer. In some cases, homeowners may want to fence off their gardens too. 

Softscapes tend to be viewed as independent from hardscaping, but with urban gardening taking off, homeowners should embrace the growing opportunity. Hundreds of farm-centric communities around the country, known as “agrihoods,” are raising awareness about foods origins’ and increasing demand for locally-grown produce. Chicken coops are popping up in city gardens and on rooftops, illustrating owners’ commitments to eating food literally from their own yards. Homeowners who already have outdoor living spaces now have new opportunities to integrate gardens. The proliferation of outdoor kitchens, for example, invites herb gardens that can yield salsa ingredients. Or, a fire pit can become a hub for friends and family members to gather and snack on food grown just a few feet away. If you are considering an outdoor living space, let me suggest a garden – no matter how urban the area in which you live may be.

Joe Raboine

A residential business manager with Belgard.